The Carefully Chosen Wars of Free Speech Warriors

Robin Ince's Blog

Comedian and libertarian Liam Mullone asked me some questions about free speech. I missed the deadline, but I didn’t want to waste the typing, so here it is.

Many people have said that censorious nature of the Left has allowed the Right to make out that ‘free speech’ is one of its natural virtues. Do you agree?

Of the self declared free speech warriors of the right I’ve seen, none appear to be interested in free speech, they are interested in their speech.
The idea that the right have free speech as a core value goes against history – Section Twenty Eight, broadcasting voice restrictions of late eighties and early nineties, the criminal justice act to some extent, perhaps even the video recordings act.
I have seen the same groups who cry “we are your free speech saviours” also orchestrating vicious campaigns, including rape and death threats, to women who say things they don’t like. In one way, they may say that relentless bullying of people you disagree with is within their rights of free speech, free speech is the right to shut up people speaking, and that is why those who say “you either believe in free speech or you don’t” are being very simplistic.

I looked up a few of those who energetically declare their adoration of free speech after the murder of five at the Capital Gazette and their only annoyance seemed to be that some of the more violent voices of the right were being accused of encouraging violence towards journalists. The actual murders, and the assassination of journalists is surely an issue of free speech, seemed to be of little interest to them.
Similarly, I saw none of them were bothered by the met police denying right for a stage and speeches at Trump protest.
Do you think anyone should be denied a platform by law?

I would hope that the law was robust enough that anyone actively encouraging violence could be dealt with if necessary. In my Utopian dream, every human being would be able to call out incendiary bullshit and being misled by vitriol and bombast would be an impossibility. I worry about the language of our press, that is increasingly incendiary, they call people traitors and treasonous but if another MP or politician is murdered, they’ll say “that was nothing to do with us”

Do you think there’s a case to say we should give unpleasant people enough rope? I’m thinking of how Nick Griffin’s support fell away once he appeared on Question Time.

I have heard mixed statistics about the BNP on Question Time, some seem to suggest that immediately afterwards there was an increase in interest but then the party itself descended into infighting. TV’s obsession with twitter trending means that spite and vitriol are already elevated and celebrated by it. I would just like to see a few more people on Question Time who were actually informed and evidence based but I am a crazy dreamer and that is why I mainly work on radio.
New laws have given the government of the day much greater powers over what we can write and say. Do you trust the government with these powers?

Science has been silenced many times in history – Galileo, Wegener, Scopes… Darwin to an extent. Do you think that suppressing the opinions of, say, people who think the Holocaust is a myth betrays a similar terror of dangerous ideas? Should we not let all ideas be heard and trust in humanity a little more?
The problem with all ideas being given a major platform is that the moment it is given a platform and a spotlight it is given some kudos and authority. Yet again, I think we need to see more critical thinking in action and more use of evidence. To compare Galileo to holocaust denial is preposterous – the danger of Galileo’s idea is that it can be backed up with effective and testable evidence whereas holocaust denial is not. The danger we have is that we are bombarded with information and we will often just attach ourselves to what appeals and then not burden ourselves with actually doing the reading. As certain politicians have noticed, such as Boris Johnson, getting the facts wrong is useful, it may he swiftly refuted, but its mere publicity means some will continue to believe. The lie sticks as truth if you want it to.

As the wonderfully angry author Harlan Ellison once said, “you are not entilted to your opinion, you are entitled to your informed opinion, no one has the right to be ignorant”

I’m guessing that you see ‘hate speech’ laws as a positive move in the cause of equity. But then Gary Delaney says (and I’m paraphrasing) that you get to choose between the world being fair and the world being free. Do you agree?

if you think the only difference between freedom and fairness is whether you can tweet what you want or not then you haven’t paid much attention to divisions in the world. In a better world, hate speech laws would not be imagined due to humanity’s ability to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of each situation whilst being informed by a wonderful evidence based mass media and there would be roses growing around the door of every cottage. It is a small planet, hectic with a wild variety of life, which seems to make it a rarity, we have vaccination and increasing access to clean water and knowledge of black holes, microbes and muons, yet we are also still easily moved to violent tribalism.
Free speech is saying vaccines cause autism, free speech leads to measles outbreaks and an increased chance of child deaths. it is unwise and ultimately dangerous to throw around your free speech rights while not bothering to check your sources and information.

As Barry Crimmins told me, words can be shrapnel, you should be careful where you aim them.

I am at Edinburgh Fringe and then on tour with two new shows – Chaos of Delight and Satanic Rites of Robin Ince – tour starts in Liverpool, Birmingham and Sale.

Also have a new book out soon on comedians and other humans and creativity, social anxiety, imagination and love and death – I’m a Joke and So Are You.

Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London.