What are we allowed to say?

David Bromwich

Free speech is an aberration – it is best to begin by admitting that. In most societies throughout history and in all societies some of the time, censorship has been the means by which a ruling group or a visible majority cleanses the channels of communication to ensure that certain conventional practices will go on operating undisturbed. It is not only traditional cultures that see the point of taboos on speech and expressive action. Even in societies where faith in progress is part of a common creed, censorship is often taken to be a necessary means to effect improvements that will convey a better life to all. Violent threats like the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and violent acts like the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo remind us that a militant religion is a dangerous carrier of the demand for the purification of words and images. Meanwhile, since the fall of Soviet communism, liberal bureaucrats in the North Atlantic democracies have kept busy constructing speech codes and guidelines on civility to soften the impact of unpleasant ideas. Is there a connection between the two?

Probably an inbred trait of human nature renders the attraction of censorship perennial. Most people (the highly literate are among the worst) believe that what is good for them will be good for others. Besides, a regime of censorship must claim to derive its authority from settled knowledge and not opinion. Once enforcement and exclusion have done their work, this assumption becomes almost irresistible; and it is relied on to produce a fortunate and economical result: self-censorship. We stay out of trouble by gagging ourselves. Among the few motives that may strengthen the power of resistance is the consciousness of having been deeply wrong oneself, either regarding some abstract question or in personal or public life. Another motive of resistance occasionally pitches in: a radical, quasi-physical horror of seeing people coerce other people without having to supply reasons. For better or worse, this second motive is likely to be mixed with misanthropy.

As far back as one can trace the vicissitudes of public speech and its suppression, the case for censorship seems to have begun in the need for strictures against blasphemy. The introductory chapter of Blasphemy, by the great American legal scholar Leonard Levy, covers ‘the Jewish trial of Jesus’; it is followed in close succession, in Levy’s account, by the Christian invention of the concept of heresy and the persecution of the Socinian and Arminian heretics and later of the Ranters, Antinomians and early Quakers. After an uncertain interval of state prosecutions and compromises in the 19th century, Levy’s history closes at the threshold of a second Enlightenment in the mid-20th: the endorsement by the North Atlantic democracies of a regime of almost unrestricted freedom of speech and expression.

Writing in the early 1990s, Levy gave a final chapter to the Rushdie affair. He couldn’t be sure if this was a dénouement or the start of a separate history. It was anyway a sort of return. The very idea of regulating speech had been engendered by conflict with the religious strictures on blasphemy: ‘That freedom of conscience came at all to Christendom was probably the result of perpetual religious fission: the promptings of conscience that seized people to their innermost depths varied so much that freedom was possible for none unless for all.’ Enlightenment universalism, in short, did not yield the imperative of freedom without the clash of parochial forces interested in the limitation of freedom. Nor has ‘cultural pluralism’ weakened the appetite for suppression among the mixed cultures of the West.

A few sticking points remain, even for the most liberal-minded technocrats: the legality of circulating child pornography, for example, or of denying the facts of the Holocaust. In the first case, the clear offence is that children cannot know the meaning of consenting to appear in a sex film, and it is a crime to make money from actions that are already criminal. The same goes for sharing copies of such a film, since distribution abets the crime. It is harder to say what sanction ought to apply against the person who downloads the illegal video but keeps it on a private computer. In America, the fourth amendment gives security to the citizen against unreasonable searches and seizures. Is a person to be judged culpable who has spent several hours on an illegal pornographic site? What about several minutes, or several seconds, initially by accident? An endless vista of prosecution is opened for a regime that turns its energy against activities that range from the abominable to the merely unsavoury.

In the case of Holocaust denial – the crime for which David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison and banned from returning to Austria – the fear of contagion in some countries is based on rational horror instructed by recent experience. That is the argument for making an exception to the belief that the truth will always win out in a fair contest. But the exception is unsettling. The doctrine that truth in an open debate has nothing to fear from falsehood had been supposed to apply above all to truths about historical events and new theories in the natural sciences. The sanction against Holocaust denial treats grown-ups – the gullible audience of the false claim – as children not yet in possession of their mature faculties. Many Europeans, it is supposed, were so effectively brainwashed two generations ago that, even now, they and their offspring can’t risk any exposure to falsehoods of a certain kind. They lack the mental resources to resist the intoxication. This pattern of enforcement presumably will not last for ever. When the Holocaust becomes a more distant memory – perhaps a century from now – the idea of denying that it took place will seem merely bizarre.

These partial exceptions apply to the sort of representation that many regard as a violent stimulant to weak minds. It is a narrow category and shows no sign of expanding. By contrast, the pressure to ban or denounce The Satanic Verses came from sensitivity to the feelings of an audience that would never be tempted to read it. The charge was no less imposing for that; the book was said to cause an injury, a wound – the relevant claim is that wrong words or gestures can amount to aggressive misrepresentation or ‘misrecognition’. The Satanic Verses, in one of its multiple stories, showed the invention of a religion by a prophet whose visions are distorted by a satirist and a trickster scribe. The result is a scripture that counterfeits Islam. In the relationship between the prophet and his satirist and scribe, the latter pair enjoy a secret ascendancy. The iconoclasm of the novel was thus secured by an unreliable narrator, an unreliable story planted by the narrator, and a religious pretender made ridiculous by a claim of authority conferred by the story alone. The word of God, as conveyed by his spokesman on earth, comes to be altered, twisted, transposed and revised at pleasure by a worldly author no different in kind from a novelist or a playwright. The Higher Criticism has never been absorbed over large tracts of fundamentalist Islam any more than in evangelical Christianity; and the charge of blasphemy became the obvious method for interpreting the shock administered by Rushdie’s novel.

