X Close

Free speech is still worth fighting for No one is entitled to intellectual safety

Since when was free speech a bogeyman? (Guy Smallman/Getty Images)


November 10, 2023   11 mins

Freedom of expression is probably the most widely acknowledged human right in the world. Lip service is paid to it even in totalitarian states. Freedom of expression is not worth much in Russia or North Korea, but their constitutions guarantee it in very similar terms as the United Nations. And yet, it is today under greater threat than any other human right. This is happening even, perhaps especially, in liberal democracies. How are we to explain this paradox?

Our approach to the whole issue of free speech is still largely moulded by attitudes born in the Enlightenment, when the main enemy of freedom of expression was the state and certain quasi-state institutions, such as the established churches. But in modern liberal democracies, the real enemy of free speech is not the state but the pressure of opinion from our fellow citizens. This is not a new insight, but it is a frequently forgotten one. Most of our issues were recognised by the great Victorian apostle of free speech John Stuart Mill, a thinker whose uncanny ability to anticipate the dilemmas of our own age can still take us by surprise. Mill foresaw that in a democratic age, such as was just dawning in Victorian Britain, a culture of conformity would be a greater threat to freedom of expression than any action of the state. Society, he wrote, is capable of practising “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself”.

Tolerance does not come naturally to human beings. For most of human history, what people believed about the natural world, about government and society and about the moral codes of humanity was laid down by authority, usually by people claiming to speak in the name of God. Pluralism and diversity of opinion have only been accepted as desirable for the last three or four centuries. They are essentially the legacy of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and the European Enlightenment of the 18th. These movements rejected mere authority as a source of truth, in favour of observation, reasoning and rational discourse. But like all cultural phenomena, theirs was a fragile construct. In recent years, we have reverted to the older, more authoritarian model which prevailed before the 17th century, although God no longer has much to do with it.

A large part of the explanation has been the decline of individualism. Mill’s outlook on life was profoundly individualist. He once declared that if all mankind were of one opinion and only one person of the contrary opinion, there could be no justification for silencing him. But today individualism is widely rejected as a social value. It is regarded as selfish, uncaring and antisocial. This attitude has undermined the case for freedom of expression; it reflects a view of society as a single great organism which must have a single collective notion of what is true and good. Free speech is seen as a tool of oppression.

It is true that in a world of free speech, the most powerful voices will belong to people influential enough to have a public platform. This is so even in an age when speech has been democratised by social media. However, in a world of free speech, what the powerful say will be open to challenge. The alternative is a world in which public discourse is dominated by a different and more sinister form of power — the power of those with loud enough voices and sharp enough elbows to drown out others. That power will not be open to challenge. The idea of a community with a common outlook on the world sounds more inviting than a community divided by ideological or economic conflict. However, as long as human beings retain their individuality, their intellectual curiosity and their scepticism, a common outlook cannot be achieved without systematic coercion — which is what we are witnessing today.

John Stuart Mill anticipated many things, but he did not anticipate the internet. Social media can conjure up instant online lynch mobs. They make a powerful amplifier available to the most intolerant strands of opinion. The algorithms which determine what material is placed under people’s noses expose them only to sentiments which they already agree with, thus intensifying their opinions and eliminating not only dissent but even nuance and moderation. Mill assumed that the pressure to conform would come from self-righteous majorities. But social media has conferred immense power on self-righteous minorities, often quite small minorities.

The most remarkable illustration of this is the vicious campaign currently being conducted to silence those who believe that gender is based on an immutable biological fact. Polling evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of people believe that gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered by medical or surgical intervention, let alone by simple choice. That view is consistent with the current scientific orthodoxy, which regards gender as binary. Yet pressure from a noisy minority has created a situation in which the public expression of the prevailing and probably correct view about gender can lead to dismissal from employment, the cancellation of speaking engagements and publication contracts, and an avalanche of public shaming and abuse.

John Stuart Mill taught that the only purpose for which power might properly be exercised against individuals against their will was to prevent harm to others. But what we are presently witnessing is a subtle redefinition of the whole concept of harm to include the harm said to be caused by having to endure contradiction. The argument is that words wound, especially when they relate to another person’s identity or status; a university or a workplace where a person is exposed to disagreement must therefore be regarded, in the standard catchphrase, as “unsafe”.

The difference between violence and words is obvious. Violence is coercive. Words, even if offensive, are not coercive except in those cases where they are calculated to provoke violence. Yet in North America, Britain and much of the Anglosphere, this notion of harm has captured institutions. Recent research in the United States suggests that 29% of university professors have been pressured by university authorities into avoiding controversial subjects; 16% have either been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their words, their teaching or their academic research, while another 7% say that they have been investigated. Those working on any subject involving ethnic or religious sensitivities are particularly vulnerable. More than 80% of students report that they self-censor their work for fear of stepping out of line.

Underlying much of this debate is a fundamental challenge to the objective notion of harm. When interest groups object to someone’s opinion, harm is whatever they perceive as harm. It depends on “lived experience”, as the phrase goes, particularly when the offended group is an ethnic, religious or sexual minority. The desire to accommodate minorities who feel themselves oppressed is understandable. It assists social inclusion. But carried to its logical extreme it gives them a right of veto, an entitlement to silence opinions. And it is being carried to its logical extreme. In many countries, including Britain, hate speech is in some circumstances a criminal offence or an aggravating factor when accompanied by some other criminal conduct. The British police and prosecution authorities have agreed upon a definition of their own devising, according to which a hate crime means any action which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice. In other words, they have adopted a subjective definition dependent on the feelings of the victim rather than an objective assessment of the words used.

All of these problems have been intensified by a powerful generational divide. A mass of anecdotal evidence suggests that venues, publishers, and other media who shun controversial views are often pushed into it by their junior staff. This rage of a younger generation against their own societies is not wholly irrational. Liberal democracy has always depended on economic good fortune. The turn in the economic fortunes of Western democracies has persuaded a whole generation that they will be the first cohort for many decades who will be worse off than their parents. The postwar generation seems to them to have lived on the fat of the land, deferring intractable issues like climate change, capricious patterns of inequality and poisonous race relations for their children and grandchildren to deal with.

