Are countries witnessing a decline in liberty and free speech?

(Photo: CrowdJustice)

By Alex Meredith – Regular Contributor

Two weeks ago, yet another terrorist attack was inflicted on Europe on the streets of Paris, with a well-liked schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, beheaded in the streets after he was teaching his pupils about freedom of expression. The main trigger for this attack was him showing cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed to his pupils in class, leading him to be identified and followed by a lone suspect before stabbing him multiple times and beheading him, before being shot by police. Following this, a similar attack occurred in the French city of Nice, in which three people were killed by, as described by Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, an ideologue of “Islamo-fascism”.

This is not the first time a deadly attack has taken place in response to mockery of a particular ideology or religion, let alone in the same city. In January 2015, a shooting in the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, leaving twelve dead, was carried out after it published several cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed. This outlet is known to publish material that mocks or undermines political and religious leaders. Yet as 2020 progresses, is it becoming clear that freedom is no longer a sanctity to be taken for granted in many countries that once prided themselves on freedom of speech, liberty, along with the ability to peacefully agree to disagree without resorting to violent means? How are the concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ emphasised in European and American laws? How might governments address such issues going forwards?

In order to first understand Liberty, it is essential to start off with the quote made by the famous novelist George Orwell; “If Liberty means anything at all, it is the right to tell someone what they do not want to hear”. This simple yet perhaps increasingly controversial statement suggests one thing in principle – the penalty of individuals having the ability to think, speak, or act freely, is that it will inevitably cause offence to others who think differently, yet happen to intercept that view. In such a case, that person is free to use their own freedom of expression to challenge that view and hold one accountable for the set of beliefs they possess. In an ideal scenario, and certainly one in which would be compatible with the values of a liberal democratic society, a debate would emerge between the two sides in establishing their set views, why they think their view is superior, and most crucially of all, why they think the alternative view (i.e. what the other person is arguing), is flawed in comparison. In the end, it is up to those involved in such a discussion, to determine whether one changes their mind and sides alongside their former opponent, or both remain in disagreement on the topic at hand, yet accept their differences and move on as citizens in the same society.

The inability however, for one to accept the alternative view, and thus resorting to oppressive and violent tactics in order to completely destroy the opposing view, results in tyranny and a high degree of intolerance of the inability to think critically. Instead, such a case promotes a culture of being taught what to think, whereas I believe it is being taught how to think that should be heavily encouraged and normalised within societies that claim to be liberal, democratic, peaceful, tolerant, and most importantly of all, free.

Of course, if history has taught us anything, it is that such forms of oppression are more common than one might think, and how it is important to spot the signs whereby it may seem as though the ability for people to freely express their views is under substantial threat. Take Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China for example. Despite personal political views differing within each society, whether on the authoritarian right (Fascism) or on the authoritarian left (Communism), one thing they all had in common was that they intended to create a one-sided political dimension of how their societies would operate. This often had lethal consequences for individuals who chose to express alternative views or disagree with the ideology of their leaders, to the extent that secret police forces were often established to ensure citizens were following suit on what their government wanted. Furthermore, as contemporary authoritarian countries such as North Korea have shown with their extreme censorship of dissenting views, liberty in free societies is essential to avoid tyrannical rule, and so any attempt made to hinder someone who presents a particular view (providing they are not inciting violence or deliberate hatred based on individual characteristics) should be stopped and placed in line with Orwell’s remarks that one is legally entitled to offend another, as this is the sacrifice for freedom.

Yet as a recent example in the UK shows, the idea of a ‘First Amendment’ that exists within the US that protects even hate speech, provides a clear distinction between the values of ‘equality’ that is proclaimed across the UK and Europe, and the values of ‘liberty’ that is proclaimed across America. Conservative commentator Darren Grimes is currently under police investigation for allegedly stirring up racial hatred under the 1986 Public Order Act (one in which political opponents such as Ash Sarkar have called unnecessary and unfair), following his interview with historian David Starkey in the summer, who is also currently being investigated. Starkey made remarks regarding slavery and the existence of people of colour within many societies, one that led to major condemnation, the removal of Starkey’s academic credentials, titles, and publishers, along with an apology for his statement. Yet despite not inciting the statement or encouraging Starkey to state it himself, many were critical at the fact that Grimes failed to adequately challenge Starkey on his views and seemed to allow it to continue, which gave the impression that he agreed with what Starkey was saying, despite going on to acknowledge that he wished he would have challenged Starkey in greater detail, and would have done so if he was to repeat the interview. Yet the existence of the 1986 Public Order Act would mean that if either individual is to be found guilty of inciting racial hatred, they could each face a prison sentence of up to seven years. No such law exists in the U.S due to the extreme protection of the First Amendment that guarantees all forms of freedom of expression for each of its citizens, as has been repeatedly ruled multiple times by the U.S Supreme Court. Such clear distinctions between both countries clearly demonstrate the contrasting conceptions of liberty and equality, and the blurring of freedom of expression based on how a particular country interprets such law. Indeed, the 2020 Scottish Hate Crime Bill has been viewed by many as a pure attack on free speech and one that would be incompatible with the political system of the United States, as the Bill includes criminalising the ability for one to criticise one’s identity or mock a particular ideology or religious belief, even within a performance or film. In this context, Harry Potter author JK Rowling would likely be investigated for her views on trans rights.

Overall, it appears as though liberty is arguably in crisis in many democratic nations, to the point where controversial views and the teaching of freedom of expression in particular ways, can result in there being significant consequences for those involved, as recent examples in free countries have shown. Despite the importance of tackling Covid-19 and the sincere economic challenges that come with it, it is even more fundamental for governments to continue to ensure that the ability for liberty and free speech remains paramount for all of its citizens, in order to encourage peaceful debate on key issues and for non-censorship to prevail on controversial topics that are likely to offend certain groups. The subsequent creation of ‘cancel culture’ that this censorship develops for those involved, is heavily incompatible with the values of free democratic societies, and if freedom of expression is to survive in its fullest form as it has done continually, it must be taken more seriously by domestic and international governments going forwards.

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