In this blistering polemic, veteran journalist Mick Hume presents an uncompromising defence of freedom of expression, which he argues is threatened in the West, not by jackbooted censorship but by a creeping culture of conformism and You-Can’t-Say-That.
The cold-blooded murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in January 2015 brought a deadly focus to the issue of free speech. Leaders of the free-thinking world united in condemning the killings, proclaiming ‘Je suis Charlie’. But it wasn’t long before many commentators were arguing that the massacre showed the need to apply limits to free speech and to restrict the right to be offensive.
It has become fashionable not only to declare yourself offended by what somebody else says, but to use the ‘offence card’ to demand that they be prevented from saying it. Social media websites such as Twitter have become the scene of ‘twitch hunts’ where online mobs hunt down trolls and other heretics who express the ‘wrong’ opinion. And Trigger Warnings and other measures to ‘protect’ sensitive students from potentially offensive material have spread from American universities across the Atlantic and the internet.
Hume argues that without freedom of expression, our other liberties would not be possible. Against the background of the historic fight for free speech, Trigger Warning identifies the new threats facing it today and spells out how unfettered freedom of expression, despite the pain and the problems it entails, remains the most important liberty of all.
This was an entertaining, thoughtful and robust book. It made me marvel at how fragile freedom of speech has been throughout our collective history. Hume starts from the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, and how it went from #jesuischarlie to calling for limits on speech that offends people. He goes into the history of free speech, it’s adherents and how the weight of government has been set against it, and every right has been fought for.
It’s a fast paced, passionate set of arguments, even providing some education and perspective on campaigns like Hacked Off, reframing them as inverted snobbery and the drive for a purity of thought and speech that touches on Orwell and Kafka. You may not agree with Hume but what I really like is that Mick Hume would fight just as passionately for your right to criticize him as he would to make his own argument.
The tone isn’t grating or histrionic. The humour is balanced at the right level, an amused disbelief before he expands on some basic ideas and talks about the excesses that we are seeing, that people are imprisoned for 140 characters, that nebulous shifting terms are being used to justify legal decisions that bode ill for the free market of ideas.
People say and believe things that might offend or sound stupid to us, but the right to say them is important. It seldom offers easy options or choices but like most things that matter, it’s important that we uphold them. Hume makes a compelling argument for the ongoing fight to have the right to think and speak freely. As someone who writes, it’s even more important for me to feel that I am free to speak my truth.
It’s not heavy, it’s thoughtful and funny, irreverent in a good way and it made me think about things.
Here’s an example where I’ve self censored:
Ok, so Neil Gaiman posted a denial of a rumour that he was co-authoring George R R Martin’s next book, The Winds of Winter and I tweeted that he should make up false spoilers. I considered sending the following:
SPOILER: Tyrion turns out not to be a dwarf but simply far away.
Now it was not intended to be derogatory of people with that condition. Tyrion is my favourite character but I didn’t send it. People are not only quick to take offence, but they are not shy about getting others to join in. So there you go, we’re perhaps more affected by it than we care to admit.
So, you came for the book review and got a joke that most people won’t get.