The perceived power of vested interests and the inertia of democratic decision-making have combined to persuade much of the younger generation that debate is worthless and direct action the only answer. The European and American sense of moral and intellectual superiority provokes attempts by a younger generation to discredit their legacy. Hence the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement (even in societies such as Britain where the police do not routinely murder people of colour), the demands for “decolonisation” of school and university syllabuses, and so on. The influential French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that what people regard as objective truth or independent opinion is really no more than the product of entrenched power structures. Debate is pointless in such a world; to get anywhere, you have to break the power structures. I do not imagine that the young enemies of free speech have read Foucault’s opaque prose. But many of them act on the same principle. An angry and frustrated generation is unlikely to accept the conventions of rational discourse or the messy compromises of democratic politics as readily as their parents did. Indeed, successive surveys by the Washington-based Pew Research Institute suggest that support for democracy is declining among the young in much of the West, especially in Britain and America.

These developments have fundamentally changed the argument about freedom of expression. The issue now pits different groups of citizens and different generations against each other. The people who scream abuse at their adversaries from the roadside or from their social media accounts would claim to be exercising their own rights of free expression. The impact of their anger is indirect. They create an oppressive climate in which other people are silenced and may lose their careers, their livelihoods and their reputation, or else may simply be forced to keep away from controversial subjects. The screamers do not themselves bring about these consequences. They simply influence the mood in a way which causes other people, such as editors, publishers, universities and employers, to persecute dissenters, because in a world of heightened intellectual tensions they prefer to keep their heads down. An editor is under no obligation to give space to people of controversial views. A publisher is under no obligation to publish them. A university cannot be made to employ them. So, when the freedom of expression of one group is used to silence others, how is the state to mediate?

The law has generally been on the side of free speech. In the United Kingdom, to be criminal, words have to be inflammatory and intended to — or known to be likely to — stir up hatred against vulnerable categories of people. For good measure, there is a broad exemption for the protection of free speech which in principle permits discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse. The British police have recorded as “hate incidents” gender-critical tweets, tweets critical of the police, accidental damage done by schoolchildren to a copy of the Koran, even speeches by ministers proposing restrictions on immigration. But when these cases have come before the courts, they have usually been thrown out. In one case where the police took action against a gender-critical tweeter, the judge remarked that their conduct offended against a “cardinal democratic principle”. “In this country”, he added, “we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.”

But there are limits to what law can achieve. The government and the courts are impotent to protect people against the worst threats to free speech: the howling trollers of the internet, the addictive outrage of the street protesters, or the oppressive self-censorship of publishers, journalists and academics. These things can only be addressed by a profound cultural change, which it is beyond the power of law to bring about. Changing this culture depends on you, on me, on every one of us. The only reason that activists try to disrupt and suppress unwelcome opinions is that experience shows that it works. Venues do not book controversial speakers. Publishers do not publish controversial books. Prominent commentators do not step out of line or, if they do, they are bullied into issuing cringing apologies.

None of us has to behave like this. All of us can contribute to the solution by being willing to make it clear where we stand, not just on free speech itself, but on the subjects which have become taboo. I return to the ideas of John Stuart Mill. He recognised that what was needed was the courage of individuals to defy the mob. In language which might have been directed at our present problems, he wrote that “precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable in order to break through that tyranny that people should be eccentric”. By eccentricity, he meant diversity of opinion. “That so few now dare to be eccentric”, he wrote, “marks the chief danger of the time”.

If, for example, we believe that gender is not an optional status but a biological fact, we can say so, instead of being shamed into silence. If we reject concepts dear to particular ethnic or religious groups, we should say so and refuse to back down or apologise when they take offence. We have to discuss the unmentionable, challenge the unchallengeable. I am not recommending rudeness or abuse, but there is a larger place for reasoned objection than we realise.

The greatest challenge will be self-censorship by venues, publishers, the media, and academic institutions. They will say, perhaps only to themselves or in the privacy of their editorial boards or faculty meetings, why should we expose ourselves? Why should we quarrel with our young and idealistic junior staff or students who do not wish to sully their hands with this or that book, film, or lecture? Why should we court the unpleasantness involved in speaking up? The answer to that was given by Mill in his inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews, after he had been elected as its Rector in 1867. “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion,” he said; “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”.

Free speech is not a luxury. Ever since the 17th century, the civilisation of mankind has been based on the notion that there is such a thing as an objective truth, independent of human will. It may be only partly knowable, and more or less difficult to identify, but it exists somewhere out there whether we like it or not. We have built our intellectual world by objective study of the available material, by logical reasoning and by willingness to engage with dissenting opinion. These are not just social constructs. They are universal principles, which are necessary if we are to discuss controversial issues in the same language. They have made possible the phenomenal economic prosperity and intellectual achievement of the last four centuries.

The basic principles of rational discourse on which all this depended are now under challenge. Reason is rejected as arrogant. Feeling and emotion are upheld as suitable substitutes. Freedom is treated as domineering, enlightenment as offensive to the unenlightened. Current campaigns to suppress certain opinions and eliminate debate are an attempt to create a new conformity, a situation in which people will not dare to contradict, for fear of provoking their outrage and abuse. These things are symptoms of the closing of the human mind and the narrowing of our intellectual world. Something in our civilisation has died.

No one can be entitled to intellectual safety. That is because statements of fact or opinion are necessarily provisional. They reflect the current state of knowledge and experience. Once upon a time, the authorised consensus was that the sun moved round the Earth and that blood did not circulate round the body. These propositions were refuted only because current orthodoxy was challenged by people once thought to be dangerous heretics and disturbers of the peace. Historically, most societies have abhorred democracy, rejected religious and political tolerance, and regarded the whole idea of racial or gender equality as ridiculous. These ideas, which were thought to reflect obvious moral truths, died out in most countries in the face of rational argument. Knowledge advances by testing conflicting arguments, not by suppressing them. Understanding increases by exposure to uncomfortable truths.

