When liberals are the censors...

When liberals are the censors...

In a revealing interview, the Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, a dissident in his youth told the sinologist Ian Johnson that “this (Chinese) government… is not a traditional dictatorship. It’s a new type.”

Young people who want to explore forbidden zones can, said Qiu, use secured VPNs – Virtual Private Networks – which allow users to bypass government filters by disguising their physical location.

The authorities allow these conversations because they know they can’t afford to alienate smart young people, but also make clear where the boundaries are. Beyond these, in the forbidden zone, lies anything from a reprimand to long jail time and possibly torture.

“Governments pursuing such goals,” the Economist observed, “have many options. They can press blasphemy laws into service… they can twist the media to their will… or they can simply ban speech they dislike.”

But what if there is virtually no forbidden zone? What happens in liberal democracies, where the explicit default position of governments and the law is freedom to speak, publish and protest?

What happens is that censorship slips from government to civil society, to groups and institutions and individuals who see some form of speech or publication as intolerable, and seek to ban it, or remove it. T

hese are the flash floods of outrage which in turn provoke demands that the authorities rein in the would-be censors. This means doing the opposite of that which authoritarian states do. It means to remove censorship, not exert it.

This has given rise to what is being called in the UK the “no-platform” movement – attempts to ban from university campuses speakers whom one or other group considers harmful to an audience.

In July last year, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whose “The God Delusion” is an extended critique of all religions, was “no platformed” from the Berkeley, California radio station KPFA because, according to the station, his comments and writings about Islam had “offended and hurt” many people.

“Offense” and “hurt” are the central concepts employed in this battle.

They are often employed by those who see themselves as liberal, and even by universities, which insist on their intellectual freedom. Last December a group of historians wrote an open letter condemning an attempt by Nigel Biggar, a theology professor at Oxford, from organizing a conference looking at the benefits of colonialism.

The writer and former London deputy mayor for education, Munira Mirza, disagreed, writingof the scholars’ objections that “it is a peculiarity of our times that many academics want to shut down debate… it might have been an authoritarian state trying to clamp down on uncomfortable opinion.”

A government-appointed Office for Students will now protect freedom for students, announced last month by Jo Johnson, the higher education minster, who argued that “young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions.”

Free speech isn’t a central part of democratic practice by accident. It springs from the view, developed increasingly powerfully over the past five centuries, that challenge to power from contrary opinion and the revelations that investigative research can put in the public domain are vital to a nation’s health.

Attempts to suppress these, whether from overheated debates on campus or from overheated tweets from a presidential cellphone, must be opposed – as they are being opposed, in the United States, by the news media and, in the UK, by the state. It is at least heartening that both are willing to step up to their responsibility to protect a precious part of our civic life.