16th July 2021
This was a remarkable tweet:
On Tuesday a contributing presenter took the knee live on air and this was an unacceptable breach of our standards.
— GB News (@GBNEWS) July 15, 2021
You really would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain.
It would appear GB News are in favour of ‘free speech’! – but not that free speech.
It was wrong sort of free speech.
How do those who say they are arguing from first principle get into such knots?
It is a problem in constitutional matters too.
Some of those who supported Brexit did so, they say, to ‘return power back to Westminster’.
But such Brexiters generally said nothing (or little) about a Brexit-supporting executive seeking to take power from parliament – for example in ensuring that the article 50 notification was done on the basis of a parliamentary act rather than the prime minister’s discretion.
That was the wrong sort of parliamentary supremacy.
And so on – there are many other examples.
The answer is, I think, about how people like to invoke principle in political, policy and legal matters.
Say you like [x] or are opposed to [y].
You can say ‘I like [x]!’ or ‘I oppose [y]!’.
You could, but it may not get you very far.
And so you gild the utterance: ‘[x] is good!’ and ‘[y] is bad!’.
But even that can not be enough, and so you invoke principles.
And you end up saying that liking or disliking [x or y] is matter of ‘free speech!’.
So, take for example that a person may dislike a certain minority [z] and would like to say so.
They could say: ‘I dislike [z]’ – but they not want to say this, at least aloud in polite company
Or: ‘[z] are bad people’ – though again they may be deterred.
And so they resort to ‘disliking [z] is quite frankly a matter for an individual quite frankly, and quite frankly people should have the right to say so, quite frankly, as it is free speech.’
Here, the resort to principle to being used to frame a proposition that the person making the utterance would not want to say in a more direct form.
The problem is that the person making the utterance is invoking principle as a matter of rhetorical convenience.
And this is an error.
For the principle of free speech is, well, a principle.
And as a principle it has application generally, if not absolutely.
And so it applies to utterances with which you will strongly disagree.
This is why those who (say they) believe in free speech as a matter of general or even absolute principle end up so quickly in knots.
How those who want to parade their anti-woke offensiveness are (genuinely) horrified by the taking of the knee, or a white poppy, or inclusive language employed by a third party.
It is because their resort to principle is a cynical rhetorical device.
Their only interest in ‘free speech!’ is that it allows them to make utterances that, for whatever reason, they do not wish to make in more direct ways.
They do not want to say that they like [abhorrent sentiment] or that [abhorrent sentiment] is good.
They instead just want to say it and get away with it, but without any implications.
Last week I even had a tweeter telling me that the England footballers expressing political opinions should not be selected for their clubs or country – and when I looked at their bio, it said ‘supporter of free speech’.
This, of course, is not just a problem with those with which you disagree.
Anyone engaged in policy or legal or political discussion can make the same mistake.
And this is because we all seek to gild our utterances, as it is a natural temptation to big up one’s opinions.
The best guard is to only use first principles in circumstances where you know that you would also invoke the same principle when it was something applied to something with which you dislike, or even oppose.
The resort to principle – rightly – can have considerable purchase power in a discussion, but that power also can be devalued quickly.
And in particular: the principle of free speech has no real purchase if it is only to gild sentiments to which you do not object.
Thank you for reading.
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