(Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

February 24, 2021   6 mins

The pro-censorship woke brigade are often characterised as puritanical by their pro-free-speech antagonists. Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, has called cancel culture a “resurgence of Puritanism”. In one passage of their introduction to their fascinating essay collection, Panics and Persecutions, the editors of the digital magazine Quillette, one of whom is also Young, distinguish between a puritanical contemporary Left and their more libertine predecessors. The Left, they claim, “can’t be described as revolutionaries” because their demands are either “meaningless” or “ludicrous” or “represent further extrapolations of progressive politics”. By contrast, their “hippie grandparents” were genuinely committed to the ethos of liberty:

“Unlike the progressive counterculture of the 1960s, which encouraged sexual openness, flamboyant individualism, and euphoric cultural mixing, today’s social justice crusades are built around joyless rites of self-interrogation, announced publicly but conducted inwardly.”

As much as anything else, many of today’s debates about identity and free speech deal with aesthetics. By presenting these activists as puritan zealots, the Quillette editors can invoke the contrasting glamour of the sixties counterculture. Today’s young activists are uncool.

In his new book, Free Speech and Why it Matters, the comedian Andrew Doyle also invokes past progressives that were more sympathetic to free speech so he can criticise the contemporary Left. Referring to civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights campaigners, he writes: “without freedom of speech theirs was a lost cause”.

Doyle also charges his defence of free speech with an optimistic tone. Freedom of speech is important because it allows us to defeat bad ideas: “We are far better placed to know and overcome evil if we are acquainted with its essence, and the best way to achieve this is to listen and to read”. The implication, here, is that progressives who have abandoned free speech not only shy away from difficult truths, but have also lost faith in our capacity for greater moral progress.

Nevertheless, both Doyle and the Quillette editors make a series of points that complicate this neat distinction between the optimistic progressive radicals of the past, who embodied the essence of free speech, and their dour incarnation in the present.

Puritanism is not simply about being pessimistic about the human condition, and unwilling to entertain new ideas. It is, as the American novelist Marilynne Robinson put in her essay, “Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry”,  about the struggle for moral goodness. Struggle is the key word here. For Robinson, being good “is a great struggle and a mystery”. This means that “moral people seem to me especially eager to offer pardon in the hope of receiving pardon, to forgo judgement in the hope of escaping judgement”. So in trying to suppress your base instincts, trying “govern oneself”, you adopt a more tolerant attitude to the beliefs of others — this is the essence of free speech and the antithesis of cancel culture.

Doyle touches on this in his book. In one passage, he writes that we all understand the impulse towards censorship because we sometimes feel it. But in trying to enforce this instinct, we also “degrade ourselves by subordinating our reason to baser instincts”. This valorisation of reason over instinct, as Ralph Leonard and Maria Albano have written, recalls elements of Platonism and traditional Christianity: it is puritan in its assumption that human passions are so volatile and dangerous that they need to be contained by reason. Doyle puts the point more forcefully when he writes, “we find that in many cases the greatest threat to free expression comes from ourselves”. It is only through constraining our primal instinct toward censorship, then, that we can ensure freedom of speech.

The impulse towards censorship, then, is base. Repressing that instinct for censorship — our reason suppressing our base passions — is puritan. Consequently, puritanism fosters the environment for greater liberty. The relationship between constraint and freedom is also explored by the Quillette editors. They consider, for instance, the French Revolution and its often-cited legacy. “In its liberal form”, they write, “the revolution peaked with the constitution of 1791, which created a democratic constitutional monarchy”. The revolution degenerated, however, with the Terror — the orgy of denunciations and executions that gripped republican France: “As with communists, religious fundamentalists, Cold War McCarthyites, and autocratic populists, the architects of this terror argued that the Republican project was too urgent to be constrained by the need for due process, free speech, the right of assemblies, or other civil liberties”. They compare these people who are unconstrained by moral principles to modern-day progressives who see themselves as “vanguards against racism and fascism”.

