The ‘war on woke’: in defence of free speech?

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The suspension of Donald Trump’s twitter account in the wake of the storming of Capitol Hill brought with it a surge of concerns and complaints about censorship and freedom of speech. Conservatives and right-wing complainants represented this as the ‘de-platforming’ of the ex-president by liberal media. The underlying message of these complaints is a familiar one; this was merely yet another instance of conservatives being censored and silenced by the liberal elites, who are in control of both social and traditional media. This rhetoric is also popular in the UK, with conservatives rallying against the forces of political correctness and wokeness. An assessment of the facts belies this rhetoric. However, they do reveal that there is indeed a free speech deficit, which will only be exacerbated by the politicisation of free speech by conservative governments. However, this deficit is experienced by those on the other side of the political spectrum. 

Any proclaimed advocate for free speech must acknowledge its importance for the guarantee of core political rights. These are the class of rights which protect individuals’ entitlement to participate in the civil and political life of a society without discrimination or repression from the state. This includes the right to a fair trial, freedom of association, the right to assemble and rights of participation (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). One of the central reasons in favour of freedom of speech and against censorship is that it protects individuals against persecution by those in power for speaking out against the status quo. Thus, liberal democratic states must guarantee free speech for all and not merely those who support it; “If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for those views you despise.” (Chomsky, 1992).

This is one of the tenets of liberalism which is widely accepted and fiercely protected by liberals. The protection of freedom of speech in law, however, does not guarantee that governments and others with power do not attempt to curtail the spread of speech and ideas which go against it. 

Historically, concerns about free speech have been used to justify anti-communism and the censorship of communist views. Boris Johnson’s manifesto for the December 2019 general election included a commitment to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities. This resulted in measures unveiled by the government purportedly aimed at protecting free speech to restrict what Gavin Williamson called “unacceptable silencing and censoring” (Williamson, 2021) on university campuses. The proposals include the appointment of a ‘free speech champion’ who will investigate potential breaches of academic freedom and will grant the Office for Students regulator the power to impose fines on institutions if they breach free speech (Williamson, 2021).

Freedom of expression at universities continues to be politicised by conservatives despite the existing legislation universities are subject to, such as the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the guarantee of freedom of speech for all members of the universities, as well as visiting speakers in Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986. Universities are represented as suppressing free speech because of ‘political correctness and ‘wokeness’, terms which are all used as synonyms and catch-all terms for left-wing opinion. It is concerning that this commitment and the proposals it spawned came after an incident at King’s College London in 2016, where a speaking invitation extended to Boris Johnson was revoked after he made comments regarding Barack Obama’s heritage and ethnicity. The investigation Johnson ordered into the ‘far-left hijacking’ of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion should similarly concern us. The term ‘hijack’ here, intentionally or otherwise, serves to delegitimize the entirety of these movements by casting doubt on genuine protests and demands made by protestors by aligning them with extremist groups, thus making it easier to preserve the status quo. The investigation concluded that far-right groups remained a significantly larger threat to Britain, and yet those concerned with censorship and free speech appear unconcerned with the illiberal proto-fascist implications of these new proposals. 

Governmental concern for the protection of freedom of expression apparently does not extend far enough to stop the government from publishing guidance warning schools against using resources from anti-capitalist organisations. Gavin Williamson later reassured the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators and the Black Educators Alliance’s lawyers that the wording of the guidance would be reviewed. His apparent concern for free speech did not seem to make it apparent that the government prescribing what kind of ideas may be taught or spread is contrary to the ideas of freedom of speech. Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to hold one’s own opinions and to express them freely without government interference. There are qualifications to this. Public authorities may restrict this right if they can show that it is lawful, necessary and proportionate, with the goals of protecting national security, territorial integrity or public safety; preventing disorder or crime, protecting health or morals, protecting the rights and reputations of other people and to prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence (Draft Committee, United Nations General Assembly, 1948). Unless the claim is that anti-capitalist ideology and critical race theory are threats to public morals or security, which would be eerily similar to Cold War-era anti-communist propaganda, then the guidance is both unjustifiable and unlawful. 

