Freedom of speech is under threat like never before and we must fight back, LEO McKINSTRY

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Freedom of speech is at risk (Image: GETTY)

A sinister new cult of dogmatic intolerance casts its shadow across our land, silencing debate, imposing conformity, whipping up hysteria, and crushing dissent.

In the wholly un-British climate of intimidation, opinions are ruthlessly censored and careers destroyed.

On a terrifying scale, the ingredients of alien despotism are now creeping into our public life.

There is an echo of the Soviet eastern bloc in the demand for absolute submission to the ruling orthodoxy, while the vicious mood of 1950s McCarthyism is mirrored in endless character assassinations and witch-hunts.

Similarly, the kind of determination to root out heresy that once drove the Spanish Inquisition can now be found in corporate Britain, from workplaces to Whitehall.

All this is the very antithesis of a free society, which should value openness, compromise and pluralism.

That great patriot George Orwell famously wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Tragically, instead of being guided by those wise words, the cultural commissars seem to be inspired by Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984, which painted a dark picture of Britain under totalitarian rule, complete with thought crimes, hate sessions, group think and hectoring propaganda.

Orwell meant his book to be a warning, but the new ideologues see it as a blueprint.

The vanguard of this revolution hails from the authoritarian Left, which uses the bogus language of compassion to justify its oppression.

In their doctrinal obsessions and frenzied divisiveness, these bullies are utterly divorced from the mainstream British public, yet they are able to wield excessive power through their stranglehold on the internet and civic institutions.

In their brutish hands, social media is both an instrument of fear and an arena for show trials.

Nothing illustrates the nastiness of the online lynch mob more graphically than the transformation of the best-selling author JK Rowling from cherished icon into enemy of the people.

Her thought crime is her willingness to challenge the fashionable transgender ideology, which she sees as a threat both to women’s rights and childhood innocence.

For her courage, she has been subjected to horrendous misogynistic abuse.

Staff at her publishing house have tried to boycott her work.

Authors have left the literary agency that represents her.

A sculptural tribute to her in Edinburgh, comprising the imprints of her hands, was daubed with blood-red paint.

Ms Rowling is such a global figure that she can withstand a battering from the advocates of the “cancel culture,” as it has become known because its impulse is to “cancel” out dissenters.

Others have been less lucky.

The Scottish children’s author Gillian Philip says she was fired from her post by her publishers after she tweeted: “I stand with JK Rowling.”

As Ms Philip commented, her professionalism “counted for nothing in the face of an abusive mob of anonymous Twitter trolls”. The same hardline trans lobby also recently hounded out Baroness Nicholson from her position as the patron of the Booker Literary prize for showing insufficient
obeisance to the new creed, a fate that
also happened to tax expert Maya Forstater who was dismissed from her job at an anti-poverty think tank after she tweeted that “men cannot change into women”.

Left-wingers used to campaign to protect jobs.

Now they campaign to get people removed from them, simply for having “unacceptable” opinions.

Typical is the case of Nick Buckley, who set up a highly successful charity for vulnerable young people in Manchester. But in the eyes of the new zealots he committed the sin of criticising the aims of the radical Black Lives Matter protest group.

“We will do everything in our power to have you removed from your position,” said one activist. The warning was prophetic, as Buckley was kicked out of the charity he established.

Disturbingly, this is just part of a wider trend. 

At Cambridge University, which has regularly made empty noises about its commitment to academic freedom, the philosopher Jordan Peterson had his offer of a visiting fellowship withdrawn after protests from the Students’ Union about the politically incorrect nature of his work.

In the same cowardly vein, Cambridge sacked sociologist Noah Carl over the unsubstantiated claims that he might use his position as a researcher to “promote views that could incite racial or religious hatred”. So pathetically supine was the university that it even apologised to its students for appointing him in the first place, an appointment that supposedly caused “hurt, betrayal, anger and disbelief”.                          

That is so characteristic of our enfeebled establishment.

Instead of standing up for essential liberties, officialdom now cowers before the mob and colludes with the agitators.

In another outrageous case, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Professor Sir Tim Hunt was forced out of his posts at University College London, the Royal Society and the European Research Council after he was accused of making a joke about female colleagues at an event in Seoul in 2015, even though he strongly denied the charge. 