Margaret Thatcher declined to prosecute The Satanic Verses for blasphemy; and once the fatwa was issued Rushdie was accorded police protection from the extraordinary threat. Still, the cravenness of the early reactions has not yet been forgotten. The novel was initially banned in Canada, and US bookstores were slow to risk the title on their shelves. Cautionary words about the need for sensitivity were uttered by academic as well as priestly authorities. ‘We respect each other’s religious beliefs,’ wrote Syed Shahabuddin, who led the campaign to ban The Satanic Verses in India. ‘We do not intentionally outrage the religious feelings of others or insult their religion or ridicule the personalities to whom we are emotionally attached or mock our religious susceptibility.’ The chief rabbi of England, Immanuel Jakobovits, emphatically concurred: it was wrong to ‘tolerate a form of denigration and ridicule which can only breed resentment’. In an essay on ‘Religious Anger and Minority Rights’, Tariq Modood, the director of Bristol University’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, wrote that ‘the group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place.’ On this view, to experience the feeling is to suffer the injury.

Rushdie’s defenders were on solid ground when they invoked his right to publish a book that could elicit a plausible charge of blasphemy. Christopher Hitchens spoke early and courageously on those lines. ‘Behind the use of bleating words like “offensive”,’ he wrote in his Nation column on 13 March 1989, ‘one can sense abject trahison: the ecumenicism of the philistines’; as for conciliation or compromise, ‘it would be suicidal to suppose that any concession made to the superstitious will ever be the last.’ But the odd appearance of the word ‘philistine’, in such a strictly political context turned the argument from a libertarian defence of publication to an aesthetic defence of the contents of the book – a sign of things to come. On the cable network C-Span, on 21 February 1989, Hitchens broadened his criticism:

Tomorrow, shopping malls of the United States, which contain now one third of the book outlets in this country, will, of their own volition, not sell that book, because they are scared of a foreign despot … To be scared of a crazy foreign tyrant in this way is a really serious challenge to what we think of as the safe assumption of free speech and free inquiry, free expression and the necessity to defend it.

For Hitchens, denunciation of the cowardice of the merchants was not enough. It was a phone-in programme, and as the calls from people in sympathy with offended Muslims piled up, he must have seen that his defence of the novel would be stronger if its intentions were found to be salubrious. A full-throated endorsement followed: ‘I have read the book,’ he now said, and ‘I am clear in my mind that no insult to the Prophet, or to those who believe in the God of whom he is the messenger, is intended. The words that are complained of are spoken by a sick man, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, in a dream in which he believes himself to be the archangel Gabriel.’ And again, and further: ‘The remarks [in the novel] made about religion are all carefully judged remarks about dogma – about people who have automatic, unthinking faith – and no one who has any genuine, devotional attachment to any religion could be offended.’ His friendship with Rushdie doubtless played a part, but it would have been better for honesty and good sense to withhold a bill of health that cleared the book and its author at a stroke. We don’t defend the right to publish offensive words because we think the author well-meaning. The point is that we distrust the ambition of those who would take away the right more than we distrust the character of those who write or speak recklessly.

An echo of the aesthetic defence of Rushdie could be heard in Ian McEwan’s retrospective comment on the affair in the Guardian on 14 September 2012: ‘it seemed like the social glue of multiculturalism was melting away. We were coming apart, and doing it over a postmodern multi-layered satirical novel.’ What work is being performed in that sentence by the adjectives ‘postmodern’ and ‘multi-layered’? Something like what Hitchens had in mind when he fell back on the word ‘philistine’. McEwan went on to recall (with uncertain irony) how Rushdie himself ‘in a hopeful attempt to accommodate his opponents … spoke of his faith, or lack of it, as a God-shaped hole’. Consider the words closely: a God-shaped hole. Rushdie, it seems, came up with his own ‘postmodern multi-layered’ trope of negative theology to meet the terms of his orthodox accusers, but the imams would not credit his explanation. Should we? The libertarian argument in support of publishing The Satanic Verses had been simple and radical: any book deserves protection from censorship. The sentimental secondary argument pressed by defenders of the book – that its satire originated in faith (of a sort) as deep as orthodoxy – was constructed by unbelievers to assist the image of unbelievers.


