Why is it there are people who believe they have the right to tell you what to think, say or do? They may march under red flags, black flags or green flags, and they may pray to different gods, but the thing that apparently unites them is a desire to protect us from ourselves. In “protecting” us, however, they make us less free. Freedom needs to be fought for every day. The rights of individuals to think, live and love the way they wish need defending now as much as ever.
A good case in point is the call by the age verification industry to reintroduce Theresa May’s deeply flawed proposal to enforce technological blocks on people accessing pornography. The move is of course deeply cynical, given that the industry will make millions from the policy. But worse than that, it’s based on nothing more than a bit of queasiness about porn and possible harms. Little, if any, real evidence of widespread harm has been produced, despite strenuous efforts by academics and others to find it. It is evidence-free policymaking at its worst, and it chips away at basic freedoms.
Inhaled tobacco smoke causes cancer and a range of fatal respiratory diseases in most people who use it. Seat belts save people in high-speed car crashes. But the difference is that the government has amassed a huge amount of evidence to support its policies on smoking and seat belt wearing. The same cannot be said for its drugs policy, for example, or its former stance on pornography.
Take climate change. It’s real. It’s happening. And it’s scary. Most people accept the scientific view that human activity is contributing to it and that we as individuals need to change our behaviour to mitigate that. But policy must be scientifically evidence-lead.
The world’s response to the destruction of the ozone layer in the 1990s provides an example of what can be achieved. Radical limits on flying, consuming meat and other measures are not based on carefully weighed evidence, but are inspired by a group of people – anti-aircraft lobbyists – who are seeking to impose their way of life on the rest of us. They are not capable of persuading us to reduce our use of planes or our enjoyment of meat, so they reach for the heavy hand of the state to force us to conform to their desired way of life.
Freedom must also mean the right to clothe yourself however you like. And that extends to Muslim women choosing the niqab or hijab. I’d prefer nurses and teachers to not cover their faces, and I think there are good arguments that they should be encouraged against doing so. But ultimately people must be free to dress as they choose. Indeed, attacks on women wearing too much are as bad as attacks on women wearing too little.
Our ability to think and speak freely is at threat in other places too. University leaders seem perfectly at ease with the monstrosity that is no-platforming. It beggars belief that universities – institutions that exist precisely to allow for the contest of ideas to take place – have turned into places where that is effectively banned.
Freedom within universities has been suppressed simply because some opinions may cause offence. Nobody has a right to not be offended, yet freedom of speech is a right – and a sacred one. Indeed, exposing yourself to views that you don’t share not only helps sharpen the mind but it can also reinforce your views.
Democracy itself is built on the contest of ideas. It’s the same contest that underpins science, philosophy and much of our civilisation and culture. It doesn’t exist if you don’t have the freedom to listen to two contrasting views and then choose one.
Whether it be restricting access to pornography, making it harder for those on modest incomes to go abroad and explore other cultures, or suppressing the battle of ideas in universities, those wanting to restrict other people’s freedom must be challenged – and those of us who oppose their authoritarianism must do so head on.