“Sir Tim was crucified by ideological fanatics,” said his fellow scientist Sir Andre Geim of the University of Manchester. 

No one is safe from this destructive form of socialist puritanism.

Last year, disabled Asda worker Brian Leach was sacked for sharing an online clip of a Billy Connolly routine that mocked religion, though Leach was later reinstated after a public outcry. In yet another indicator of the authorities’ submission to the new doctrine, the police are estimated to have investigated no fewer than 120,000 “non-crime hate incidents” over the past five years, an incredible rate of 66 a day.

The Free Speech Union, recently founded by the energetic journalist Toby Young to uphold Britain’s tattered traditions, says that it now receives half a dozen requests for help every day.

The fact that such an organisation is required represents a severe indictment of the growing institutional disdain for freedom of expression.

The autocratic impulse has always existed on the Left, as shown by this passage written in 1999 by the broadcaster Andrew Marr, a key member of the metropolitan elite: “I firmly believe that repression can be a great, civilising instrument for good. Stamp hard on certain ‘natural beliefs’ for long enough and you can almost kill them off.”

That outlook has become even stronger over the subsequent two decades.

In progressive circles, free speech is seen, not as a pillar of democracy, but as a vehicle for spreading dangerously reactionary arguments. In the warped mentality of the witch-hunters, the problem with the “cancel culture” is that it is insufficiently expansive or effective.

This narrow attitude was perfectly captured last week by the singer Billy Bragg, who wrote that whenever he hears Orwell’s defence of liberty, he wants to “cringe” because the words are “a defence of licence”, allowing those in power “to abuse and marginalise others”.

When he was asked on social media if he supported the dismissal of people simply for an opinion, he declared, “If their opinion amounts to delegitimising the rights of a minority, I believe that employers have the right to act in such circumstances.”

In effect, Bragg appears to believe in the thought police and ideological purity tests, a shameful stance from a man who once pretended to be democrat.

But his outlook is a common one.

One of the performers on the deeply unfunny BBC satire The Mash Report even stated that “free speech is basically a way adult people can say racist stuff without consequences”.

Left-wingers love to trumpet the joys of diversity, yet they loathe diversity of thought.

All their apparatus of repression, such as “safe spaces” and wails about “micro-aggressions”, are geared towards the enforcement of their code.

Even when people are not directly threatened with losing their livelihoods, they become scared to express their views on any controversial topic.

The atmosphere of self-censorship is thereby strengthened. The absurdity of this approach is that free speech is the ally, not the enemy, of progress, enlightenment and human rights.

Without such a liberty, discussion and protest are impossible, while power becomes entrenched, as the Soviet Union proved.

An irrefutable case for free speech was made in 2009, when the BBC invited the BNP leader Nick Griffin to participate in an edition of the flagship show Question Time.

The BNP was riding high at that moment, having won almost one million votes in the European elections and secured two seats in the European Parliament.

There was tremendous outrage at the BBC’s invitation, yet Griffin’s disastrous appearance turned out to be the worst thing that ever happened to the BNP.

Sweating, nervous and incoherent, he was exposed as “a fantasising conspiracy theorist with some very unpleasant views”, in the words of his fellow panelist, the distinguished Labour politician Jack Straw.

Even BNP activists were dismayed.

“Maybe some coaching should have been done,” said one.

Question Time triggered a chain of events that soon led to the collapse of the BNP, amid debts and plummeting popularity.

The “cancel culture” would have worked in Griffin’s favour.

As it was, he choked on the oxygen of publicity.

That is the lesson we have to learn today. Fortunately there are the glimmers of a fightback against the authoritarians. JK Rowling has stood firm.

Comedy star Ricky Gervais has stood up for free speech, denouncing its opponents as weird.

Only last week, a letter was sent to Harper’s Magazine by 153 mainly liberal philosophers, writers and intellectuals – among them giants su Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Noam Chomsky – who denounced the “intolerant climate” of public discourse.

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” they wrote.

That is absolutely correct and has long been the British way.

For the sake of our future, the extremists must not be allowed to prevail.


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