The Rushdie affair set the pattern for the Western reaction to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps because of the precedent, the grounds of defence in 2015 shifted at a faster pace from straightforward political affirmation of press liberty to a claim for the moral courage and stature of the artists. At the same time, the question that had lingered for 25 years – whether aesthetic ‘framing’ could somehow purge the noxious elements of a work – grew harder to answer in the case of satirical drawings that never pretended to the complexity of a postmodern novel. Rushdie for his part now abjured the piety of the ‘God-shaped hole’ and any regard for ‘genuine, devotional attachment’. In an English PEN statement for Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, he spoke out frankly for impiety: ‘Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.’ The solidarity appropriate to believers in free speech was made to mesh with a defence of satire as an artistic mode: ‘I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.’ Rushdie here went much further than his defenders had done in 1989; and what he was saying was not true. The publication of a satire of real persons is obviously consistent with freedom, and one can go further: toleration of satire itself is evidence that a culture of free expression is thriving. But a great proportion of satire in all ages has been directed by the haughty against the low and mean; consider the conduct of Pope towards his inferior Colley Cibber in The Dunciad. Satire may come from the palace as well as the gutter. Nor does it serve reliably as an antidote to dishonesty and stupidity. It may answer stupidity with mischief and pretence with ridicule, but its weapons are wielded in a cause whose motives have rarely been single-minded. What could it mean to appreciate Scoop or Sweeney Agonistes as a contribution to the fight for liberty against tyranny? Yet these works and others far more illiberal surely count as satire.

Charlie Hebdo, on the face of it, presented a case about freedom of the press and the criminality of mass killing. The murdered cartoonists deserved pity because they were murdered. The killers deserved to be hunted down, and their actions condemned, because killing is wrong. But in the shadow of the Rushdie fatwa and European anxiety prompted by impotence in the face of Salafist jihadism, the praise given to the magazine was soon assimilated to the dignity of the arts and letters in the war against terror. Once again, the wildness of satire was turned into an object of moral admiration. The cartoons were broad-gauge, and looked to get a rise out of the credulous – a very different thing from Rushdie’s tactics of ambiguity and metafiction; coming from non-Muslim French artists, they made a conspicuous instance of satire from high to low. The watchwords of solidarity, ‘Je suis Charlie,’ could be repeated by state officials in France, Britain and the US who regularly censored reports of drone killings in Pakistan and Yemen.

Here is a thought experiment. What would be the Western reaction to a cartoonist who leaned heavily on the most flagrant anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish clichés – Jesuits in cowl and robe conspiring to set a Catholic king on the English throne, or Jews drinking the blood of a Christian child? The anti-Catholic swipe would be looked on as a bizarre eccentricity, of no controversial interest at all; the anti-Jewish one might prompt alarm as a symptom of cultural regression; but in either case, ascription of moral courage and artistic merit would be out of the question. This may suggest why the defence of Charlie Hebdo as an equal-opportunity offender was misjudged. The cartoons were published at a time when a few Muslims were known to be terrorists and many others were outsiders in European society, exposed to prejudice of a kind no longer suffered by Christians or Jews. Complacency was a recurrent flaw in the European and North American praise of the cartoons. There is, after all, a difference between ridicule of the established and mockery of the unestablished. Though the difference can never rightly be reflected in laws, since laws must apply to everyone in the same way, Charlie Hebdo might have served to bring the matter to consciousness. But as with the 11 September attacks, the enormity of the crime and its spectacular quality combined to prevent thought. Accordingly, it was possible on 11 January 2015 for François Hollande, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu and three dozen world leaders to assemble shoulder to shoulder at the place de la République, to march twenty abreast with arms interlinked and to chant with the crowd of a million: ‘Je suis Charlie.’

A sequel in a lower strain occurred soon afterwards, with the announcement by PEN America that their Freedom of Expression Courage prize for 2015 would be awarded to Charlie Hebdo. By that time, a number of American writers and artists had come to share a certain tacit ambivalence about the cartoons. The prize was to be given partly in recognition of the physical courage required to publish a magazine as provocative as Charlie Hebdo; and there could be no doubt that its editors, writers and illustrators exemplified such courage. But the PEN award was also meant to honour the moral courage of the magazine as a stimulus to public debate. These distinct criteria were collapsed together by the timing of the announcement and the name of the prize itself. In the event, more than two hundred members of PEN signed a letter declaring their intention to boycott the literary gala at which the award was to be presented. In a separate and personal dissent, Deborah Eisenberg asked why French satirists of Islam were being singled out for honours when the US had plenty of home-grown satirists among the membership of college fraternities: ‘We are PEN America after all, not PEN France, and the fraternity brothers have expressed their views – even in humorous (to them) song – with great clarity and force.’ The executive director of the PEN American Center, Suzanne Nossel, defended the decision in the high-minded spirit of Rushdie on liberty and truth. Charlie Hebdo stood ‘firmly within the tradition of French satire’. It mocked religions but it also mocked ‘prejudices against religion, racial prejudices, ethnocentric attitudes and a whole range of other targets … They defined their role as pushing boundaries, questioning orthodoxy, casting light on obscured motives and ensuring that nothing was above comment or debate.’ Thus, the broad-church liberal and multicultural defence of Charlie Hebdo repeated the confusion of Hitchens in his ‘genuine, devotional’ brief for The Satanic Verses and of Rushdie in his defence of the moral dignity of satire as such. The obligation to support the censored and the persecuted was made to coincide with aesthetic approval of their works and praise for their political acumen.


The Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo controversies both exemplify a pattern of affirmation and denial. The commercial democracies in the West have come to be of two minds about free speech. This condition is ratified continually and it remains hidden in plain view; one can feel by now that the pattern almost defies introspection and cure. Freedom is the international face we prepare to meet the faces that we meet – and on that stage the great principle is often restated. The vainglory of adopting free speech as a banner-slogan is recognised but the temptation to strut is not altogether avoided. And yet in our private conduct, and especially in educational institutions where the manners of public debate are learned, the ethic of free speech has taken a very different turn. People know that their words are monitored, beyond their power to calibrate, and the respectable are more cautious than ever before. They take great care not to speak bluntly. In America, the mainstream media follow the protocol of a ‘balance’ of views, according to which two sides must be offered in the discussion of any public question, and control is ceded to a moderator whose questions obey a mindless decorum: ‘Congressman X, what is your reaction to what Senator Y just said?’ In the small change of conversation, in the corporate, professional or academic milieu, a remark signalling strong disagreement is taken to be an impoliteness. The first article of workplace wisdom is that any gesture or word that might cause friction is ‘unhelpful’.

In this new regime of manners, it is impossible to overrate the part played by the soft despotism of social media. Our verbal surroundings online are created by affinity; and each day a hundred small choices close the circle more tightly. You don’t say wrong things: the sort of things that will startle your friends. Or rather, your friends by definition are the people who won’t be startled by anything you are likely to say. What are the implications for free speech? Doublethink, Orwell wrote apropos of life in Oceania, was the mental technique that allowed one to ‘hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them’. The process found its consummation in ‘the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.’ It is like that with freedom of speech and self-censorship in the West. We must spread freedom of speech in order to make the world free. And to do the job well, we must watch what we say.

When the Snowden revelations appeared in June 2013, a few observers compared the system they exposed, the data storage that could potentially be used against anyone, with the practice of the Stasi in East Germany. Liberal technocrats thought the analogy absurdly stretched. It was German, Eastern European and Russian immigrants living in Europe and the US who vouched for the parallel. Yet Snowden’s discoveries focused attention narrowly on the danger of surveillance by the government. From the prevalence and practices of social media, meanwhile, the groundwork had been laid to recruit a voluntary corps of citizen police. Their work is to listen for offensive things said in private, and to expose the offence by transferring the blameable words to the public realm. As these people see it (and they constitute a nameless civilian corps of thousands), surveillance promotes safety for the sake of community. They are believers in what Timothy Garton Ash calls ‘a connected world’.

Garton Ash is a classical liberal with hopes for the attainment of a culture of international tolerance and freedom. His book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World has a good deal to say in passing about surveillance, safety and community; he can see the danger implicit in the assumption by the citizen police that exposure is knowledge and knowledge is freedom. But Garton Ash conciliates even as he criticises the emergent morale. Surveillance, he thinks, has gone too far but it is a good thing to the extent that it ensures safety; community may be coercive in its demands on individual citizens, yet greater mutual concern may lead to a better informed basis for empathy. Free Speech is a copious survey, clearly intended for a global audience. Its maps and graphs and diagrams (pyramid sections and pie charts) are careful to encompass five continents and every major political system and religion. The book would like to do for free speech what Michael Sandel’s Justice did for justice; and the aspiration in this sort of endeavour is to address a high-minded public without assuming much previous knowledge.

An optimistic ground tone is preserved throughout: the multiplication of our connections will support the plurality of our truths. Garton Ash has apparently heard (but isn’t much struck by) the argument that the actually existing internet isolates users in sectarian hives that become repositories of half-truth and propaganda: a home away from home for questionable opinions that never get debated. To promote free inquiry into the present state of the argument, he has created his own site, freespeechdebate.com. As the site and the book testify, however, there is no inevitability about the ten principles, each identified by a single word and some with metaphorical names that don’t yield much (‘Lifeblood’, ‘Icebergs’). It is clear anyway that these principles favour privacy, are suspicious of secrecy, and ask the well-informed citizen of a connected world to take responsibility for the choices he or she has made.

‘If you therefore accept, as a statement of principle, that we should aim to achieve a combination of openness and robust civility, the question becomes: how?’ The book is full of sentences like that; and one is sure from the start that the author will lay out the options rather than arrive at an offensively one-sided solution. The rhetorical measure and coolness are a deliberate tactic, meant to model a style of debate that could never erupt in acrimony; but an enforced equability has its own drawbacks. Garton Ash sees nothing but improvement in the fact that the internet ‘makes it easier to give people the choice of not looking if they don’t want to’; so, ‘on freespeechdebate.com, we have adopted the one-click-away principle’: the site gives adequate warning of a disagreeable image coming soon, and it is then on the user to click or not to click. That is a lame alternative, unlikely to be much comfort to the angry and susceptible, and the proposal betrays a surprising innocence of the addictive properties of images. Plato’s allegory of the cave needs very little revision to yield a warning about the lights and shadows on your laptop or iPad. Each click and stop is chosen, you may say, but it is also led on by a seduction that assists the choice. Garton Ash seems not to have recognised that words on the internet are often experienced as images, fleeting shadows whose signature has vanished. ‘I read somewhere online it said …’ This kind of abortive memory and disclaimer was seldom heard among the educated before the advent of web surfing.

