Everyone knows free speech is under attack in the UK. Revelling in their own victimhood, “snowflake” students not only refuse to debate ideas they disagree with, but actively seek to silence them. News outlets that challenge liberal opinion, such as the Daily Mail, become targets for online campaigns and boycotts. An entire generation of “millennials” is leaving university and entering the workforce without the emotional resilience to cope with disagreement. The danger posed by the “student Stasi” isn’t just tyranny on campus: core enlightenment values of individual liberty and reason are under threat.
This alarming narrative can now be found in news stories, political speeches and op-ed columns in Britain on a daily basis. A rising sense of panic has accelerated during the past three or four years, thanks to a succession of student “no-platforming” protests, targeting Germaine Greer, Boris Johnson, Peter Tatchell and Jacob Rees-Mogg, among others. The 2015 campaign to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College Oxford was quickly framed as evidence that student campaigns were seeking to rewrite history. The same year, the libertarian website Spiked launched a Free Speech University Ranking, which led to a Telegraph headline declaring “the suppression of free speech in university campuses is reaching epidemic levels”.
Government ministers have been eager to add their own voices to this moral panic. “Universities told to guarantee free speech” was splashed on the front page of the Times in October 2017, heralding the launch of a Office for Students (OfS), which now regulates the “market” for higher education. The then universities minister, Jo Johnson, declared that the regulator would fine or blacklist any institution that failed to protect freedom of speech. The Times’s leader roared its approval, declaring it “wrong for taxpayers’ money to be used for pandering to intellectual vulnerability when it should be building intellectual resilience”.
An orthodoxy is emerging that young people, and especially students, routinely exaggerate and nurture their own emotional vulnerability. This idea has been imported from the US, where it received its best-known articulation in a 2015 Atlantic article by lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt, entitled The Coddling of the American Mind. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, American undergraduates have become increasingly prone to a syndrome of “vindictive protectiveness”, whereby individuals attack anyone or anything that threatens their emotional wellbeing. “Political correctness”, and its various campus manifestations such as “safe spaces”, become a kind of pathology that not only harms the sufferer, but damages the capacity to argue and reason.
In this anxious climate, a genre of public intellectuals has emerged whose main appeal is their professed willingness to stand up for free speech. World-famous scholars such as Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins present themselves as courageous contrarians, combating various forms of moral fundamentalism. Journalists such as Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, and a cluster of conservative provocateurs occupying the pages of the Spectator, now specialise in dismantling the perceived shibboleths of the liberal left. Here it is not only “political correctness” that is deemed oppressive, but any apparent “liberal” consensus, such as the evidence for climate change, the predicted economic harm of Brexit or the obvious deficiencies of Donald Trump’s character.
The language of “free speech” and “censorship” is old, but the fervour of this panic is new. Of course, this could be entirely due to a sudden rise of censorious behaviour. But this explanation is hard to credit for one obvious reason: the current wave of “free speech” advocacy has coincided directly with the rise of social media, amateur publishing and the “citizen journalism” that is now possible at virtually zero cost. The proliferation of platforms that grant anyone a public voice should, in principle, have put concerns about censorship to rest. After all, even very bad writers with offensive opinions can now see their words published – or broadcast their voices via YouTube and podcasting. By any measure, speech is less regulated or inhibited than ever before. This has spawned some ugly argumentative tactics, including the hostile mobilisation of online supporters against opponents, which have made public debate angrier and less inviting to many. But, as unattractive as this is, it is not censorship. The claim that free speech is under attack is often a mask for other political frustrations and fears.
Meanwhile, the ideal of free speech is being stretched to the point where the phrase starts to mean too much. A government consultation document on the OfS stated that “freedom of speech within the law is the cornerstone of higher education”, a claim that suggests a very skewed idea of what actually goes on in universities. Debate, whether in clubs, student societies or seminars, is a crucial aspect of campus life, but it would be perverse to characterise the value of a lecture, a tutorial or reading material in terms of freedom of speech. The concept of free speech has become a political totem, particularly on the right, and especially where universities are concerned.