For those of us who live in democracies, our collective life depends on the resolution of issues between citizens by marshalling objectively verifiable facts. It depends on ordered debate about their implication under common rules which exclude coercion and falsehood. It depends on a culture in which the outcome of our processes of collective decision-making is accepted even by those who disagree with it. That is what is at stake in the current debate about free speech. The alternative is a narrow-minded, intolerant and authoritarian society in which the fear of giving offence or challenging existing shibboleths eliminates the most creative and original products of the human spirit.

Ultimately, we have to accept the implications of human creativity. Some of what people say will be wrong. Some of it will be hurtful. Some of it may even be harmful. But there are greater values at stake. We cannot have truth without accommodating error and tolerating the challenge to received ideas. We cannot live together in society without allowing people to say things that other people regard as foolish, hurtful or untrue. It is the price that we pay for allowing human civilisation to advance and flourish. It is worth fighting for.

 

This is an edited version of a speech delivered last weekend at the Christchurch Town Hall, for the New Zealand Free Speech Union.


Jonathan Sumption is a former Justice of the Supreme Court, and a medieval historian.


Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

60 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
R M
R M
6 months ago

On first reading, the only thing I disagree with is using “gender” instead of “sex”.

Gender has become too ambiguous a term, essentially now referring to whatever the speaker wishes to mean. This only aids those who want to muddy the waters. If your gender can be anything and the terms gender and sex are used interchangeably, then your sex can be anything.

Let us abandon the term gender when we are referring to the binary categories of sex.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  R M

I may not be fully up to date with the latest thinking (nonsense) on the subject, so forgive me if I understate the “true” figure but there are 72 genders other than just male and female, so 74 in total. Given that “fact”, I agree entirely let’s drop the term as it has become meaningless.
Of course what is now being called gender is what always was personality and as we are all different there are 7.8 Bn personalities on the planet, which is why I suspect I may not be fully up to date on the number of “genders”.

Lewis Eliot
Lewis Eliot
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Don’t sell yourself short, AS, you’re correct. There are as many genders as individuals. The term ‘gender’ isn’t meaningless; or, at least, not meaningless to the individual. We all have our own experience of gender.
The problem arises when we attempt to describe it to others, or when we think others have the same experience.

Lewis Eliot
Lewis Eliot
6 months ago
Reply to  R M

Spot on, RM. They are completely different and based in different realms of understanding. Gender is subjective; it is the immeasurable and unquantifiable experience of the individual, known to them alone. There are, by definition, as many genders as there are individuals. Sex is objective; it is measurable and definable, testable by third parties. It is encoded at the moment of conception, not ‘ascribed at birth’.
An example: you may think that patch of paint over there is brick, scarlet, ruby, carmine; I may describe it as claret, cherry, or cerise. That’s our individual, subjective experience. But that patch of paint still reflects light at 700 nm. That’s objective, measurable, testable by third parties.
The problem is that the objective world of the enlightenment is falling back into the subjective, feeling world of Romanticism; the radical centering of the self.

T Bone
T Bone
6 months ago

Exceptional analysis. Here is the problem as I see it.  In a world of now 8 billion people, the Moral Code of the West primarily focuses on three goals: Solving  Planetary Sustainability, Global Inequality and Preserving Democracy.  While these sound good, they are extraordinary vague collective ideals that can be twisted into a pretzel by highly intelligent, self-serving people that brand themselves as progress engineers.

As the world has gotten more complex, so have our expectations and our problems reflect these out-sized expectations.  We are a horribly entitled, ungrateful society. Most people expect far more from others than they expect of themselves. I guess it’s because personal responsibility has become an “oppressive right wing concept.” Nothing is ever good enough for some people.

People that might be exceptional in the historical past are torn down by petty, resentful narcissists that don’t want others to get too far ahead. When others get too far ahead, it creates…inequality.  So while there is certainly validity to the Left’s argument that many at the top echelon are undeserving, it is not true of the entire class of high achievers.  We are attacking achievement as a society. Today, we elevate the Mediocre by abolishing academic standards, changing definitions and inverting values to accommodate a “modern world of progress.” 

So if we start with the notion that inequality is bad and need to stop it before it ever oppresses, how exactly do you craft a system where the cream rises to the top.  What’s the incentive structure? I’ve yet to hear an “Anti-Capitalist” explain how they’re going to get people to actually work. The whole point of Anti-Capitalism is that people work too much for not enough. Fine. So I would ask the Anti-Capitalists, how are you going to resolve these Global Problems without people driven to do tough jobs and maybe start low on the pay scale due to lack of resume. Starting low on the pay scale is something that motivates strivers. This is a known fact.

You can’t solve “Planetary Problems” with people that reject hard work. People that reject BOTH Rationalism and Empiricism.  All you get is Performance Artists that regress the world under the banner of Progress.

So how exactly do you Preserve Democracy when its a system that relies on Integrity and half the people can’t agree on the definition of Integrity?  Does Integrity mean someone committed to the cause of Progress? Does it mean a morally perfect person?  Or does it mean somebody that’s consistently willing to say what they think is true and then reevaluate and acknowledge they were wrong if that opinion is later proven wrong?  Not a whole lot of Hubris remaining in the “Intellectual World” these days.

Last edited 6 months ago by T Bone
J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

So how exactly do you Preserve Democracy when its a system that relies on Integrity and half the people can’t agree on the definition of Integrity.
I don’t know the percentage of people in the Anglosphere who agree on the definition of Integrity, but I do know that the clear majority of people in the Anglosphere reject the policies and beliefs of so-called progressives. As the author suggests, we all have to be willing to disagree when others try to foist their extreme, censorious beliefs on us. That process will not be comfortable and the tide will likely turn slowly.
The more fundamental question, for me, is whether the silent majority have the stomach for the fight? We seem so beaten these days, even confused about what our society is or should be. And globalization has deprived the majority of economic security, so people have learned to cling to whatever opportunity they can find and don’t make waves. Maybe our current situation is the inevitable outcome of the conjunction of neoconservative economics and liberalism taken to its logical conclusion. Or perhaps I’m being too defeatist.

T Bone
T Bone
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think we’re all too wrapped up in the Marxist idea of being historical change agents. We think we can either orchestrate change or reverse social change by pressing a button. History ebbs and flows. Anybody alive that thinks they’re going to “save the world” is horribly naive. This is a cultural rot that took decades to implement. A rot that was so embedded in institutions that the people currently carrying it out mostly know not what they do. They’re following the Raised Fist blueprint with no clue what that actually means. This is a 20 year project at minimum.