In his overall argument for free speech, Garton Ash defends the maximum practicable tolerance, allowing only rare emergency exceptions. He also observes the distinction between ‘laws’ and ‘norms’ that has been much developed in the last two decades by Anglo-American philosophers and policy strategists. It is a useful distinction, but vulnerable to opportunistic abuse, as when Obama deplored the violation of ‘international norms’ to justify an armed intervention in Syria that was forbidden by international law. Garton Ash tells us that we should ‘maintain strict, consistent legal enforcement for clear harms, but mobilise the republic of norms for the rest’. The republic of norms is another name – it hasn’t caught on yet and probably won’t – for the common sympathies that Hume called ‘the party of humanity’. It played an important role in Hume’s argument for the authority of reflective feelings and the civilising of debate. We don’t have to punish an infraction: we can always disapprove. In America, a litigious society since its founding, one of the unhappiest developments of the past two generations has been the loss of confidence in the power of disapproval. The fear is that disapproval won’t suffice until you press your claim to the point of litigation and a threat of punishment – a change that was already far along before the internet made things worse.

A liberal belief in the utility of norms may also have been weakened by one feature of the pluralism of Isaiah Berlin – a thinker whose work has done much to shape Garton Ash’s understanding of freedom. Berlin sought to apply an idea of political tolerance not only to persons but to whole cultures; the reason was that cultures themselves were expressive achievements akin to works of art. It is evident how such an argument, though classical-liberal in its origins, might flower in a defence of identity politics; and in the US and Britain, its influence has certainly been to discourage criticism of identity politics. If cultures resemble works of art, if they are supposed to speak in different languages that resist translation, how can my norms be governed by yours? And more: given the investment each person must have in a cultural identity, how can disapproval ever be enough to meet the offence of seeing one’s identity harmed by insult?

Addressing the expanded field for taking offence which is visible any day on the internet and promoted by the identity cultures, Garton Ash is at his most moderate and unsatisfactory. He can see the sense of ‘trigger warnings’. We must take care how we introduce such readings as the rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and realise that the high literature of the West is (what should the word be?) concerning. ‘These texts,’ he dutifully quotes a Columbia student newspaper saying, ‘wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion or oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor.’ It doesn’t say a survivor of what, and Garton Ash doesn’t challenge the sweep of the statement. There are stretches of the book where the effort of empathy tips over into credulity. On the subject of hate speech, for example, Garton Ash cites (with only a mild demur regarding the medical evidence) the judgment by the cultural theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic that ‘the immediate short-term harms of hate speech include rapid breathing, headaches, raised blood pressure, dizziness, rapid pulse rate, drug-taking, risk-taking behaviour and even suicide.’ He has to treat the nonsense with studied politeness because this sort of thing is all over the academic literature on free speech. And it is spreading: a letter to the New York Times on 31 July from an administrator in the city’s Education Department denounces a reading-skills exam that used an extract from Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence; the passage in question begins, ‘It was generally agreed in New York that the Countess Olenska had “lost her looks”’; the complaint is that ‘any girl taking the exam’ will experience the mention of losing your looks as a ‘psychic punch’ that impairs concentration on the rest of the exam.


‘It is time to explain myself,’ Whitman says in Part 44 of Song of Myself; this essay is well on and it is time. The difficulties of legislation on speech have grown more complex with the elaboration of other rights, but in some ways we have never simplified enough. The freedom to speak one’s mind is a physical necessity, not a political and intellectual piece of good luck; to a thinking person, the need seems to be almost as natural as breathing. ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say?’ The question applies not just to writing but to friendly or unfriendly conversation, or a muttered soliloquy. Yet the good of free speech has seldom been a common intuition, and it is not a universal experience. It matters to a few, much of the time, and to others at unpredictable times. Dissident minorities took the clearest advantage of this liberty in the high age of Protestant dissent and political radicalism – roughly the three and a half centuries from the onset of the Puritan revolution in England to the height of the Solidarity protests in Poland.

The heroic picture of the individual heretic standing against the church, the dissenter against the state, the artist against the mass culture, has been fading for a while and we have not yet found anything to put in its place. Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments. Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments. Few have felt oppressed by the rigours of censorship; more have been interested in censoring harmful speech by politicians or members of the ‘dominant culture’ (which includes white people of humble means). Taking note of the recent protests that forced the ‘disinviting’ of commencement speakers at Brown, Johns Hopkins, Williams and Haverford, the censorious monitoring at Brandeis University of a teacher who said that Mexican labourers were once called ‘wetbacks’, and many similar incidents over the last three years, the sociologist Jonathan Cole pointed out in the Atlantic that the students at these elite establishments, including the most vigilant of the speech monitors, have followed all their lives ‘a straight and narrow path’. They have never deviated into ‘a passion unrelated to school work, and have not been allowed, therefore, to live what many would consider a normal childhood – to play, to learn by doing, to challenge their teachers, to make mistakes’. They have always been on good behaviour; and they don’t regret it. They are therefore ill-equipped to defend anything the authorities or their activist classmates tell them should count as bad behaviour. These people have grown up, Cole adds, in the years since 2001 when the schools and the popular culture, in America above all, kept up an incessant drone about personal safety, the danger of terrorist attacks, and the opacity of every culture to every other culture. It is a generation in which the word ‘fragile’ is routinely applied to daily shifts of mood.