The war on woke is not merely an unpopular, government-led crusade. Newspapers with large nationwide audiences churn out ‘anti-woke’ content decrying ‘cancel culture’ and the silencing of conservatives, claiming that it has now become ‘toxic’ or unsafe to express conservative views, as though the political right had suddenly become a disempowered minority whose right to free speech has been violated by the ‘woke’ left. This is despite the fact that the newspapers printing these claims are all from three just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach) that dominate 90% (Media Reform Coalition, 2021) of the national newspaper market. 

The hypocrisy of the right in this context is salient when we consider the complaints about the popularity of ‘cancel culture.’ Cancel culture refers to the growing popularity of the practice ‘cancelling’ of public figures and celebrities either by their fans or other consumers by withdrawing support. It appears that cancel culture is in fact highly compatible with a liberal free market ideology which dictates that a [free] marketplace of ideas represents what a society with the right level of free speech should look like. The ‘marketplace of ideas’ is a metaphor used in free speech literature to describe a situation in which people speak and exchange ideas freely; a free market is the neoliberal paradigm of freedom in which consumers decide what ideas (goods) they lend their support, unencumbered by state censorship (United States v Rumely,1953). The word ‘cancel’ in ‘cancel culture’ refers to total disinvestment in a public figure, concept, idea or corporation (Bromwich 2018). However, the practice is often accompanied with the flooding of timelines and comments with criticism, abuse and in many cases death threats. This extreme response and online abuse remain unjustifiable, but it appears that anti-cancel culture advocates lament not only the abuse but the withdrawal of support which free market ideology would justify. It is important to acknowledge that the charges levied against those being cancelled usually refer to acts of racism, sexism and homophobia. This is not to say that consumers are never wrong or do not overreact on the Internet, nor is it justification of online abuse and bullying. However, to dictate that consumers are wrong for making a choice about which ideas they want to support, in the name of free speech, is indeed to misunderstand freedom of speech. 

The investigation ordered by Boris Johnson revealed that the ‘far-left’ were far less of a concern than the far-right. There has been no further comment on this, nor the review of the guidance which effectively excluded anti-capitalist sentiment from schools. This suggests that the status of protected free speech does not extend to all. The perceived threat of the far-left does not exist, at least not at a level which justifies the dedication of resources to its neutralisation, particularly in the face of rising numbers of violent far-right activists. The label ‘anti-woke’ reveals the reality of these concerns. The war on woke is not a war against censorship nor a war in the name of freedom of expression, it is a thinly veiled culture war against left-leaning ideology. The war on woke will not protect freedom of speech as such, it will sanction the censorship of minority opinions.

Bibliography 

Bromwich, Jonah E. 2018. “Everyone Is Canceled.” The New York Times, June 28, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/28/style/is-it-canceled.html#click=https://t.co./GW jYLj1gkP. 

Chomsky, Noam. 1992. “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.” Manufacturing Consent. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuwmWnphqII&list=WL&index=45.

Douglas, William O. 1953. United States v Rumely. .: Supreme Court. 

Draft Committee, United Nations General Assembly. 1948. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

Media Reform Coalition. 2021. “Who Owns the UK Media?” Report: Who Owns the UK Media? https://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/who-owns-the-uk-media.

Williamson, Gavin. 2021. “Gavin Williamson launches plan to protect free speech and combat ‘unacceptable silencing.’” The Independent, February 16, 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/gavin-williamson-education-universit y-free-speech-b1802674.html#comments-area. 

Williamson, Gavin. 2021. “Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities.” Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-proposals-to-strengthen-free-speech at-universities.

by Yewande Oyekan

Yewande Oyekan is an MA Legal and Political Theory student, having previously completed an undergraduate degree in Law.

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