How free speech came to mean punching down

Nesrine Malik writes in The Guardian – a publication guilty of some of the things she talks about in her article – about how a mythical free speech crisis has normalised hate speech and silenced minorities.

…challenging the myth of a free speech crisis does not mean enabling the state to police and censor even further. Instead, it is arguing that there is no crisis. If anything, speech has never been more free and unregulated. The purpose of the free-speech-crisis myth is to guilt people into giving up their right of response to attacks, and to destigmatise racism and prejudice. It aims to blackmail good people into ceding space to bad ideas, even though they have a legitimate right to refuse. And it is a myth that demands, in turn, its own silencing and undermining of individual freedom. To accept the free-speech-crisis myth is to give up your own right to turn off the comments.

…The recent history of fighting for freedom of speech has gone from something noble – striving for the right to publish works that offend people’s sexual or religious prudery, and speaking up against the values leveraged by the powerful to maintain control – to attacking the weak and persecuted. The effort has evolved from challenging upwards to punching downwards.

It has become bogged down in false equivalence and extending the sanctity of fact to opinion, thanks in part to a media that has an interest in creating from the discourse as much heat as possible – but not necessarily any light. Central in this process is an establishment of curators, publishers and editors for whom controversy is a product to be pushed.


There’s a superb piece in The Nation about how the supposed crisis was created. Spoiler alert: a lot of it’s to do with the Koch brothers, who helped fund Spiked. Coincidentally, Spiked rails against protecting the environment, restricting corporations and the supposed evils of the supposed free speech crisis.

How did we get here? Very intentionally, as it turns out: For decades, the right has claimed a monopoly on the idea of “freedom” more broadly—and speech is no exception.

…The billionaires pushed a version of free speech that posited that limiting carbon emissions, taxing the rich, and any form of redistribution were equivalent to infractions on our constitutional rights. To do this, they not only needed to talk about market and economic deregulation; they needed to present their ideas as a radical remedy to the overbearing liberal state. So they funded dozens of books that argued that liberals were essentially limiting far-right speech through political correctness.

Welcome to the era of our supposed free speech crisis.