One of the great things about living in an enlightened Western democracy is the emphasis that is placed upon individual liberty and free expression. It is something that we, who are fortunate enough to live in such a society, often take for granted. If history has taught us anything, it is that freedom usually comes at a great cost. Be it fighting against the evils of fascism and communism in the 20th century, or the American Revolution in the 18th, our past has shown us time and time again that liberty often comes at the price of human life.
Ultimately, we all know this. Anyone lucky enough to have been on a school trip to France will undoubtedly have seen the rows of graves that span the beaches of Normandy. Each one is a reminder that our freedoms only exist because of the millions who came before us, who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
This is why, amongst other reasons, freedom of speech must be protected against all those who try to stifle it. It is too precious and hard-earned to simply throw away because we don’t like what some people have to say. Free speech is how we promote good ideas and discredit bad ones. It applies to all of us, not just those with politically correct views. This is largely for two reasons: firstly, it is a legal entitlement and not a privilege, and secondly, it allows us to expose regressive points of view, and challenge them to the extent that only a fool would want to subscribe to them.
In October 2009, the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, appeared on the BBC One show Question Time. Based on his outwardly racist and morally repugnant views, his appearance sparked major outrage. There were protests from various organisations prior to his appearance, suggesting that giving Mr Griffin this platform would allow his hateful ideology to grow and spread across the nation. Outside the studio, demonstrators stood and protested against the BBC’s decision to allow Mr Griffin to speak on the show. There was a widely held belief that this move would vastly increase support for the British National party.
In January 2015, Nick Griffin filed for bankruptcy. In the 2015 general election, the BNP received less than 0.1% of the vote. In a country of 64 million people, only 1,667 of the population voted for the British National Party. So despite being given the platform on one of the largest political shows in the country and despite his ability to speak openly and run in an election, Nick Griffin and his party of racists are now an insignificant speck on the political map. Not only was this a victory against racism, it was a victory for freedom of speech.
It was only thanks to free expression that we were able to see Nick Griffin’s ideology for what it really was, and it was only thanks to free expression that over 99.9% of the population were able to stick two fingers up to him and vote for someone else.
The fact is that free speech is not a privilege awarded to those who say socially acceptable things, it is a right that people have fought and died for all over the world. That means that even someone with views found deplorable and offensive still has the right to say whatever they like. As stated in the beginning, this is the gift of living in a free, post-enlightenment society. If I don’t like the views someone has, I have every right to question and criticise them. It is only through free speech that we expose and counter bad ideas. Censoring bad ideas not only prevents us from fighting them, it allows them to grow. Every time you stop a racist from speaking their mind, you increase resentment amongst those susceptible to subscribing to such ideologies. The only way we can actually combat racism or sexism, or any other bigoted view, is by allowing people to put it out in the open, where it can be ridiculed and demolished by all those with better views.
With few exceptions, the freest societies are the best places to live. They allow for true individual liberty, with the rights of the individual placed above popular consensus. Free speech is no exception to this. It is through our ability to speak openly and express our beliefs that we are able to create a better world for everyone to live in. This is why it must be protected at all costs, and why so many have already died trying to do just that.
By Freddie Gough