Freedom of Speech

This week, I saw a post on my MP’s Facebook page from WOKE 88 FM - Ice Wall Radio, a public group with just over 5000 members. On its own page under the heading ‘About’, we read:
“Exposing the flawed theories of government controlled science and it's promotion of the Earth as a spinning globe that goes against the word of God.”
And, sure enough, there are links and numerous videos of people explaining why we ‘dome-heads’ have got it wrong and why there is no evidence at all to support the idea that the earth is spherical. I’m still not sure what they think they’re seeing when they look up into the night sky or why they can’t cope with apostrophes.

I should probably have investigated further, but didn’t have my tin foil hat with me. I gather, however, that once a post from someone-else is on your Facebook page, you can’t actually remove it, so I shan’t attribute the mentality of that particular branch of the Flat Earth Society to our MP – although it is very tempting to do so granted his continued support for Boris. But at least their views are unlikely to cause any harm to anyone-else, unlike the anti-vax people and many others who appear online.

The comedian Jimmy Carr is under the spotlight because of a comment he made about the holocaust in his stand-up show which is now available on Netflix. He said people talk about the 6 million Jews killed in the holocaust, but they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis: “because no-one wants to talk about the positives”. By the end of the war, 21,000 Roma people had died at Auschwitz.

Admittedly, his ‘joke’ was part of his so-called ‘Dark Materials’ show and there were plenty of warnings which preceded it. At the outset he makes it clear that absolutely nothing is off limits whether, for example, murder, disability, race, rape or paedophilia. Interviewed for a newspaper, he said “one of my favourite sounds in the world is laughter turning into shock. I’m obsessed by cognitive dissonance - the idea that you can make people laugh and be disappointed in themselves for laughing at the same time. I like the idea that you don’t choose what you laugh at, it chooses you.”.

Asked if there was anything he wouldn't joke about, he replied: “No, my jokes are just that, jokes. There is no political or social message. If the joke is funny enough then the ends justify the means. Look, I say some horrific things in my act and, yes, if you take those things at face value then clearly they are unacceptable. But I think it’s pretty obvious that those subjects or ideas are merely vehicles for comedy, that they are designed to elicit laughter and nothing more. If I was using my shows to put forward a manifesto on how we should live our lives then maybe it would be a different story, but I’m not. I’m just trying to make you laugh.” But in making jokes out of his ‘dark materials’, is he not actually encouraging acceptance of different, darker, attitudes to the things he’s joking about?

So what should be the reaction of what a Court would call “right-thinking members of society”? Carr’s response is: “If you believe in free speech, you have to be prepared to hear things you don’t like – that’s kind of the deal. If you say someone is “offended”, what you’re really saying is that their feelings got hurt.” But, he says ‘so what?’ he should still be allowed to say such things. Those likely to be offended should simply stay away.

But I can’t believe that those deciding to attend would do so out of a simple wish to enjoy at first hand the working of cognitive dissonance, without in their own lives making light of the darkness inherent in the subjects. Surely it would in fact mean that the self-selected audience would be an example of the sort of echo-chamber we normally associate with on-line groups – the sort of social grouping which seems to create and encourage extremist views amongst its members. Something we’re all very concerned about.

Joe Rogan, an American stand-up comedian, has a vastly successful podcast on Spotify. Typically, he is joined by a guest who is a celebrity or who has controversial views, or preferably a celebrity with controversial views. Recently he was joined by a scientist called Robert Malone, who has argued that US hospitals are given incentives to say that deaths are caused by Covid and that young adults should not have the vaccine and a number of other things which made little sense. The singer Neil Young and others have withdrawn their songs from Spotify in protest. Young said in an open message to Spotify: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Having paid $100 million to Rogan to get him on their service, they chose Rogan as the better attractor of future subscriptions to their service. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, having issued a mealy-mouthed statement of disapproval, have nonetheless decided to continue with their relationship with them having been paid, it is said, $26 million for their thoughts over the next year or two.

The degree of anger directed at Spotify is striking. The very strong suggestion is that the views of people like Malone’s should not be ‘broadcast’. He should be cancelled. As Matthew Syed in an opinion piece for the Times said, the other day, however, there are dozens of podcasts on Spotify offering contrary views, rejecting Malone’s claims. Thousands of newspaper articles have done the same, as have the previously much-maligned experts we have grown so used to seeing on the television. In other words, democratic debate seems to be operating very well.

Which is why, perhaps, it is not a matter of stopping anti-vaxxers and others with views which would offend the majority of us from expressing them. It is more a question of how we continue to promote the spread of rationality and critical thinking. We do quite rightly have laws which try to limit the damage which can be caused by incitement to hatred of various groups of people, although they tend to suffer from mission creep. But actually, other than incitement to hatred, the very idea of being able to say what form of morality is actually better for society illustrates the near impossibility of defining it, at least in a free society. We will all have our own ideas, unlike in China where that is not permitted.

Socrates argued that too much central control over speech is inimical to progress because it has the tendency to suppress unconventional views that might, in time, prove to be innovative and right. Sorry to quote Karl Popper again, but as an advocate for the concept of an open society, he said: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” It is essential therefore that people have the right to choose the path less trod in their thinking and tell us about their conclusions. Inevitably we will have to put up with a lot of dishonest thought as well as honest, if misguided attempts to chart another path. On balance though this seems to be the better compromise to accept. The ill-effects are likely to be much less that the alternative of state control.

It is important to bear in mind that even in open, democratic societies, with tolerance for dissent, vaccine uptake has been very high, not least because of the huge numbers of fact-checkers and authoritative news sources that have comprehensively refuted the conspiracists. The scientific consensus has won out.

But the value of free speech goes far deeper. There are in fact many consensus positions held by experts today that will be disproved in the future. Although we are unaware of it, these viewpoints are harming us, here and now, in ways we do not yet understand. Without free speech, without the “mad” ideas of dissenters, we rob ourselves of the raw material of progress.

PS:   A theological holocaust joke:
Two men, both killed in the Holocaust, are in heaven. They haven’t seen each other since the camps and they are laughing at something that happened there. Indeed they are laughing so much that they attract the attention of God, who is passing by. ‘My children, my children,’ says God. ‘How could you laugh at such things?’ One of the Jews stops, turns to God and says: ‘I guess you had to be there.’
Paul Buckingham

9 February 2022

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