We’re destabilized and it started in Covid with wild money printing and cash handouts. While I think getting back to stability will be tough, I don’t really think the strategy is that difficult. The amount of taxpayer dollars Western Countries wastes on unproductive social pet projects is a foundational problem. If organizations aren’t going to subject their social ideas to public debate and diverse viewpoints than they’re cut off from taxpayer funding. You can either participate in a free society by allowing others to speak or you can finance yourself.

Jeremy Sansom
Jeremy Sansom
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Tune in to the recent ARC conference for some encouraging, even inspiring, antidotal material.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

No one is rejecting hard-work or some levels of inequality. (These are not absolutes) Most on the political left are simply saying the levels of inequality are skyrocketing so that working hard in a modest job (and most jobs will always be modest – we can’t all be above average) without money behind you means you can’t actually live a normal life – in the way you used to be able to.. By normal I mean not depending on benefits, raising a family and having somewhere secure to live. That is just not possible in Uk.

John Riordan
John Riordan
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I agree with you. Young people today do not have the same access to the benefits of a property owning democracy that everyone pre-millennium had. Houses cost too-high a multiple of median income, and in addition the median income is composed of an increasing number of jobs offering no security and no income stability.

I do say that any person who rightly complains about this but then also supports degrowth economics, open borders and identity politics is displaying a remarkable degree of self-delusion, but the fact is either way that the increasing prosperity of the 20th century no longer works for young people today. That young people disagree about how to fix this is a secondary issue to the problem itself.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Housing has been too expensive for ordinary incomes in the UK since around 1986 in the South East around London (with the exception of a correction between around 1991 and 1997). This has been building up for a long time. And all across the West.
A period of slight demographic decline and a focus on increasing real wealth per capita and productivity would be very welcome.
It’s very socially undesirable that young people’s ambitions are so constrained now by the wealth of their parents. Fortunately not a problem my parents had.
It’s hard to understand why the young don’t grasp the real reasons for these problems.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

What I find odd is that there is little recognition of this basic problem amongst those commenting here. To me it is THE problem facing the UK. Cultural wars stuff, which gets everyone here very animated, is just a self-indulgent side show.

Last edited 6 months ago by Martin Butler
T Bone
T Bone
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

You’re being Mystified by Socialism, Martin. By that I mean, the people that want to keep printing money have used Cultural arguments to justify reckless spending and simultaneously claim the people that opposes them are waging a “culture war.”

Imagine for the sake of argument that the Right stopped engaging in Cultural Analysis about Wokeness or etc and just started cutting waste. All you would hear from the Left is cries of “Austerity, Austerity, Austerity” followed by an argument that only Elites of High Culture benefit from spending cuts.

But Elites of High Culture benefit far more when the government encourages widespread lending to “resolve inequality.” Why? Because the spending INFLATES the cost of everything, which the government then resolves by INFLATING it even more. When mass social spending occurs governments have to pay for it by offering high interest returns to buyers of Treasury Bills. Who are these buyers? They aren’t primarily from Main Street, I can tell you that.

The Center Left doesn’t seem to realize that the cost of housing won’t ever decrease if a government is constantly printing more money to remediate the cost of living increases that it is stimulating!

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

What you are saying in effect is that in our society it’s impossible to have most people employed in jobs which allow them the basics of life. Including, somewhere secure to live, affordable childcare – remember no one expects a single income to sustain a household. And without relying on benefits.
When growing up in the 60s and 70s all my friends lived in council houses their parents did modest manual jobs and they seemed to live good lives. Selling off the council houses was the first step which has landed us in this housing nightmare, all in the name of ‘the free market’. To me that is as ideological as socialism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with capitalism. What is wrong is unbridled capitalism where everything is privatised and where everything is simply about profit. The market philosophy has had a good run for its money – think we need to try something a bit. I for one don’t mind paying more tax.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Correct! Wealth is Discriminatory. It is meritocratic. It is Unequal. Under the State ideology the very concept of private wealth creation is a violation of others/less fortunates rights and entitlements. Hence windfall taxes. HencevTruss Evil tax cut idea. Hence Labour Attack on Private Schools. Hence Brownite Redistribution being Hunt and Rishis policy. Wake up all. We inhabit a de facto communistic political culture. The suppression of the private economy by the State Equality machine is ongoing and with Labour, the Party of the parasitic ill Blob, in power its suffocation will be complete.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

What exactly would society look like if you were in control? Or name an actual society past or present that is your ideal. The right just love going on about ‘the blob’, wokeness and labour & so on. But they just criticise and go quiet when ask about what they would do – in detail. It ends up being just as Theoretical as any socialist. The the mentality of permanent opposition.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Why don’t you respond to the points about the equality cult I make?

Theodore Stegers
Theodore Stegers
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

“Those on the left are simply saying levels of inequality are skyrocketing…” What is your view of the causes of skyrocketing inequality?  My view is that inequality is driven by the nonsense of minimum wages and grinding business regulation. Minimum wages deliver too many people doing jobs, not well, made acceptable by minimum wages. These people are subsidised by those who enjoy the job and do it well. Several studies have it that the square root of the total number of employees in a company do half the work. In a company of 10,000 that’s 100 doing half the work. Grinding business regulation drives corporatism and maintains these inefficiencies. The left generally wants more minimum wages and more regulation.  

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago

We are talking cross purposes. I do not dispute that there is economic inequality. I am addressing the social ideological cult which is based on our skin colour religion gender and the progressive revolution in law and goverment that has made actual class problems greater, for the reasons you cite.

T Bone
T Bone
6 months ago

Identity Politics was just a convenient excuse to use Modern Monetary Policy to waste taxpayer resources on “robust government.”

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago

I think the govt has played a big role in this state of affairs and needs to get serious about rectifying it. A lot of these activist organizations receive govt funding. Cut it off. If a professional association starts censoring its members, the govt could intervene in a variety of ways. If universities receive govt funding, set a standard of conduct. Scrap any govt funded DEI programs. Govt obviously isn’t the complete answer, but it has a role.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I can’t imagine how government would do this when those within it seem as captured as the institutions you propose they should withold funding from. By government, i mean not just the political party in “power” but the entire apparatus of the state. Political parties themselves exist to win “power” and in order to do so in an electoral system will avoid the kind of controversial decisions being suggested.

