Free speech, censorship & the right to be wrong…



Do we have a responsibility to silence views we consider morally repugnant or simply untrue? Claims that the Holocaust didn’t happen are insane and revolting. Should we prevent people from airing those views? Refuse to debate with them? Should we declare that some opinions do not deserve to be heard?

It’s a good question. Not an easy one to answer maybe. It’s offensive to listen to people excusing or even denying hideous crimes against humanity. The instinct is that they should be stopped somehow. That’s why questioning the reality of the Holocaust is a crime in some countries.

But what about the other side of that? If we – however honourably – designate any opinion to be worthy of unconditional censorship have we not created a dreadful precedent? Holocaust-denial might be a no-brainer for condemnation – but what about “HIV-denial”? “climate-denial?”

In fact “Denialism” is now a designated pathology that could probably be adapted for almost any contingency. The latest one is “vaccine-denial”, made trendy by the recent reporting on the documentary VAXXED: from cover up to catastrophe:

I haven’t see this film, which created much media hysteria and was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, so I can’t comment on its merits. But I can’t help noticing that the recent media storm that followed when the film’s director, Andrew Wakefield, dared to visit the UK for a private screening, had less to say about the evidence for or against the MMR/autism connection and more about how Wakefield ought to be censored.

David Robert Grimes was quoted thus in the Telegraph:

giving Mr Wakefield a platform on vaccines is a grievous mistake, given that we’re still reeling from the damage his falsehoods inflicted on public health….Not only are his claims devoid of evidence, they are vividly disproven by the overwhelming scientific data to date.

Meanwhile the Independent reported with apparent approval that the organisers of the screening had found it very difficult to get any venue to host the event.

The Curzon cinema in Soho and the European Parliament were previously lined up as venues for the event…but these were abandoned following criticism and attendees were told to make their way to Regent’s University London hours before it began.

Leaving nothing ambiguous about how we are supposed to view this man, the Indy’s piece ran with the screaming headline:

…MMR fraud doctor Andrew Wakefield ‘returns to UK for secretive screening of anti-vaccine film…

Let’s remember – Wakefield is not a Soviet era traitor or a multiple child-murderer. He’s just the man who has (allegedly, I haven’t researched it in total depth) had his research debunked.

Unsurprisingly Regents University, the unhappy hosts of last resort, quickly caught on to the witch-hunt message and promptly fell into line, saying:

Oh indeed. We can be sure RU will be very careful to check with prevailing media hate-lists before it decides what ideas can be aired on its premises in future. And, with any luck, after this roasting no one will agree to host another screening of this film anywhere – so we will all be saved from the danger of further cognitive dissonance.

But hold on – if Wakefield’s claims are really “devoid of evidence” etc. then why do we need to be protected from them? Why is the new reflexive response not to point out his mistakes or lies, but to demand he be silenced? Is anything good derived from that? If he is talking nonsense, so what? Let him talk and be exposed for what he is.

Silencing him only makes him a martyr instead of a liar. If he’s telling the truth, or some potential truth at least, he deserves to be heard and we deserve to hear him.

I don’t know about you but I don’t feel completely comfortable with the idea that questioning the potential danger of vaccines should be ruled a priori inadmissible. What moral ground can justify that?
The same can be said about that other trendy “d” issue – “climate-denial”. I put my cards on the table here as a former member of the Green party and longstanding eco-bore.

Obviously I have a natural sympathy for anyone who wants to save the planet from our rapacious consumption, but I still don’t understand why we are supposed to approve the BBC Trust’s advice to its staff not to give “undue attention to marginal opinions” on science matters, with particular reference to climate change.

Who can read this lamentable bit of Newspeak and think it’s going anywhere good?

“…The coverage of science by the BBC continues to be a hotly debated issue. One of the key findings of the report which still resonates today is that there is at times an:

.. ‘over-rigid’ (as Professor Jones described it) application of the Editorial Guidelines on impartiality in relation to science coverage, which fails to take into account what he regards as the ‘non-contentious’ nature of some stories and the need to avoid giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’. Professor Jones cites … the existence of man-made climate change as [an] example of this point.”

This is a matter of training and ongoing shared editorial judgement. The Trust notes that seminars continue to take place and that nearly 200 senior staff have attended workshops which set out that impartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, but depends on the varying degree of prominence (due weight) such views should be given.”

Incredibly this inference that the BBC was being directed to suppress most, if not all, “climate denial” from its coverage was greeted in the media and elsewhere as a great step forward. presented it as a move to “improve accuracy”. As recently as September 2016 the Guardian was welcoming the BBC’s attempts to censor “denialists”, but was worried it wasn’t going far enough:

While the BBC no longer gives climate denial and science equal air time, it continues to struggle with creeping false balance

Hmmm…but isn’t this sort of pre-selection what makes the difference between information and propaganda? Isn’t it exactly to prevent this that the BBC’s (ignored) charter requires “balanced” reporting?

