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Karl du Fresne

The right to free speech – more fragile than ever

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What do a world-famous historian, a British author and a New Zealand cartoonist have in common?

On the face of it, not much – except that all three have been embroiled recently in controversies that show how fragile the right of free speech has become in supposedly liberal democracies.

Let’s start with the historian – Niall Ferguson, arguably the most distinguished contemporary British historian, and a man whose face is familiar internationally as a result of several television documentary series based on his books.

In response to a question at a recent seminar in California, Ferguson referred to the fact that John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose writing had a huge influence on 20th century governments, was homosexual.

He went further, suggesting that Keynes’ economic philosophy was influenced by the fact that he was childless. According to one reporter’s notes, Ferguson implied this meant Keynes was indifferent to the long-term effects of economic policies.

The historian’s off-the-cuff comments sparked a storm of outrage. One overwrought commentator, journalist Tom Kostigen, wrote that it took gay-bashing to new heights. “Anyone with a moral conscience should be outraged,” Kostigen spluttered.

What Ferguson said about Keynes wasn’t new. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his obituary of Keynes, had made an explicit link between Keynes’ childlessness and his “short-run” philosophy of life. Other scholars have suggested that Keynes’ famously fatalistic remark, “In the long run we are all dead”, was influenced by the fact that he had no offspring to be concerned about.

But it seems we have become a much more touchy society. Certain ideas are no longer allowed to be expressed. The uproar over Ferguson’s remark was such that he felt compelled to apologise and retract.

No doubt he had his reasons for doing so. However it’s hard to escape the impression that more and more often, public figures who have made controversial statements feel forced to back down not because what they said was indefensible, but because their wrathful critics promise to make their life intolerable unless they do.

A man as scholarly and experienced as Ferguson is unlikely to be in the habit of blurting out silly remarks without any forethought. He would have studied Keynes’ life and formed certain conclusions about him. So you have to wonder whether he was intimidated into backing down despite genuinely believing what he had said.

Even if his theory about Keynes is pure speculation and possibly erroneous, so what? People are entitled in a free society to get things wrong.

Academics float theories all the time. Some are wacky and die a natural death, while others extend the boundaries of human understanding. If people were barred from expressing unpopular or unorthodox ideas, conventional wisdom would never be challenged and human thought would be at a standstill.

The worrying thing about the Ferguson controversy is that it adds to a growing body of evidence that certain subjects are off-limits. Ultra-sensitive minority groups – the gay lobby being one – are primed to react explosively to every imagined slight.

Anyone who opposes same-sex marriage risks being labelled a gay-basher, just as people espousing welfare reform are routinely condemned as beneficiary-bashers. If you question the politics of separatism, you’re a racist; if you criticise Israel, you’re an anti-Semite.

These are tactics designed to stifle legitimate debate and intimidate people into silence. Ferguson is simply the latest to learn that in today’s discrimination-obsessed society, you express an opinion at your peril.

Now let’s look at the case of British author David Goodhart, whose recent book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Postwar Immigration has polarised reviewers.

Goodhart’s book argues that mass immigration is damaging to social democracy, erodes national solidarity and is not in the interests of the source countries, because it deprives them of some of their most capable people.

It’s a view that has not gone down well with some on the British left, who consider it an obligation of the prosperous West to throw open its doors to people from less advantaged countries, even when some of those immigrants violently turn against their host society.

The director of Britain’s leading literary festival, the Hay festival, was so affronted by Goodhart’s book that he refused to invite him to appear. Effectively, Goodhart was barred. The director, Peter Florence, arbitrarily pronounced that his book wasn’t very good.

So much for free speech, then. Having hijacked the once honourable word “liberal”, which my Oxford Dictionary variously defines as “directed to general broadening of the mind” and “generous or open-minded”, the so-called liberal left has once again demonstrated that it’s capable of being breathtakingly illiberal.

Mr Florence didn’t want his rigid world view challenged. Neither did he want festival-goers exposed to dangerous alternative opinions. I wonder if it has occurred to him that it’s only a short step from barring authors to burning books, as the Nazis did.

A former Labour cabinet minister, Lord Adonis, was appalled. “How about some free speech at the Hay festival?” he tweeted.

For the third instance of free speech coming under attack, we can look a lot closer to home. Al Nisbet’s two newspaper cartoons on the subject of free school breakfasts brought out the enemies of free speech in droves.

Remarkably, his critics included journalists, which shows how far the rot has set in. When the people who have the most to lose from the suppression of free speech are calling for someone to be silenced, we’re in deep trouble.

For the record, I thought they were crude cartoons; but the issue was not whether they were good cartoons, still less whether they were funny. The issue was whether freedom of speech includes the right to give offence, and it has long been recognised in liberal democracies that it does, and must. Even conservative judges have repeatedly upheld that principle.

There is an insidious double standard at play here, and it was typified by the stance of the activist John Minto, who complained about the cartoon to the Human Rights Commission.

Mr Minto’s own views upset and offend a lot of New Zealanders, but to my knowledge no one argues that he should be punished or silenced. Yet he seeks to deny others the right that he enjoys himself – and I suspect that he’s incapable of seeing the contradiction.

First published in the Nelson Mail and the Manawatu Standard.