Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Where are today’s Voltaires?

I detest all forms of racism, sexism and bigotry but have no desire for the state to police the opinions of racists, sexists and bigots. I hold, perhaps naively, to George Orwell’s maxim that liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

That makes me something of an oddity, apparently.

I say this because it is increasingly unexceptional for the law to be marshalled for the purposes of silencing those whose opinions we find disagreeable. Like so much in politics, this is not done in a clear and fair-minded manner, but is instead cloaked in euphemism and portrayed as an extension of the very freedom it seeks to squash.

Yesterday I took part in a radio debate with a young lady from the Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign. The debate was amicable enough. I felt, however, that my points were not hitting home.

The argument that I rather unsuccessfully tried to convey was the most basic one: that it is not necessary to agree with a point of view to not want to see it suppressed. Like a broken gramophone record I droned on but could see that I was flailing: whatever I said my opponent was convinced that glossy sheets of paper were responsible for ‘fuelling violence’ and ‘underpinning attitudes that promote violence towards women’ – and should therefore be banned (you may notice that both points are irrefutable).

In writing this I do not wish in any way to belittle campaigns which target sexism in the media. Far from it. In fact, I will support any movement which seeks to combat misogyny and – worst of all – rape apologism. However, I stop at the point where this becomes an argument for directly or indirectly suppressing undesirable publications. First, because that approach does not work – people read lads’ mags because they are stupid; lads’ mags do not create stupid people – but equally because a much bigger principle is at stake: do I want to live in a democratic society or not?

Politics is healthiest when people are democrats before they are socialists, conservatives or liberals. It is at its worst when the democratic process is treated like a bus which one may disembark from at the first opportune moment. Free expression is also the most important component of the democratic principle. I would sooner live under dictatorship with free expression than multi-party democracy without it; principally because any autocracy which permitted free expression would soon collapse, whereas a democracy without free speech would resemble a house without plumbing.

Far more significantly than my small-time radio squabble, on Friday parliament agreed to introduce what is effectively state regulation of the press – albeit via royal charter. As someone who grew up venting his spleen at the likes of the Daily Mail (which both my mother and grandmother insisted on buying ‘for the TV guide’) I should be happy. And yet I am not, for it feels as if we have taken the lazy (and sinister) route of trying to control rightwing newspapers because a small part of us has given up on the more arduous task of trying to persuade people we disagree with that they are wrong.

Considering it is now unexceptional to hear of a person being arrested for a tweet, to argue with someone who believes passionately that a magazine should be suppressed, or to hear on the news that control of the press is passing to the state, there is no question that we are becoming, as a society, more intolerant of dissent.

And it is not hard to see the appeal. It is easier, after all, to evoke lawyerly arguments about the ‘legality’ of an opponent’s wrong opinion than to face it head on and risk being wrong.


James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward and writes a weekly column for Progress. He tweets @J_Bloodworth


Photo: JD Falk

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James Bloodworth

is a journalist and author of The Myth of Meritocracy


  • Ladies for ever tilting at windmills. They would get results by first considering the message they send out by their behaviour/collusion…They need to give up their assumed role of constant seduction in exchange for dignity and respect. 21st century still females draped over motor show cars/ dressed according to orders, to kiss sportsmen on podiums/flashing thighs and cleavage on even the most ‘serious’ of TV programmes/ not raising any objection, or even an eyebrow, on tv or radio ‘entertainment’ shows which portray them as objects/refer to intimate female parts or functions…the list is so very long.

  • As for press freedom, the editor of The New York Times tells us UK press already much less free than US press. We obviously won’t be happy until we have handed all our rights over to Big Brother. It really must be something they have put in our drinking water…

  • perhaps if you had lost a child through suicide as a consequence of online bullying through ganging up on twitter and facebook you might be a little more flexible when you mention arrests made for tweets?

  • If you simply substitute the words: “nasty words” for everything between ‘consequence of’ and ‘you’, (which is all that there is there, in fact) you are arguing that people should be arrested for saying horrible things to other people. Didn’t you read the article? Are you just dim?

  • There are some dreadful cases of online bullying that have led to horrible consequences. We should all be troubled by the anonymity that the internet provides to bullies but I do think it’s legitimate and fair to urge caution and careful consideration when legislating. I say this with the greatest of care because I do appreciate the enormous distress that families in this position must feel but sometimes the effect is not good reason to ban the cause.

    Sadly, there have been suicides related to online bullying but there were suicides among young people caused by bullying before the internet existed. At the age when bullying is most rife, youngsters tend to be as poor at judging the impact of their actions as they are at moderating their feelings. Something that may seem innocuous to an adult (or indeed the author) may be deeply felt by a teenager. However, it is very rare that offline bullying steps across the line into illegality and, at the moment, the same can be said for online. Unfortunately, the potential for misusing any online controls around bullying are, as the OP suggests, quite high. There exists legislation to deal with threatening communications and I think these already work quite well. Equally, there have been some very spurious arrests made around twitter comments using the same legislation which do seem to genuinely threaten democratic free speech.

    Using the power of the state to further curtail uncomfortable communications that may be defined under bullying is troubling for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t believe it would succeed – I think it would more likely be displaced to the playground or elsewhere; education not legislation is a better use of resources. Secondly, as we have seen with misuse of terrorism legislation to detain racially profiled individuals as well as tweeters, there is a tendency for the security services to extend the brief of the intended law. The idea that this could be used to squash unpopular, unwanted or ‘challenging’ opinions is very concerning both due to abuse by security services and politicians worries me greatly.

    As I said, I think the laws already exist to manage truly criminal tweets (as Sally Bercow has learnt to her chagrin) but we, unfortunately, need to be very careful when legislating around issues of bullying since one person’s bullying is the others robust challenge and the potential for misuse in our national debate huge. It is an incredibly difficult area to discuss and legislate for but it is easy to get wrong if awful tragedies lead to knee jerk laws. I can’t help but feel that it is as difficult to make online bullying illegal as it is to make playground bullying illegal. For this reason I think education is the answer. Perhaps legal disclosure of names online would be an answer but that would require international implementation and could lead to the unmasking of activists in totalitarian regimes. Sadly, no easy answers.

  • Hear, hear,

    This crazed right-wing libertarian, for one, applauds your stand. Long may we both be free to disagree with each other and speak our minds.

  • “Perhaps if you have been hurt/upset by (action x) you would approve of criminalising (action x).”

    Identify the fallacy and enthymeme contained in this construct (5 points).

  • Its interesting that you insert an ad hominem element in your observations, my concerns over cyber bully activity are directly related to several recent cases of suicide by young teens as a consequence. As an adult “nasty words” have little consequence but we are not talking about mature adulthood, we are talking about the vulnerable stage of adolescent development. Your trivializing answer completely ignores this. But then I suppose you are perhaps an expert in the area of childhood development as I am? Your reply in addition to being arrogant is also an overgeneralization.

  • I’m certain that you’re an expert, but not in the subject you claim. The point is trivial; the ad hominem remark was in recognition of the fact that it is trivial but you fail to understand that. Verbal communication in every aspect of human life on Earth falls into a part of the spectrum of motive and gain. Very frequently that communication is or appears to be threatening. Sheltering the young from such communication is one of the very worst things anyone can do; fail to expose them to pain and their pain will be hugely magnified later when those who have been exposed see weakness. Only in those countries where the cancer of political correctness is this not recognised, and in those countries the lawyers make enormous profits from the ‘victims’, and the profits will rise on a geometric scale until fools like you and your foolish opinions are comprehensively squashed.

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