Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union and the Editor of LockdownSceptics.org.
I was disappointed to read Neil O’Brien’s column on this site yesterday (‘Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists’), and not just because I’m the only person in the media whom he actually “calls out”.
He didn’t say outright that he supports the Donald Trump Twitter ban, or the censorship of cranks and conspiracists on social media, but he came close. Indeed, he called for newspapers to no platform some of the people who challenge the official narrative about Coronavirus, dismissing them as “professional contrarians” who are poisoning the well of public discourse. “We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting,” he wrote.
That a Conservative MP and the Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board should set so little store by free speech is alarming. No one is suggesting that the right to it should extend to inciting violence, and some of the things that Trump said in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. Capital last week and on the day itself crossed that line.
But couldn’t Twitter have simply deleted anything it regarded as dangerously inflammatory rather than banned Trump outright? He is the President of the United States, after all, elected by 63 million people in 2016. Who elected Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter?
O’Brien says he’s concerned that British politics will become as polarised and venomous as American politics if the media doesn’t behave more responsibly, by which he means excluding people who express views he considers false and dangerous.
However, there are numerous problems with this censorious attitude, starting with the first question that defenders of free speech always ask: who decides? After all, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s inconvenient truth. It’s all very well saying we should ban ‘misinformation’, but these days that’s just a euphemism for ‘a point of view I disagree with’.
Sometimes, the would-be Lord Chamberlains use the phrase ‘hate speech’ to describe the views they think should be censored, but defining which opinions are ‘hateful’ and which merely controversial is notoriously difficult. Last year, I started an organisation called the Free Speech Union, and many of our members have been kicked off social media platforms for breaching anti-hate speech rules, even though their views would be considered perfectly reasonable by ConservativeHome readers.
To give just one example: a trans activist started a petition on Change.org last year demanding that the OED change its definition of woman from “adult human female” to something less “exclusionary” – i.e. delete the word “female”. The feminist campaigner Posie Parker responded by launching a counter-petition on the same platform, asking the OED to retain its definition. Change.org took it down, explaining to Posie that defining a woman as an “adult human female” was “hate speech”.
But even if there was a consensus among right-thinking people about which points are beyond the pale, would that be a good reason for banning them? I’m not talking about stirring up racial hatred, which I would never defend, although the bar needs to be set a lot higher than it was by the police in the Darren Grimes/David Starkey case.
But what about the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Washington is run by a cabal of devil-worshipping paedophiles? If you’re concerned that people’s belief in this theory may lead to their estrangement from civil society – or worse – isn’t it better to let its proponents set out their case in the public square, where it can be rebutted with reason and evidence? If you suppress it, not only will you deprive people of the opportunity to hear these rebuttals, you will probably convince some fence-sitters that it’s true. After all, if it is obviously and transparently false, why hush it up?
As the Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said: “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”.
Which brings me to Neil O’Brien’s disapproval of lockdown sceptics. In his article, he smears me and the contributors to the sceptical website I run as cranks and conspiracy theorists, lumping us together with Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers. He even puts inverted commas around the word “scientists”, as if no respectable scientist could be anything other than four square behind the lockdown policy.
This is plainly ludicrous. There are plenty of mainstream scientists, not to mention psychologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, statisticians, actuaries, financial analysts and novelists – even some Conservative MPs – who believe the harm caused by the lockdowns outweighs the harms they prevent.
They’re not Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers – just people who are sceptical about prioritising saving people from Covid-19 at the expense of everything else, including other deadly diseases, mental health, children’s education, the economy and our civil liberties. Many of them are contributors to Lockdown Sceptics.
O’Brien is perfectly entitled to think this is a dangerous, irrational point of view, just as most of us think his fanatical support for lockdowns is dangerous and irrational. The difference is that we don’t think he should be kicked off Twitter or no-platformed by the mainstream media. We believe in free speech, which means we think the best way to determine when the current restrictions should be lifted – and weigh up the costs and benefits of the lockdown approach more generally – is through vigorous, open debate.