No, it really is down to each of us as individuals. Even that has been undermined by reference to “atomisation” but when the author speaks/writes about the individual he does so with the full value of individualism, or as JS Mill calls it “eccentricity”, restored.

In fact, i see a huge amount of individualism around me. These pages are an example and largely non-conformist, Unherd editorialism notwithstanding. I therefore remain optimistic in the longer term. We still have a great deal to learn about ourselves as sentient animals and the conflicts which arise because of that, with the internet as a new driving force which will take time to come to terms with, just as societies took an age to come to terms with the printing press. Lets remember, that gave rise to the Enlightenment. A new one may await us; literally await our navigation of this change in our perception of ourselves through the internet.

Last edited 6 months ago by Steve Murray
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The problem is that politicians are addicted to pandering to special interest groups that want to impose their idea as to what is good for us by taking our money to implement their notions in place of our preferences. Totalitarianism imposed by “democracy”.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Hi Jeremy. I agree with your overall sentiment. But it is not politicians pandering that is the problem. Suella is a politician. A Minister in the Executive. But she is behaving like the Opposition – because she IS. It is the British multicultural State and its permanent instruments of progressive coercion (HR laws/Captured State Media/ Admin & Blob/Regulatory NMI machinery) that is doing the pandering to the nasties. It is driven by the Equality kaws and mania. The Fake Tories are just that. They bluster and wheeze. Lets sort out housing! Lets tackle Islamic mobs! Lets stop Net Zero madness! Lets Level Up! Lets not do mad Lockdown! But The Progressive Order says no. Its all sound and fury. But they do not hold the levers..leave Rowley alone!! That is the terrible GDR like system we inhabit. It is why we fall.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Yes good point. There is political pandering but in truth they have either lost control of the levers of power or don’t seriously wish to implement their rhetoric.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago

A brilliant polemic, but as Lord Sumption (74) knows only too well, it is far too late to stop this decent into barbarism.

Only the other day Westminster Magistrates Court upheld the simply ludicrous prosecution of one Colonel Bob Stewart, DSO, MP, for making an alleged racially offensive remark! What hope is there? None!

nb: Editor UnHerd. Lord Sumption recently wrote an excoriating essay in ‘The Times’ about the farce that is the Public Enquiry into the recent COVID fiasco.Please could you endeavour to reproduce it here.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

I emailed Bob Stewart encouraging him to appeal and received a prompt and admirably succinct but somewhat enigmatic reply: “I will if I can”. I presume the problem may lie in the absurd hate legislation that makes the victim or anyone else determine whether the remark was hateful rather than any sensible and objective consideration being applied. Clearly Bob Stewart demonstrated no animus against Bahrainis or Arabs in general merely irritation with a particular Bahraini.

While men like Lord Sumption exist there must be hope. The doctrines of the Communist Party once seemed impregnable in the lands they governed.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Lewis Eliot
Lewis Eliot
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Interestingly, it’s the substitution of the objective ‘reasonable man’ / man on the Clapham omnibus determination of effect, with the subjective determination of intent that did for Dominic Raab. I actually looked up the definition of bullying on the HM Government website; in essence, if I feel I’ve been bullied, then I’ve been bullied. My subjective experience determines the act, not the intent of the perpetrator.
And so he was sunk by his own definition: “Bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended”
* I’ve just found a completely different definition on .Gov which says that bullying at school requires intent. Weird!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Why hasn’t this pernicious piece of legislation been repealed long ago! It has been on the statute books for 37 years!*
Or do our wretched Parliamentarians believe in this drivel? No wonder the CPS are celebrating, as would the Gestapo.

(* Public Order Act 1986.)

Last edited 6 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
6 months ago

Seconded – I would be interested to read his views as a lawyer about the Inquiry. I’m a lawyer myself, and I’m completely baffled by it.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
6 months ago

Brilliant piece. Written in plain English without trying to impress the reader (take note, many other Unherd writers); describing the ground-rules for the transition from a pre-rational pre-scientific era to a civilised one. This should be required reading in all secondary schools.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
6 months ago

Better still I’d like to see it expanded into a term-long course on the growth of rationality and its intellectual support (indeed, creation) of the scientific, industrial, and economic revolutions, together with its decline and probable consequent decline in those three defining features of modernity. It could be taught as a contrast to the nihilism of the (mainly) French philosophers of structuralism, critical theory, postmodernism.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
6 months ago
Reply to  Phil Rees

I suspect that we are in a minority, even in ‘The West’. Best comment I’ve heard this week is from Konstantin Kisin, ‘there are more flat earthers today than there were in the 15th century’. Go figure!

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago

Simply excellent, as I expected it would be.
But I’d be interested now to know whether Lord Sumption actually approves of our Hate Speech/Crime laws and, if not, what he proposes to do about it.
It seems clear from the article that he strongly believes in free speech and the advancement of science and human civilisation through trial and error (which means that false – indeed all – ideas must be open to public debate or we make no progress). Likewise that he doesn’t buy into the subjectivism of Foucault.
It is not enough to try to reasure us with this:
“In one case where the police took action against a gender-critical tweeter, the judge remarked that their conduct offended against a “cardinal democratic principle”. “In this country”, he added, “we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.””
That is not evidence that the system is working. Quite the reverse. That case should never have been brought, nor any arrest made, nor any valuable resources wasted.
“Trust the judges” doesn’t cut it for me here. We still need sane and reasonable laws which can be objectively applied.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

But we do have a nascent neo Orwellian Big Brother society. Whats app private app groups are no protection from the Cheka. Look at debanking. Silent anti abortionists. Pro Brex academics. Look how many have been attacked by the state for expressing ‘terf’ opinion? The Great Judge makes the case for free speech. But we not exist in a Utopia. This England locks us up and lets hate mobs march.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

