Review: Andrew Doyle, Free Speech (2021)

Free speech is under threat. European governments are introducing ‘hate speech’ legislation to curb the spread of objectionable ideas. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are policing what is said online. Campaigners in the USA are calling for revisions to the First Amendment. Have we forgotten why freedom of speech is important? Andrew Doyle intervenes in the discussion over social justice and the limits of acceptable speech to remind us that our right to say what we want matters. The book is short, with only 98 pages of main text. Doyle tackles a variety of topics in short-form chapters (18 in total), each dedicated to a particular concept or element that relates to free speech. In doing so, he argues against the “well-intentioned authoritarian” — someone who wants a fairer society, but is willing to engage in censorship to achieve this. Doyle remains admirably apolitical, positioning himself as a left-wing person trying to reclaim a universal concept that has been adopted by those on the right.

At its best, this book is good a synthesis of some important ideas. Doyle writes well, and his pithy, engaging summaries of key concepts really encapsulate his thoughts. He neatly argues, for example regarding censorship, that “the stifling of speech can have the unintended consequence of making martyrs out of those who have been silenced and enabling them to portray themselves as oppressed tellers of uncomfortable truths”. This is not the only idea that Doyle is able to express succinctly. At its worst, however, this is all the book is. In separating the book into lots of little chapters, the argument is never properly developed. It reads more like a collection of articles or short essays than anything else. This allows other problems to seep through.

Firstly, he fails to properly engage with the range of ideas within the liberal tradition concerning free speech. Most egregiously, Doyle never actually defines what he considers to be ‘free speech’. The concept itself, irrespective of its application, is not uncontested. Is he defending the First Amendment rights of US citizens? Is he defending the definition of free speech that exists in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with all its exceptions and caveats? Does he make the distinction that John Stuart Mill makes between the freedom to hold and discuss an opinion (which should be free), and the mode of expression (which can be controlled)? Or is he adopting John Milton’s definition? He at least defines what free speech is not: he is not defending libel, slander, fraud, perjury, or a host of other crimes “where speech has operated as the mechanism of criminal activity, but is not the crime itself”. The terms need to be properly defined to give the argument precision.

Secondly, there is a failure to properly confront the arguments his opponents are making. Very often are the “well-intentioned authoritarians” discussed in wooly terms. They are not named; their arguments are rarely outlined. One chapter, for example, is a “thought experiment” concerning a speaker visiting a university campus. The visiting speaker is against gay marriage, and the student population protests against the speaker to the degree that the university rescinds the speaker’s invitation. Why Doyle chose to make this a thought experiment is not clear — there are plenty of examples of this happening that might have served as case studies. What’s more, framing this as a thought experiment absolves Doyle of the responsibility of properly characterising his opponent’s position, using their own words and interpreting their argument as charitably as possible. Why does he do this? Is he afraid that we might agree with their position? By not outlining their arguments, he is unable to properly get at their concerns that lead them to be in favour of censorship in the first place. In positioning himself on the defensive, he is unable to offer much in the way of an alternative to these problems. One example is his assertion that anti-bullying measures have led to an overly sensitive population of young people who now demand to be free from offensive speech. Even if this is the case, how then do you solve the problem of bullying? Do attempts to get rid of bullying at school inevitably lead to overly-sensitive adults? Is bullying good? There is a lot to unpack here. Without engaging seriously with the opposing viewpoints, it makes his argument feel as if it is levelled against a straw man, even if this is not the case.

Thirdly, evidence to support his position is not properly interrogated within the main text. They are hidden in the notes at the back — there isn’t even any indication in the text that the reader should refer to the notes (numbered endnotes would be useful). Doyle is better at showcasing his evidence towards the end. Indeed, his chapters on satire and free expression within academia might have served as models for the rest of the book. The Charlie Hebdo case is a particularly chilling example of why freedom of expression is important, and the examples he gives of leaders failing to properly defend the victims of a terrorist incident are very worthy of discussion. There are other examples of students attempting to intimidate their lecturers that he explores. Why this wasn’t done more throughout, and why lots of the examples are relegated to the notes, is confusing. By hiding the evidence, Doyle is unable to properly establish its representativeness (do examples for the US speak for the UK, and vice versa?), nor is he able to discuss their veracity, or any implications of their inherent complexities for his argument. Integrating them within the main text would have resolved these issues, and made his argument much more persuasive.

Finally, cracks form in the argument that create uncomfortable inconsistencies that need to be addressed, or incomplete points that need further development. In the thought experiment, he characterises protest as an attempt to silence. Might it not also be seen as a counter-argument in itself? The speaker might be denied one platform, but it does not deprive them of any other, nor does it rob them of their right to hold their opinion. Further, he criticises the hypothetical protestors for protesting on behalf of gay people, and therefore patronising them. But if they should not worry about patronising gay people by defending them with their speech, why should they worry about patronising them by defending them with protest? Doyle also implies that such no platforming was “understandable” when it was aimed at racists and fascists in the 1970s. It would therefore be understandable when aimed at those who would rob a black person and a white person of their right to marry; why is it not understandable when aimed at people who want to rob gay or lesbian people of their right to marry? A similar problem appears when Doyle defends the “political correctness” of the 1980s and 1990s, which “helped to cultivate a consensus on politeness”. The discussion over acceptable speech today, however, risks devolving into “soft authoritarianism”. Again, the differences between the past and the present, and the reasons why the past was better, need to be properly expanded upon and unpacked in more detail. As a final example, later on he argues that propaganda shouldn’t be banned because it only works on people primed to believe it. This argument needs to be developed further. As it stands, it simply pushes the causal element down the road: how did people come to be primed to believe propaganda? Within this, he argues that we can lay the blame for violence on those giving orders, but not on those who give inspiration for attacks. This is quite a neat distinction, but there is a whole grey area of edge cases that need to be examined here to make this work. What about extremist terrorist content that is actively trying to inspire people and normalise violence, for example? This is another really complicated topic that needs a much more thorough interrogation. The book should have been longer to give Doyle the space to fully develop his points.

Free Speech therefore leaves a lot to be desired. It is all the more disappointing because I actually agree with much of what is said. It is better to have unsavoury opinions out in the open so that they can be criticised. Words are an alternative to violence, not a violence in themselves. Giving the government powers to decide what speech is acceptable (and what isn’t) does open the possibility for these powers to be abused in ways we cannot now imagine. While the encapsulation of these points into well-written paragraphs helps one’s understanding of the concepts, there are too many problems with the argument for these points to properly hit home. If freedom of speech really is under threat, we need the best arguments we can get. Unfortunately, if the intention is to persuade others, this isn’t the book to do it. It may well confirm what you believe but, ironically, if you’re one of the “well-intentioned authoritarians” Doyle speaks of, it probably won’t change your mind.

Andrew Doyle, Free Speech and Why it Matters (London: Constable, 2021), pp. 144.

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