Andrew Doyle came to my notice through his Titania McGrath twitter handle which, at times convoluted, is often a simple direct and suitably pithy put down of ill thought through woke signalling. His Culture Wars podcast gave him room to discuss in depth critical race theory which no doubt contributed to this slim volume. This is a timely book on capturing the state of the nation around free speech.
Early on Andrew Doyle sets out how the definition of social justice has changed due to a new identity-based conceptualisation bringing with it a mistrust of unfettered speech. He goes on to point out how this has given us the confusing and rare phenomenon: the well-intentioned authoritarian. With authoritarianism comes censorship – or as it has now been termed – cancellation.
Andrew Doyle gives the example of the hate crime issue in the UK that can lead to an individual having a police record without recourse to defence. The Big Brotherish phrase uttered by the police “we need to check your thinking” raises questions about the direction of police resources.
The right to free speech can now lead to loss of income where a supposed hate crime appears on a DBS record and is used as reason not to employ a person. It would have had impact to have included stories about the impact on people’s lives of police cases. He returns to this theme later in the book about hate speech and the police’s operational guidance instructing officers to record hateful incidents ‘irrespective of whether there is any evidence to identify the hateful element” a clear deviation from the rule of law in the UK into subjective territory.
There is an ongoing debate about the role of big tech – how a small cartel of companies now act as the town hall for public debate in individual countries: YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. This extends beyond their ethics into a public service role. Companies once cheerleading freedom of speech have now blundered their way into navigating social justice.
Yet bigtech refuses to spend money on forum admin: I have seen personally of how individuals are banned (by algorithms?) for use of language quoted from songs but completely unrelated to any debate. On the other hand recent cases have demonstrated what Andrew Doyle terms partisan censorship – are the companies playing to their shareholder gallery with their high profile decisions over Trump et al? Andrew Doyle offers little in the way of solutions than not leaving it in the hands of an oligopoly.
Andrew Doyle steps into important territory on the role of state in free speech and the history of misuse of well intended legislation: “I am persuaded that the dangers of empowering the state to determine the limitations of expression far outweigh the risk of small groups of extremists attempting to proselytise.” He makes the case of reasoned argument – the sleeping giant of the majority. This could have been analysed through examples – why do a small minority shout louder than the majority?
The flipside to this is defending the right of the person opposite you to have their point of view even if it offends you personally. There are social parameters to what is offensive in society which change over time, yes, but otherwise what happened to pluralism?
Andrew Doyle quotes the Thomas Paine Dissertation on First Principles of Government (1795): “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” This is more important than ever when those that speak up have to endure the weight of anger against them that they feel like the minority – teachers, lecturers, novelists – it would have been useful to have explored these examples.
Andrew Doyle brings up the serious matter of the use and impact of legislation in particular whether hate laws work. He raises the Communications Act 2003 that has been misused for contentious opinions and even jokes. He questions whether the state can be trusted with the authority to impede speech. The government is a politicised machine but the actual concern is the interpretation by police that politicises their behaviour into new areas.
The issue of offence is brought up again by Andrew Doyle when he quotes Greg Lukianoff on the expectation of emotional and intellectual comfort as a right. With the importation of safe spaces from America this has led to the introduction of cancel culture and no-platforming in universities. Again, human stories would have been useful here – to what extent has higher education been affected? This is the new standard that emotional discomfort has become equated to physical violence and the right not to be offended. This is a force that has dropped freedom of speech as unnecessary and will eventually I imagine ultimately eat itself with its own argument.
There was an age in the eighties and nineties when the outlying movements were anti-racism campaigns – addressing genuine far right groups – and political correctness which moved a lot of outdated language out of common usage and is not accepted today. Many of those people actively involved in those movements would genuinely struggle with what Andrew Doyle calls the “sledge hammer tactics of contemporary cancel culture” – you are with us or against us – something that could have been explored more.
Ultimately, whilst well argued the reality is that there is a force at large that takes a very difficult view to Andrew Doyle. The weaknesses in the volume are that those views are not directly approached and given space to articulate their arguments; which makes the book somewhat lop-sided in making its case.
In spite of the cogent arguments there are no real deep dives into the different areas and human stories. This left me with the feeling the book is not that far away from a collection of the articles he occasionally writes for The Critic. The book finishes early as there are extensive journalistic references.
That said this book is an important contribution to balance the debate and raises the need for more debate around the impact of cancel culture on people’s lives. An update to this book is already writing itself – the rebellion by members of the National Trust against the claim of a “woke takeover”, the backlash against Stonewall by state departments because of its interpretation of equalities legislation, the introduction of legislation to require free speech and academic freedom in higher education, and the government sponsored report into racism in the UK. Get writing, Andrew.