But therein lies a tension. The criticism of contemporary progressives in this section is that they are unable to sufficiently constrain their base instinct for censorship; but the soixante-huitard radicals the Quillette editors admire were also characterised by their very lack of inhibition. Later on the editors state, quite correctly, that “crowdsourced dissent-suppression campaigns” show that freedom of speech depends as much “on a hospitable intellectual culture as on legal codes”. Which begs the question: what does this culture consist of? It does not depend on openness and radical optimism; rather, free speech depends on a puritan ethos.

Doyle, for instance, points out that a genuinely hospitable intellectual climate would consist of a sceptical attitude to people in power being able to enforce hate speech codes without descending into tyranny. “You might trust our leaders to judge these matters sensibly, but it takes a certain myopia not to see governments of the future might want to abuse the precedent”. Doyle’s case against censorship, then, also partly depends on a pessimistic view of human nature. “The price we pay for a free society”, he argues, “is that bad people will say bad things. We tolerate this, not because we approve of the content of their speech, but because once we have compromised on the principle of free speech we clear the pathway for future tyranny”.

This talk of tradeoffs is reminiscent of what Thomas Sowell calls the constrained vision of life: there is no perfect or optimal way to organise society because our interests are always in a state of tension. To try to overcome this tension, as utopians of far Left and far Right have done, leads inevitably to a state of pitiless tyranny. The culture most conducive for free speech is thus one that maintains this tension — accepting that liberty and self-expression cannot be sustained without a degree of discipline on the part of those who participate in society. In other words, puritanism.

Doyle even invokes the fragility of civilisation against the demonic tendency toward censorship. “Civilisation”, Doyle writes, “is the barricade we erect to hold back our baser instincts. This cannot be sustained without free speech and, although I do not believe we are as yet experiencing a full-blown crisis, the first fissures in the barricade are certainly widening”. But he doesn’t go deep enough here; free speech itself cannot be sustained without tolerance.

Doyle’s elegantly written and moderate polemic is in stark contrast to his personae as Titania McGrath — his largely unfunny satirical embodiment of woke culture. In this book, Doyle is more like the eminently reasonable schoolteacher he once was, patiently instructing us on the virtues of free speech, and emphasising the importance of decency and good moral conduct. The problem is the class is no longer a room of well-behaved students; his audience now resides in the cynical digital landscape, where there is little incentive for the kind of puritan self-control necessary for the free exchange of ideas.

Even John Stuart Mill, the archetypal liberal thinker, views intellectual tolerance more like a quid pro quo between conflicting interests than a vindication of abstract rights: “minorities, seeing that they had no chance of becoming majorities”, he writes, “were under the necessity of pleading to those whom they could not convert, for permission to differ. It is accordingly on this battlefield, almost solely, that the rights of the individual against society have been asserted on broad grounds of principle, and the claim of society to exercise authority over dissentients, openly controverted”.

In their earlier denigration of contemporary progressives as puritanical, the Quillette editors and Doyle have it backwards. The problem is these progressives are not puritanical enough. In her essay on puritanism, Robinson distinguishes between Puritanism and Priggishness. She describes Priggishness as “a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.” This is a more accurate description of many progressive activists.

A “prig with an original idea”, Robinson adds, “is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus”. A prig is a person who has not thought deeply about an issue, but is absolutely convinced he has the correct opinion on it. Many of today’s contemporary progressives are pejoratively derided as moralisers, but the problem is many of them do not moralise enough — they don’t go through the individual grind and struggle a truly moral person often has to go through to get to their position.

This is not to say that puritanism necessarily leads to tolerance. Of course, many self-described puritans have been the very opposite of tolerant; there is a reason it’s a synonym for zealot. But some of the core principles associated with it are still valuable for us today, even if many of the people associated with it have behaved abominably. There’s also a risk that this maintenance of tension can lead to a sort of moral relativism, and make us unwilling to try to persuade those who we think are genuinely wrong. But puritanism doesn’t imply there are no right or wrong answers, but simply that humans will always be vulnerable to stumbling on the wrong answers. And a philosophical approach that recognises this is better placed to paint the kind of society conducive to the free exchange of ideas than one which naively assumes we can perfect humanity.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.