Few of them have had the experience of being a minority of one, or a little more than one. Admittedly most people have never been in that situation (including, perhaps, most of the people one might call good). But a new keenness of censorious distrust has come from a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion. Social media refer to these people as ‘trolls’ and sometimes as ‘stalkers’; any flicker of curiosity about their ideas is pre-empted by a question that is not a question: ‘What’s wrong with them?’ Meanwhile, those inside a given group have their settled audience of friends and followers, to adopt the revealing jargon of Facebook and Twitter: a self-sufficient collectivity and happy to stay that way. To be ‘friended’ in the Facebook world is to be safe – walled-up and wadded-in by chosen and familiar connections. An unsafe space is a space where, if they knew you were there, they might unfriend you. As Sherry Turkle puts it in Reclaiming Conversation, a penetrating study of the change of manners brought about by social media: ‘If you grew up in the world of “I share, therefore I am,” you may not have confidence that you have a thought unless you are sharing it.’ And it is a full-time regime for the young. ‘Most are already sleeping with their phones,’ Turkle says of the children and teenagers she interviewed. ‘So, if they wake up in the middle of the night, they check their messages.’ But these are messages sent and received within the group; outside, all is uncertain, obscure, and apt to bring on sensations of fragility. Adversarial stimuli are to be ignored where possible and prohibited where necessary.

Within such a group, spontaneous speech – unconditioned by the context of sharing and the previous expectations of the group – is nothing like a physical need. The very idea of membership, of affinity and loyalty, reduces the likelihood of an infraction that could carry an unpleasant surprise. Where Facebook has a thumbs-up symbol – meaning ‘I like this and kind of agree!’ – but no thumbs-down, who will risk an exorbitant word? The cost would be a forced exit from the group; and the group is the lungs that make speech possible. A provocative and half-disagreeable remark amounts to a declaration of the intention to defect. To someone who has grown up in such a setting, the older protections of individual speech are an irrelevance.

At Yale University last Halloween, a diversity administrator sent around a notice to students to mind that their costumes didn’t cause offence or encroach on sensibilities of gender, race or culture. The associate master of a residential college responded with an email addressed to the students in her college, saying that Halloween was a time for a lark and everyone should lighten up. Even a decade ago, both the cautionary letter and the reply would have seemed hilarious for their condescension and paternalism. In the present climate, it was the reply that led to an immediate demand by some residents of the college that the associate master be sacked (and with her the master, her husband, who had failed to keep her in line). An undergraduate writing with much emotion in a student newspaper testified that the permission granted to culturally appropriative and possibly insulting costumes had deprived her of a safe space; after reading the wretched email, she found herself unable to eat, sleep or do homework in a building where authority had been ceded to the person who wrote it. From the point of view of her group, this student was speaking common sense. Who would want to smash a formed consensus for inoffensive costumes? On the same Halloween of 2015, at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, photos of two female students dressed in sombreros, ponchos and moustaches set off a protest march of thousands, including activists from neighbouring campuses, and the scandal prompted the dean of the college to resign.

Scenes of mass emotion are becoming more common in our time. Such scenes are by nature congenial to the impulse of censorship. The outbreaks of punitive certitude in the US, from Tea Party rallies to the anti-Halloween rallies on campus, nonetheless are difficult to account for in detail. C. Wright Mills drew a distinction between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure’ that seems pertinent here. If the expectations and exclusions of every milieu are added up, in the hope that this will lead to a practical grasp of relevant truths about social structure, honest debate in public will become a thing of the past. It requires considerable patience and learning to criticise an unjust social structure. By contrast, our own milieu is what we know, and social media tell us we are right to shield ourselves from particles foreign to the milieu. For many people today, an identity culture or identity politics may seem a necessary shelter from the tidal force of the mass culture. It affords a place for ‘affirmation’ and ‘resilience’; and yet its immediate purpose is largely negative and protective. To those who seek and find validation in this way, it is natural to embrace a form of censorship. The contraction goes with the situation.


What drove the early modern proponents of free speech to deny the legitimacy of any form of censorship? The heart of Milton’s attack in Areopagitica lies in his refusal to claim innocence for any human activity. It is the presumption of innocence by the censor that most deeply informs the zeal for silencing opinions that are thought to be intolerable:

Good and evil we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil … Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness.

To try to purify ourselves, by renouncing all exposure to dangerous words, is to legislate for the preservation of our innocence, but Milton doubts that this can be done. The censor holds a very different view: impurity invades or insinuates from outside, it is a kind of pollution, and the duty of moral guardians is to secure and deliver us. (It is understood that we ourselves have committed no trespass that needs to be forgiven.) Many people want to be protected against ‘trial by what is contrary’: if others brush against them in a way they don’t like, though no harm was done, they want to penalise what is contrary. But the benefits obtainable through censorship turn out to be delusive once we recognise that good and evil ‘grow up together almost inseparably’. So Milton concludes that censorship cannot make us better. Impurity, after all, springs from us, among others. Any law devised to winnow out the noxious materials can only weaken the very people it protects.