Ah no. Remember that crucial word “false” quoted above. You’ll find it in several outlets that report on this question. It turns out, you see, that not all balance is actually, well…balanced. It appears in fact that some balance is actually unbalanced – and very very dangerous, because it can make people confused about what is true and what is not true…

Judging the weight of scientific agreement correctly will mean that the BBC avoids the ‘false balance’ between fact and opinion identified by Professor Jones. The Trust welcomes the Executive’s decision to hold a further course this year for staff who may not have been in position at the time of the previous workshops and as a refresher on a complex area.

How long did it take you to spot that this was weasel-worded balderdash? The “false balance between fact and opinion”?

Oh please.

All science, all analysis of anything is inevitably a mix of fact and opinion. You present your facts and draw conclusions from them. Being human you probably tend to select those facts which support your view and elide those that don’t. But that’s ok. It’s fine – provided we have an open forum where all opinions – and consequently all facts – can be presented. Once you decide only certain opinions and/or facts are acceptable you are nothing but a propagandist – even if what you are propagandising for happens to be objectively true.

You see – newsflash – being right doesn’t entitle you to censor everyone who is wrong. That’s the central safeguard against tyranny, because even truth would be a tyranny if it didn’t allow opposition. Free speech – real free speech – has to include the right to be wrong, rude, stupid, offensive and a lying jerk. Because once you outlaw any of that – you’ve effectively ended free speech for all of us forever.

Just as a thought experiment, what do you think would be made of an exiled Russian doctor being treated, by the Russian media and political Establishment, in the way Andrew Wakefield was treated here in the West? How many thousands of words would Luke Harding fire off about the egregious example of totalitarianism exemplified by the man’s inability to find a host for his screening, and the media hounding of the only venue that stepped up? And he’d be right too up to a point.

It is potentially totalitarian to assume that certain opinions can be outlawed simply on the basis of what they are. Yet we make that assumption now, here in the west, every day. Without even seeing what we do. As David Scott points out so eloquently in Defending the Indefensible

“…This is how the game is played. Some extreme view is suggested as a straw man. It may be a view held by only a handful of powerless, marginalised people in the entire country. It may be a view that exists only in the fevered imagination of the social justice warrior (SJW) who poses the challenge; it might in fact be held by no one at all. You will be asked to condemn it. You will be asked to agree that the viewpoint in question is so appalling that is should never be heard. If you do not agree to this proposition, you will be condemned yourself as a supporter of that marginal or imaginary viewpoint, or an apologist for it. You will be called nasty names.

…The most popular weaponised names are Misogynist, Antisemite, Homophobe, Conspiracy Theorist, Racist, Fascist, Nazi and, funnily, “Literally Hitler”.

Let us be honest: that paints a pretty unappealing picture. There are few of us who would not be hurt and offended to be called such things. So we yield instead, just a little. We move off the high principle of freedom of speech, we condemn the marginal in our society, for they are weak after all and can do us no harm. We live another day without being condemned and socially shamed. We move a little closer to the swamp; we become a little more cowed; a little more cowardly. The process is repeated daily, even hourly, via the BBC, the Guardian, the Times, and the Independent.

It is echoed in the street and in the pub. It is reinforced by celebrity tantrums at glamorous award shows. If all else fails, it is defended by the sticks, stones, boots and fists of the black clad thugs who take to the streets to “protest” against “hate”. Incrementally, little by little, freedom dies. Truth, a difficult concept which needs oxygen to thrive, is suffocated in such conditions.”

In this context of creeping intolerance, the word “denial” or “denier” is being used to lever us away from reason, in fact the perceived pathology of “denial” is now a rationale for wholesale disengagement from the process of debate.

“…Whatever the motivation, it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic.

A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules. Yet it would be wrong to prevent the denialists having a voice. Instead, we argue, it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics they employ and identifying them publicly for what they are. An understanding of the five tactics listed above provides a useful framework for doing so.

Don’t debate the facts, in other words, just turn the very act of questioning (which is often what is meant by “denial” in this context) into a symptom of mental derangement.

Stalin would have been proud to work with these people.

Do we even see the focus narrow, the field of acceptable discourse grow smaller and smaller? Do we see how polarisation and belief take the place of debate and the willingness to entertain new or challenging ideas? Public discussion now is terrifyingly constrained and entirely driven by what is called “consensus”, whose condition of reality is never checked or evaluated. Do these consensus beliefs reflect truth? Who knows? Who cares? Who any longer dares to ask? We are all told and all obediently believe. Opinions are acquired in bulk and sans data.

Doubt is increasingly a dirty word, the corrupt tool and necromancy of dark and benighted Others who don’t think right – like proper people do.

The real evil of the new liberal agenda is that it, even if unintentionally, promotes the very ignorance, prejudice, hysteria and hate it claims to oppose.

So, to answer the question posed in my opening paragraph. No. I don’t think we do have a responsibility to silence views we consider morally repugnant or simply untrue. In fact I think we have the responsibility to defend their right to exist and be heard – however wrong and repulsive they might be. I think a lie is better opposed with truth than censorship, and nothing can ever be so true that evidence doesn’t matter any more.

The really frightening thing is that not so very long ago this would not have needed to be said.


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