This week, Toby Young was removed from his position on the OFS board after many of his appalling views were brought to light. What does the reaction tell us about the way the Tory right actually thinks about free speech?
Last year, I wrote a piece about the plan to ensure that Universities ensure free speech. I pointed out that it’s basically all a storm in a teacup, designed to pander to an audience that wants to hear vaguely American culture-war sounding stuff from their politicians. I ended that with the following observation – both the campus right and the Tory Party have a very skewed version of what free speech might mean, and it revolves around this idea: my speech must be heard.
The problems with the appointment are manifold; Young has expressed pro-eugenics views, he has questionable opinions about state educated children, he has joked about masturbating over starving African children, and appears to have a lackadaisical attitude towards sexual harassment. Spicy jokes about African children are obviously bad, but at least carry the context of ‘being a joke’. Writing columns that are dismissive of complaints about sexual harassment and pro-eugenics clearly demonstrate a man unfit to hold public office, much less preside over campuses, where many women feel there is a problem with sexual harassment. Stephen Bush points out the political reasons behind the OfS being doomed far better than I can here – ‘A combination of social media – now every student excess is posted online, which exaggerates both the scale of the problem and its novelty – and the Conservatives’ poor election result means that the in doctrine is that there is a problem on university campuses. So in comes a bunch of powers for the OfS that wouldn’t tackle the problem even if there is one but do make good headlines in the right-wing press for Johnson. There is very little in Young’s CV to recommend him to the board, but he is popular and influential on the right, so there goes a board position for him too.’
The issue that I think exemplifies the problem with the Tory attitude to free speech, however, is the reaction from the right with regards to Young. The Spectator has ran pieces about the ‘new online inquisition’, Twitter is ablaze with right wingers defending Young, and arguing that this, surely, marks the moment where all white men will be defenestrated unceremoniously. Young himself has managed to drag the whole thing back around to no platforming in his Spectator column – though I suspect this is simply because being anti no-platforming, bizarrely, is the Hip New Thing on the Tory right. The arguments being made are that just because Young said some abhorrent things doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be allowed to serve on the board.
The problem with this is that it treats free speech as an end, not a means. I believe that free speech is important, because it’s the best way we have of working out what ideas are good and what ideas are bad. This allows us to live in a better society, but it also means that free speech is treated as a transaction. You get to say what you want, and in return, I get to say what I want. If what you want to say is that ‘eugenics is good’ then I get to say ‘that’s a bit fash and I probably don’t want you on the regulatory panel of a much-overlooked export industry that I would one day like to work in, thanks.’ The Right’s position seems to be that free speech is an end – it exists in a social vacuum where words shouldn’t really have consequences – and as such, ‘thinkers’ (Christ, I use that term loosely) such as Young should be allowed to spout bilge and we should just all get on with our day. The problem with this, of course, is that it massively restricts the power of free speech. If we accept that words have consequences, then we’re granting that speech can change things – which is what free speech at it’s best does. If we buy into the vacuum hypothesis then we’re not left with a Utopian world where we can say what we want, we’re left with a version of free speech where everyone’s a blowhard, and no matter what we say or how passionately we say it, we’ll merely be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.