A few weeks ago I wrote about how truth has become political. On certain issues, truth is determined more by what is politically necessary rather than the actual evidence. You can see this across a whole range of issues. Earlier today I read a very good article by Frank Furedi, We need scepticism more than ever. There he explains how it is now routine for any kind of voice which dissents from the majority (climate change and lockdowns, for example) to be censored. This is happening more and more.
I have found personally that whenever I post up on social media something which is sceptical of lockdowns, it usually attracts some quite negative comments. It’s not simply that people disagree, it’s more like people think even questioning is dangerous. Many people seem to think it’s reckless and irresponsible to question whether masks are effective, or whether lockdowns are worthwhile, etc. I believe, by contrast, we need free speech more than ever at a time of crisis – I’ll come onto that.
Free Speech is a hugely important value which we must not allow to be lost. If we lose it, we will lose everything that we stand for. Let me briefly explain why I think it’s so important to hold on to.
Free speech treats us as human beings
I’ve just finished reading George Orwell’s novel 1984. Someone in school said that I should read it before I turned 18 – well it’s only taken me another 20 years, but there you go! Better late than never. It’s well worth reading. One of the things which the book majors on is the whole concept of truth.
Winston, the protagonist, works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to ‘correct’ newspapers and other media so that the historic version of the truth aligns with what is politically convenient. History is always being rewritten – sometimes people are written out of history, sometimes people are created, simply for political purposes.
Towards the end of the book (spoiler alert!) Winston gets found out to be a thought criminal. He is arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love for punishment and correction. One of the most fascinating things is the battle between him and O’Brien. O’Brien asks Winston if he can believe anything the party wishes him to believe, such as 2+2 = 5. It really struck me how dehumanising this is: if Winston can be persuaded to set aside what he knows to be true in favour of what The Party say is true, then they have complete control over him. It’s totalitarian.
Actually it reminded me of the scene from the Next Generation episode Chain of Command, where Picard is interrogated and asked: “How many lights are there?”
Human beings, made in the image of God, should have the dignity of freedom. This means not coercing them into believing things, but persuading. This is exactly what God does through the Bible: he sends prophets to warn the people of what would happen if they disobeyed. He does not force them to obey. Free speech and free thought are essential to treat human beings as God’s image bearers.
A lack of free speech causes social problems
One of the biggest and most divisive social issues in the UK has been that of immigration. This is not surprising: a lot of people are not happy with the ‘open borders’ approach which New Labour started back in the late 90s. Different people have different views about immigration – that’s about as surprising as the Pope being a Catholic. However, no public debate is really had about immigration. Most politicians tend to avoid it, because it’s politically “difficult”. Who, after all, would want to be seen as a racist? It’s just better not to raise the issue.
Now, does ignoring an issue make it go away? No! It just goes underground, and then finds outlets in unhealthy ways. Perhaps this explains why the vote for Brexit back in 2016 came as such as surprise to the political class: they simply didn’t realise how strongly people felt, because opinions on important issues had been suppressed.
I was watching a PragerU video earlier, where Dennis Prager said that free speech was an “outlet”. If people feel like they can express themselves, it lets out a lot of tension. If, on the other hand, speech and thought is controlled, if the goverment don’t even acknowledge the existence of different views, it stores up problems which will explode.;
The best way of dealing with divisive issues like immigration is not to sweep it under the carpet but hold an open and honest debate. Let the open borders advocates make the case. Talk about problems like integration or Islam. It would let out a huge amount of tension if people felt that politicians were engaging with different views, rather than only allowing one mainstream political view within goverment.
Free speech is necessary for knowledge
Every scientific advance has come about because someone, somewhere, decided to question the status quo. Think about Galileo, for example. Until then, it had been established orthodoxy that the sun revolved around the earth. Galileo thought that didn’t fit with the evidence – unfortunately, he wasn’t treated very well.
Sadly, that still happens today. The physicist Max Planck observed, “science advances one funeral at a time”: people are emotionally attached to their ideas and theories. When things change – perhaps when new evidence is discovered – they don’t just change their mind. A big change needs a new generation to grow up who are not so emotionally attached to the previous orthodoxies.
I heard of a doctor at the start of the 20th century who started treating victims of heart attack differently. The wisdom of the day was to have them lying down on their backs for about 6 weeks – the idea being, it was better to try to rest the heart to recover. He started sitting them up for an hour a day, just to be able to look out of windows. He encountered a fair bit of resistance – including, apparently, a group of interns in the hospital who would come and give him Nazi salutes! But his thinking differently paved the way for an improvement in treatment.
This is why free speech is so important: existing orthodoxies must be challenged in order for progress to happen. And even if it’s not progress, it’s important for knowledge to develop. For example, the Christian faith literally invented orthodoxy and heresy. Did you know that we only have the creeds because of heresy? The creeds developed because people asked questions. Asking questions was actually helpful in coming to a right understanding.
I can’t stress enough how important it is. When questions are suppressed, so is knowledge. When questions and free thought are encouraged, knowledge can flourish.
Why free speech is necessary for covid
I said at the start that free speech was a vitally important thing, even during a crisis. In fact, it’s doubly important during a crisis. Why? Because every decision you make will have a big impact. Think about the impact lockdowns are having – in all sorts of ways. We’re currently in the worst recession for 300 years. In a crisis, we desperately need people to ask important questions – that’s what the opposition and the media are for.
It would be so easy in a crisis, if you’re not looking at all the information coolly and rationally, to panic and go down a rabbit hole. Free speech helps to mitigate against that.
Think about it. What if:
- lockdowns are not actually effective in controlling a virus (there is scientific evidence which suggests that it is not)?
- lockdowns cause more collateral damage than any good they may do?
- masks actually do more harm than good?
- keeping people away from their family, friends, and support networks, and keeping them stressed out with constant messages of fear is making things worse?
- asymptomatic transmission (the idea that you can have the virus with no symptoms and pass it on to others) is actually much less common than commonly thought?
What if EVERY government intervention on Covid is actually making things worse rather than better?
This is why free speech matters so much. If we are not free to question, if all we can do is nod along to whatever the authorities decide because it’s “dangerous” to question, then we are in danger ourselves of running off a cliff. You could say the same about other issues like climate change, or just about anything contentious.
If questioning becomes dangerous, then – ironically – we put ourselves in far greater danger. I’d rather live in a society where people were free to question and occasionally get things wrong than a society where we had to toe the line on everything. I hope you would too.
This is why I believe we must stand up now for free speech.