“Ultimately, we have to accept the implications of human creativity. Some of what people say will be wrong. Some of it will be hurtful. Some of it may even be harmful. But there are greater values at stake. We cannot have truth without accommodating error and tolerating the challenge to received ideas. We cannot live together in society without allowing people to say things that other people regard as foolish, hurtful or untrue. It is the price that we pay for allowing human civilisation to advance and flourish. It is worth fighting for.”
Is fairly clear that he views hate speech laws as a mistake. However judges and ex judges do not make the law. Politicians do and the ones we have are far too spineless to do anything about it, indeed most don’t think there is anything wrong.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

But he was around when much of this stuff was introduced and on the Supreme Court. People with experience and authority within the legal profession need to stand up and argue this case – preferably *before* it ever gets to bad legislation (which the idiots in the Houses of Commons and Lords seem to have no trouble creating).
Still, at least he’s doing something now. And more than most.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

For the system to work the legislature (parliament) and the judiciary (judges) must stay in their own places. Judges interpret and apply the laws parliament enacts they must never get involved in making or disagreeing with them.
As a Lord and an ex judge Sumption is now in a position to push back, but it is generally frowned upon for ex judges to do so. He has already gone further than he really feels it is his place.
Let’s hope he can continue to do so now he has finished his book on the 100 years war.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Not quite that simple in practice. In our case law system, there are frequently gaps and oversights in the laws which judge interpretation them makes de facto statute law under case law (precedent). A lot of law seems to be enacted this way – rather too much for my liking.
The legal profession are in some respects the customers of the laws parliament chooses to enact. They surely need to have some way to influence the quality of what their supplier is delivering to them. If they are supplied bad tools, they need to say so.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Certain cases do lead to a change in the law but that is done by parliament – not a perfect system and generally takes too long, but the last thing we want is unaccountable lawyers (who have all gone to universities where woke nonsense is now rife) and judges (who come from being lawyers) making or amending laws. Some judges do make erroneous and biased judgments, which are later corrected by the appeals court.
Is any of this perfect or fool proof – no.
The answer is, as Lord Sumption says, for us not to be cowed and where we are denied our right to raise it with our MP – again not perfect but it is the democratic system and we cannot save liberal democracy by being illiberal or undemocratic.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

“For the system to work the legislature (parliament) and the judiciary (judges) must stay in their own places.” I’m not sure this normally admirable principle of our constitution can hold when the legislature fails to recognise the need for laws to be objectively decidable. When laws are made that depend on the subjective feeling of the ‘victim’, is there then any place for the judiciary at all? These are paradigm examples of bad law and I want judges to speak out against them, particularly those of the intellectual heft of Lord Sumption.

Lewis Eliot
Lewis Eliot
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

The man on the Clapham omnibus still has mileage for me, Peter:
“The Clapham omnibus has many passengers. The most venerable is the reasonable man, who was born during the reign of Victoria but remains in vigorous health. Amongst the other passengers are the right-thinking member of society, familiar from the law of defamation, the officious bystander, the reasonable parent, the reasonable landlord, and the fair-minded and informed observer, all of whom have had season tickets for many years.”
ie an objective standard. It’s not much, and it’s been dramatically eroded, but it’s something.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
6 months ago

An excellent essay. I’d only quibble about a couple of points.
“…. although God no longer has much to do with it.” The Christian God might not have much to do with it but the Gods of some other religions are central to it.
“… gender is determined at birth.” I’m surprised Lord S let that sneak in. Sex – not gender – is determined at conception – not birth.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
6 months ago

Forensic as ever. I’m all in on the trans debate. The vitriol is strident, often abusive, invariably biologically illiterate, and much else. But you just grow a thicker skin and you create allies. Alignment to fellow travellers (in my case Sex Matters) has also been amazing and donations are tax deductible. Pick your battle, plant your flag.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

There have been fanatics throughout history that have tapped into fairly widespread ideas and sought to impose them through force on everyone. In more theologically religious times a particular widespread notion regarding the afterlife has prevailed and the fanatic has sought to suppress ideas that might imperial the immortal soul of their fellow men. The result has been religious wars and burning at the stake.

In more modern times particular fairly popular notions regarding the way to order societies for the best have been pursued with fanaticism so that the desire to have a more equal world has lead to the slaughter and starvation of millions under the Soviet system. In Germany the widespread notion that under capitalism the Jews seemed to be getting a disproportionate share was translated by the fanatics of the German National Socialist Workers Party into genocidal policy. The ideas behind these totalitarian policies were enforced with fanatical rigour. Questioning the ideas could be a death sentence because they had become of existential importance.

Of course even a fairly totalitarian religion such as Islam has prevailed for periods of history in some societies without fanaticism and a willingness to tolerate other religions. So belief itself does not lead inexorably to fanaticism.

Today popular notions such as the destruction of human life through global warming can result in policies being imposed with fanatical rigour and you have fanatics who will block roads in a manner that can lead to individual deaths that are justified by the thought that millions more will be saved if their policy is adopted. Even the notion of kindness can be perverted by the fanatic who wishes to impose their notion of what that kindness should involve to cancel and suppress. Lockdown was the imposition of a popular idea as to how to deal with the pandemic with fanatical and unquestioning zeal.

To the fanatic nothing is more important than imposing their view as to what will make life better for mankind. The Enlightenment in the West ushered in a period when the fanatics of religion were sidelined and while belief in the afterlife still widely prevailed it was not sought to be imposed with fanaticism. The idea that popular ideas might sometimes be wrong became much more accepted.