We can seem on much lower ground if we look for help to a well-known argument in Mill’s On Liberty. ‘The truth of an opinion,’ Mill says, ‘is part of its utility.’ He appears to mean that the gradual victory of truth over falsehood will depend on a freedom of debate that allows the clash of rival opinions: people sort out the useful truths from the useless falsehoods, and we support liberty of discussion from an instrumental motive, because we want society to grow ever more enlightened. This utilitarian justification asks us to prize truth for the sake of the improvement it will bring; but if there are experts on what exactly is useful and improving for the species, there seems to be no reason why we shouldn’t silence people whose ignorance and obduracy will be a drag on progress. Yet the proposed connection between truth, utility and free discussion is a secondary argument for Mill. The real antagonist of On Liberty is not intellectual backwardness. It is rather what Mill calls ‘our merely social intolerance’: a form of tyranny possible to every person, which, if we obeyed its promptings, would become a lever for ‘intellectual pacification’ and ‘the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind’.

The possession of such moral courage has nothing to do with measurements of utility, as Mill makes clear in an uncompromising passage:

Let us suppose … that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion [to restrict the liberty of thought and discussion] unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Quote this passage to a roomful of academics today, withhold the name of Mill and not one in three will credit that any intelligent person could ever think something so improbable. If the ‘power of coercion’ is taken to mean a painful use of force, that, they will agree, is bad. But by coercion Mill also means the affixing of any penalty at all to dissent from what the majority supposes are the components of a better world. ‘The power itself is illegitimate.’ Mill speaks here neither for truth nor for utility, and gives value to something separate: the right of the person who wants to speak not to be silenced. This insight of On Liberty is consonant with the Mill of The Subjection of Women rather than Utilitarianism. There are things that are owing to persons, he believes, simply because they are persons. Freedom from subordination because of one’s sex or sect is an irreducible good. So is the freedom to know your mind by speaking your mind to another person. Mill hates pacification more than he loves progress. His own brief comment makes the best gloss on the passage: ‘Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil.’

Regarding the pressure for restraint on speech that might arouse strong emotions, Mill notices that interested opponents may always join forces with a pacified majority to exclude a detested person from speaking on grounds of manners. In a society that professes to defend free speech, the preferred tactic will be to rule the person out of bounds because of the extreme character and vehemence of his words:

Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

Scruples about the dividing line between proper and intemperate speech receive a far less sceptical treatment today in most American colleges and universities. The watchword here is ‘civility’. It cropped up two years ago, where one might not expect it, in a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.


The protest of 1964 was about liberty of discussion, in the plainest possible sense of both words. Mainstream political organisations were at that time allowed to distribute their literature on campus. Protesters wanted the same access to be accorded to civil rights and antiwar organisations. The climax came with Mario Savio’s speech on the steps of Sproul Hall, a speech that was principled, persuasive, extraordinary both in its passion and its reserve. Having just returned from a meeting with an administrator, he reported the upshot:

[We asked:] if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received – from a well-meaning liberal – was the following. He said, ‘Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?’ That’s the answer. Well, I ask you to consider – if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something – the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process upon us; don’t mean to be made into any product; don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they the government, be they industry, be they organised labour, be they anyone. We’re human beings! … There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all! … That doesn’t mean that you have to break anything. One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not letting anything happen, can stop any machine.

The whole speech can be heard online and it is his voice that carries the passion and conviction – by no means a polished or disciplined public voice. Savio was an undergraduate philosophy major (a few days short of 22) who had already participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and his delivery leaves no doubt of his ‘strong feeling on the subject’ – climbing to a pitch of ferocity before calming himself, and the audience too, with his words about the non-violent tactics that would do no harm to innocent persons or the fame of the cause.

In 1964 the aim of the protests had been to remove the last barriers on ‘unrestricted’ free speech. Savio was always explicit about this. Fifty years later, the chancellor of UC Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks, sent a public letter to faculty, students and staff advising how best to honour the spirit of the Free Speech Movement. They should always remember that they live in a diversely constituted ‘community’ where a standard of ‘respect’ was a precondition of ‘safe’ use of the privilege of free speech. Above all, they must take care not to speak with unseemly passion:

When issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation … We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.

Reduced to a practical directive, the first sentence says: ‘Indulge in free speech if you must; but please avoid issues that are controversial; and if you do address such issues, don’t sound as if you care about them intensely.’ This is what Mill meant by ‘quiet suppression’.

Two contradictory thoughts now dominate the Anglo-American approach to feelings in the context of public debate. For the speaker, feelings must be restrained – a neutral style of rational euphemism is recommended. On the other hand, the emotion felt by the listener in response to a speech must be treated as authoritative, unarguable, closed to correction or modification by other witnesses. ‘The group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place’; so, too, the person who listens and testifies on behalf of his or her group. Reproach from a traumatised listener admits of no answer, only apology, even though apologies are only interesting in proportion as they are spontaneous and warranted. The apology that is demanded and forked out has the moral stature of hush money: it makes a fetish of insincerity. With some help from the jargon of political and religious heresy, one would say these are not so much apologies as formal acts of self-criticism and recantation. Thus far, they have mostly been extorted in communities the size of a guild or a college. At the same time the rigour of exclusion within these mini-communities is itself a cause of the near autistic breakdown of political speech in America.


