Matt Ridley’s fine recent Times column was hardly the first to raise the alarm about the pseudo-Soviet intolerance of the left emerging from university campuses. Yet he began with arresting statistics: ‘38 per cent of Britons and 70 per cent of Germans think the government should be able to prevent speech that is offensive to minorities.’ Given that any populace can be subdivided into a veritably infinite number of minorities, with equally infinite sensitivities, the perceived bruising of which we only encourage, pretty soon none of us may be allowed to say an ever-loving thing.
We won’t rehash the whole trigger warning/safe spaces nonsense. But I am baffled by what seems a broad millennial distrust in, if not militant opposition to, freedom of speech — now disastrously disparaged as a dastardly ploy of the far right, which has happily co-opted the battle cry. Let’s not let Milo Yiannopoulos own it.
I grew up in America in the 1960s when, sure, we had our own nonsense. But back then, defending the First Amendment was a left-wing cause, and we mutinous youth exercised our freedom of speech like a motherfucker. We marched against the war, dared to use profanity in the days it still sounded dirty, burned the flag, refused to get married just to have sex, and lobbied against prudish censorship laws. We danced naked on stage and sneaked into Deep Throat under-age. We wanted to do and say whatever we bloody well wanted. For the young, struggling from cultural straitjackets seems normal to me. Struggling into one doesn’t.
Classical liberals like me are forever pontificating that freedom of speech is precarious, and all too easy to lose. Yeah, yeah. But contemporary western young people appear to value this right so little that the prospect of losing it isn’t faintly troubling.