It is, of course, quite difficult for many to accept the thought that a particular idea they have may not be so true and so important that it should not be imposed on others with fanatical zeal. Scepticism is not a particularly natural state despite the fact that any real reflection regarding one’s knowledge can only reveal the shallowness of its basis.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago

The advent of social media meant that sexual perverts and other kinds of deviants were able to find each other and form powerful political movements backed by wealthy sponsors who sought to use them for their own agenda. As such they are able to rapidly form (online) mobs and shut down speech they disagree with through character assassination.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 months ago

I respect such opinions while noting the phenomenon of Islamic State as an online radical movement that groomed young people into becoming volunteers for international terror groups and militias.
Pro-Hamas demonstrations also lend a veneer of respectability to terrorism. The response of the state should be to uphold free speech, demonstration and association while incriminating public actions that inspire violence and support terror.
If a sleight of hand is involved here, then all well and good because Islamic State was a disaster for British society and the Left taking on the cause of Hamas could be the same.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago

All hail the great Judge. I do not dispute anything here about free speech. But as Frosty is arguing today, is there not a difference between the right of intellrctual free speech and the rights of public street protest?? They are not the same surely. What maddens is the way in which mass regular street protest and the smaller Just Stop Oil protesters deny us myriad rights. The right to drive freely down those streets. The right to walk down central London streets without encountering baying mobs. Never mind what their banners say. We must see why this – and the Grooming Horror and terror lapses – all happen
Our progressive New Order DOES give extra legal privilege to non whites like the Lockdown Horse Bashing BLM and now the nasty What Pogrom? Anti Israel throng. Suella was right – her State laws help (encourage?) the Nine Victim Groups to assert themselves (beware terfs,) and to disregard the wider society rights and freedoms (as well as basic respect for our Armistice). The weedy State Militia are only expressing the Victim v Oppressor Bias in our Equality Laws and trying to yelp…We aint Steucturak Raycists! We have Pro Hamas guys in Ops Room and CPS too!!!! . Now both free speech and our right to access the streets are under spotlight – hurrah. But note the difference. And remember Labours new Race Equaliyy Laws will go further in censoring any criticism of Islam and those hateful marchers. Dark days.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
6 months ago

I appreciate this essay on many fronts, and especially the call to individual courage in speaking what we believe and standing for free speech. Thanks to the author.
One caveat: He and the rest of us who are gender critical should avoid using “gender” when we are talking about sex. Rational people and sane science know sex in humans is binary; we are immutably male or female, and even the vanishingly small number of intersex individuals can usually be described as such through the gamete — sperm or ova — their bodies are designed to produce. Historically, law and policy have been based on sex, not “gender,” and rightly geared toward protecting females.
“Gender” is a social construct, not a biological fact, and the term is used in different ways by different people. For instance, many of us who are clear that sex is binary acknowledge that people express gender — because it is socially constructed and culturally defined — along a continuum. That does not change their sex, and we should not indulge any nonsense — including pronoun narcissism — that suggests otherwise.
We need to be clear and exacting in our language, if we are to protect (or in many cases, restore) the rights of girls and women, whose single-sex spaces are now trespassed by males who say they are female, and also protect minors — many of whom are gay — from being deluded by this ideology.

Last edited 6 months ago by Colorado UnHerd
Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
6 months ago

Well, I think the word “gender” actually refers to type, which refers to birth. The modern usage is, indeed, intended to confuse the meaning. It appears to be intended to mean behaviour, especially in regard to typical sexual behaviour. So men can choose to behave as women. Their behaviour does not signify that they are women. I can choose to behave as a door. I can demand my right to be treated as a door. That does not make me a door.

Last edited 6 months ago by Rachel Taylor
Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
6 months ago

It’s too late. We are now in zero sum politics. Liberalism is over. It may come back – but only once a framework of shared values, taboos and sense of the sacred is re-established. The limits of free speech and all those other liberal shibboleths were never legal, but largely unconscious, cultural virtues….inherited from Christendom. Liberalism itself – and free speech in particular – is corrosive, without that strong containing vessel. And progressives and smashed it. They may come to regret this

SĂžren Ferling
SĂžren Ferling
6 months ago

Here it is rightly claimed, with reference to great older thinkers, that we are in the midst of a primitivization of culture into something more originally universally human – not a further pleasant acquaintance.
I think you should remember that it is a development that was set in motion in the 70s with ‘The Long Walk through the Institutions’ at the universities, from which this neo-Marxist ideology, through lower educational institutions, has seeped down through society to the innermost nursery school child.
This is why we now have a few generations rejecting the ideals of the Enlightenment. The neo-Marxist ideology, like religious currents, believes in being able to recognize through revelation.
After the shift from economic to cultural Marxism in the 70s, and especially with the rise of ‘woke’ism’, where one turns the focus to gender and race to find oppressors and the oppressed, the ideology has come to resemble Nazism more. The two ideologies are so fundamentally similar in structure that you can turn communist useful idiots into Nazi dittos with the snap of a finger. You just give them some new slogans and paroles – classic mind-stoppers.
In line with this proposed thinking, the political commentator David Goldman has suggested that neo-Marxism in the woke mutation should perhaps rather be seen as neo-Heideggerism.
The communist thinker Marx and the Nazi thinker Heidegger had in common the notion of knowledge through revelation, and Goldman believes that this is a significant reason for the similarity of the two political trends.

John Riordan
John Riordan
6 months ago

What a brilliant essay – though of course consistent with Lord Sumption’s output in general over the past few years.

“All of these problems have been intensified by a powerful generational divide. A mass of anecdotal evidence suggests that venues, publishers, and other media who shun controversial views are often pushed into it by their junior staff. This rage of a younger generation against their own societies is not wholly irrational. Liberal democracy has always depended on economic good fortune. The turn in the economic fortunes of Western democracies has persuaded a whole generation that they will be the first cohort for many decades who will be worse off than their parents. The postwar generation seems to them to have lived on the fat of the land, deferring intractable issues like climate change, capricious patterns of inequality and poisonous race relations for their children and grandchildren to deal with.”

On this part, I’ve been saying this myself for some time now, and I’m glad that the sentiment is now being stated openly by somebody whose opinions actually get listened to.

The accusation that the “boomer” generation has simply stolen the prosperity of future generations is of course complete bollocks. It is only possible to believe such rubbish by knowing nothing whatsoever about economics. But that’s the whole point: young minds don’t actually know anything, it’s their defining characteristic, which until the past few years has been the starting point for how they grow into skilled and knowledgeable adults, and on occasion innovating something new that contributes to the march of progress.

Now however, younger people see the opportunities to grow in this way increasingly denied them, and we cannot blame them for being angry about it. Their apparent response is of course exactly wrong: they want to cancel freedom of expression and indulge in economic degrowth, which merely guarantees their own future poverty (along with everyone else’s too, it has to be said), but it is nonetheless true that the engine of rising prosperity has stalled, and in doing so appears to have distributed the associated costs in generationally unfair terms.