The deeper distortions of mass psychology show up first in peculiar tics and involutions of language – the relation is that of symptom to anxiety. Thirteen years ago the United States bombed, invaded and occupied Iraq, and set the Middle East on fire. The event is generally talked of as a ‘mistake’. But there was a legal name for it, a war of aggression, and in the past two or three years in America, colleges and other small communities have witnessed the discovery of a new crime: the microaggression. From a certain distance, the concept of the microaggression has the quality of a repressed memory, a recognition of violence elsewhere that surfaces in denial and displacement. A microaggression occurs typically if, in an encounter between a white and a black person, or between a member of the ‘dominant culture’ and anyone not identified with that culture, the former by word or gesture betrays an assumption that there is something unusual about the latter. Invidious attention is thereby called to an unspoken but glaring fact of inequality, and the dominant assumption is laid bare. This can happen in an awkward motion that is embarrassing but possibly not ill-meant – an 18-year-old white undergraduate asking an 18-year-old black if she can touch her hair. An example often cited is the laying on the non-dominant person the burden to testify about her experience from her special place in a spectrum of diversity. Any word or gesture that is taken to imply such singling out is a microaggression if the person addressed thinks that it is. This makes for a double bind: a white student passing a black and not looking at him could plausibly be charged with microaggression. Replay the same encounter, but with an unusually long look – say, five or six seconds – and the charge of microaggression is just as plausible.

How should the infraction be punished? By re-education, it has been suggested, in the form of additional diversity training and sensitivity training. Persuaded by this concept and by a therapeutic literature and practice that cater to it, young people of more than one race have come to think themselves uniquely delicate and exposed. The counterpart of the microaggression is the microtrauma which makes up in nearness and frequency what it lacks in intensity and duration. Here again one is struck by the action of displacement. The two American presidents since 2001 have said over and over that their primary duty was ‘the safety of the American people’. No earlier presidents spoke in quite this way: the oath of office contains not a word about safety but commits the chief magistrate to uphold the constitution. Safety in argument or debate is of course an unintelligible demand, but the trouble with those who think they want it isn’t that they are incapable of giving reasons backed by evidence. Rather, they have had no practice in using words to influence people unlike themselves. That is an art that can be lost. It depends on a quantum of accidental communication that is missing in a life of organised contacts.

‘Debate is not a death sentence,’ Beatrix Campbell recently observed in a letter in the LRB (14 July), ‘and feeling offended is not the same as feeling or being exterminated. There is a human right to life, but there is no right to be not offended.’ The truth is that in some areas we are close to excogitating a right not to feel offended. In America, the definitions governing what counts as sexual harassment are wide enough to have let in a troop of other causes. The ban on ‘unwanted approach’ and irritants productive of a ‘hostile work environment’ are easily extended from action to speech: the unwanted approach becomes unwelcome words, the hostile work environment a hostile speech environment. The words ‘right,’ ‘feel’ and ‘offended’ in Campbell’s sharp formulation, all are coming to have legal definitions that carry immediate force. It is a right because its violation exposes the offender to penalties of fine, imprisonment or mandatory re-education. Feeling counts because feeling in the offended person is a dispositive fact: proof (which needs no further support) that a crime was committed. We are not far in America – is it just America? – from evolving a right to feel good about ourselves. Possibly the best counteraction is to repudiate membership in a species that could want to do this. Misanthropy and the rejection of censorship here join forces unambiguously.

What a distinguished and very dead philosopher referred to as the religion of humanity may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions. With the joint arrival of multicultural etiquette and globalisation, we have come to dwell increasingly on hidden injuries that threaten the norms and civilities desirable for people everywhere. This involves a fresh dedication to the discovery of faults of manners and usage that could cause friction. But, as was observed half a century ago by Nigel Dennis – an irreplaceable satirist of political and religious fanaticism – ‘Our sins are rarely as disgusting as we suppose them to be, and never as disgusting as the attention we pay them.’ Nor do we know ourselves well enough to be sure that our corrections are correct. The narcissism of humanity remains as conspicuous as ever at a moment when we can least afford the indulgence.

Government by consent of the governed is on trial; events in Britain and America in the last several months prove it with irrefutable clarity. But if government by consent can be made to work, its fortunes will depend on a good many people being inquisitive and hardened against the officious numbering of infractions – a tactic that is often cowardly and never a substitute for counter-speech. Reports of bodily harm at the enunciation of unpleasant words, and of clinical depression from exposure to despised historical names in public places, suggest a delicacy that would render politics eventually impossible. The wrongs of the past, as well as of the present, ought to be redressed in a medium more solid than language; but speech has always been as mixed, as improper, as dirty as action; and unhappily even the cure is bound to carry traces of the impurity of the physician. Whatever led us to expect innocence from people like us?

Some recent books consulted in the writing of this article:

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash.
Atlantic, 496 pp., £20, May, 978 1 8488 7092 5

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle.
Penguin, 464 pp., £13.99, October 2015, 978 1 10 198046 0

Democracy, Expertise and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State by Robert Post.
Yale, 224 pp., £20, February 2012, 978 0 300 14863 3

Freedom of Speech: Mightier than the Sword by David Shipler.
Vintage, 352 pp., £14, April, 978 0 307 94761 1

Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? by Mick Hume.
William Collins, 144 pp., £6.99, May, 978 0 00 812640 7