I do wish there was some way of having an open debate with younger people as part of the so-called ”national conversation”. I can’t help but believe there might yet be a political shortcut to having a shouting match in which young people finally just say “Look, all I really want is a good job and an affordable house to live in”, so that we can all say “Fine, that means building three million new homes and putting a stop to this Net Zero and radical rights nonsense. Do we have a deal? Good, let’s move on then.”

Last edited 6 months ago by John Riordan
Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The strange thing is none of the young people I know (my children and their friends) are the way you and others characterise “young people” these days. Maybe I just have not met enough of them.
There absolutely is a way of having an open debate with younger people – talk to your own children and their friends in an open and understanding manner, understand what their real concerns are; ask them questions and respond to their questions in a non condescending manner.
You do have to pick your moment for doing this to avoid the times when their priority is getting drunk and / or having sex with each other (exactly as young people’s priorities should be, as they are only young once).

John Riordan
John Riordan
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

I do not characterise young people at all. I merely observe what their priorities appear to be in terms of what political beliefs they appear to support – identitarianism, environmentalism, a neo-marxist rejection of free markets, authoritarian instincts etc – and provide an explanation for those changing political attitudes.

What you say here is also true in my experience: when I speak directly to young people, I see little evidence that they possess the ideological tyrannies that seem to emerge collectively on social media. But that doesn’t mean they won’t vote on such principles when the choice appears on a ballot paper.

If that seems implausible, recall the original point I was making, namely that the political beliefs in question stem from the fact that the younger people who hold them are partly excluded from the game that older generations have played until now. Eventually, the younger voter cohorts will vote their way to a draconian solution to remedy the fact they are excluded from the game if democratic free market norms fail to provide a solution first.

Last edited 6 months ago by John Riordan
Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Interesting. When I mention my concerns about how the young have been disadvantaged by things like house prices vs sky high rents and COVID lockdowns, they seem relatively unconcerned.
Maybe this is a middle class thing? I was fortunate enough to be able to protect my children from the worst effects of lockdown and to help them with accommodation costs and so too I guess have their friends’ parents. They all seem to be getting on with their lives relatively happily and I know this cannot be true for all.
We do need to continue to support our children for a lot longer and also continue to teach them the difference between right and wrong.

George Venning
George Venning
6 months ago

It is certainly true (and probably genuinely novel) that noisy activists in a number of areas – most notably trans rights – have temporarily achieved what amounted to an effective veto over large areas of perfectly legitimate speech, much of which would have been seen as common sense only a couple of years ago. And, in that sense, the author is correct.
However, as the argy bargy of trans rights have emerged from the esoteric corners of the internet/academia into the more mainstream discourse. I think it fair to say that the movement’s successes have peaked. Most people are happy to be nice to trans people but not to the point of supporting non-reversible interventions on young children. It was the wildest of wild rides but the wisdom of the crowd will sort it out in the end.
In the meantime, Mill’s original concern with self-righteous majorities and powerful intitutional arbiters of opinion remains as relevant as ever.
Noisy trans activists made for a colourful cast of revolting peasants but they overplayed their hand and their influence has peaked.
Meanwhile, if you read the Twitter files, you will find that the US Government set up a vast parastatal apparatus for de-amplifying (read censoring) information that was not to its taste across a vast array of topics – from war to covid to support for political rivals. Compared to that, noisy trans allies are a bagatelle.
You might think it bananas that XR is allowed to hold up traffic and deface the Rokeby Venus (again). But have you heard about the case of the environmental lawyer Stephen Donziger who won a vast judgement against Chevron, only to get sentenced to a year under house arrest for his failure to turn over legally privileged materials to a judge appointed in a private prosecution by Chevron itself? (Chevron still hasn’t paid out on the original judgement.)
And isn’t it odd that, while 78% of people in this country support an immediate ceasefire in Gaza – the home secretary’s concern is whether a march that begins an hour after the main armistice day commemoration and which goes nowhere near the event itself may somehow, end up defacing the cenotaph – a block of portland stone with no known opinions on the subject.
Self righteous minorities are novel and get a lot of press. But much more significant abuses of free speech of the most ancient type are happening far more quietly all around us.

Last edited 6 months ago by George Venning
Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
6 months ago

As always, an outstanding essay from Sumption. Instead of which, our Parliament will, in the next session, debate a bill to regulate pedicabs.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

I would question the assertion that individualism is in decline. I see no evidence of that. The whole gender thing is a red herring and only really interests the crazies on both sides. I note the place of intolerance of gender identity in an essay in defence of liberalism (and individualism!) though. On the one hand we say that conformity is the enemy of freedom on the other way impose conformity. What benefit does the objective assessment of one’s genitals bring other than forking them off into a particular life experience.
Anyway – what interests me is that it’s market forces at the heart of much of this free speech suppression. There are a couple of immediate aspects to this, firstly that the supposed left argue so forcefully for the erasure of difference to the benefit of the markets and secondly that the primary motivation for the suppression of difference and controversy seems to be increasing sales. Professor can’t say X because students will shun university, publishers can’t write Y because the book won’t sell, commentators can’t comment Z because they’ll lose their meal ticket.
If we are to discuss Foucault’s idea that “what people regard as objective truth or independent opinion is really no more than the product of entrenched power structures” then we surely have to consider that it is not woke lefties but the invisible hand with the power. It just has the power over them too.
It’s noteworthy that Mill wrote of his fear of conformity during the industrial revolution when capitalism started crushing difference and forced humanity into a minute by minute machine led existence.
It’s the deep integration of capitalist logic into our existence that suppresses free speech. The only way to survive is to appeal to the greatest number of consumers and producers possible and not to challenge, disrupt or exclude.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

Quality article.
Could argue his contention individualism less prevalent one of the less convincing points. Many would argue the reverse, and certainly one could see an element of current gender identity debate as exactly that. But that element doesn’t include the crushing of opinions that offend.
Seems to have generated the usual drain-hole of commentariat nonsense on some form of Left wing/Marxian blame for all this. Should watch the censorship on GB News every evening masquerading as Plurality.