Too much has already been written about the rise of snowflakes and the threat that political correctness poses to Enlightenment values. The more intriguing question is why free speech has become such a cherished value for conservatives. Unlike in the US, where this cause has been taken up by many self-identified centrists and liberals, in Britain this is now primarily a conservative issue, whose elevated profile is thanks to the concerted efforts of conservative newspapers and politicians. The panic surrounding free speech appears to satisfy a political need, at a time when the identity of conservatism is under siege from a range of demographic and economic threats.
There is no question that the liberal public sphere (which was born in the coffee houses and merchant newspapers of 17th-century Europe) is experiencing unprecedented upheavals thanks to the rise of digital platforms. Political commentary and public critique, originally the exclusive preserve of bourgeois gentlemen, is bypassing traditional bottlenecks with disorientating results. Different norms and cultural expectations are colliding all the time, as doubt is cast on the authority of “mainstream” media and democratic institutions. The claim that certain people are being silenced is often a convenient spin on the way this messier, less-predictable world means that prominent voices have lost authority. In this context, the defence of free speech promises to restore a traditional cultural order.
Some newspapers and politicians are so insistent that free speech is in danger that they are willing to concoct threats out of thin air. Many prominent cases of censorship reported in the British press have later been correctly understood as something else altogether. The most shocking example of this occurred in October 2017, when the Telegraph ran a front-page headline declaring “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”, above a large photograph of the student concerned, Lola Olufemi, who then received a stream of racist and sexist abuse. A correction was published the next day (on page two) admitting that Olufemi had merely made some recommendations in an open letter on how to bring more non-white authors into the curriculum, and had not sought to force anyone to do anything. But the harm to Olufemi had been done, while any outrage on the part of Telegraph readers was left intact.
A report published in March by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights sought evidence that free speech was under threat at British universities, but discovered very little. The committee noted that existing rules imposed by the Charity Commission (which oversees Student Unions and insists on charities’ political neutrality) and the government’s “Prevent duty” (which seeks to ban extremist expression on grounds of national security) were creating burdensome restrictions on events organisation. But the committee concluded that “the press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality”. Nevertheless, the Telegraph wrung a dramatic headline out of the report: “Universities cannot be ‘safe spaces’ say MPs as they warn of ‘chilling effect’ on free speech”.
“No-platforming” protests always gain copious media coverage, but it is not clear that they are representative of any broader problem. YouGov published polling data in June showing that British students were on average no less tolerant of opposing views than the general public. In the US, the political scientist Jeffrey Sachs has shown that there has been no generational shift in attitudes to free speech, contrary to what Haidt in the Atlantic and others have claimed. Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, which purport to reveal a censorship crisis, often treat any written code of conduct (such as an HR policy on the use of abusive language) as a form of censorship.
But these facts have done little to slow the relentless news reports and opinion columns about censorious snowflakes. So what is the reason for this obsession? One part of the answer is naked self-interest. For many parts of the press, stoking a panic about free speech is a useful way of resisting calls for media regulation. A simplistic binary is established between unbridled commercial freedom on the one hand and censorship on the other, and politicians are invited to take sides.
Ever the forward thinker, the former Times journalist Michael Gove voiced his opposition to the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press while it was still under way, telling a meeting of journalists in February 2012 that it had created a “chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression”. The Conservative party’s willingness to stand up for the interests of newspaper owners was subsequently confirmed by their 2017 general election manifesto, which included a pledge to abandon the plan for “Leveson two”, which had intended to probe further into the legality and oversight of newspaper activities.
The more diffuse political worry among conservatives is that leftwing ideas are crowding out rightwing ones, especially in universities. The suggestion is that conservative students and scholars are being silenced, and that intolerance is now a hallmark of the left. The Oxford University theologian Nigel Biggar has complained (in columns in the Times and elsewhere) that he has been hounded for his attempts to paint the British empire in a morally virtuous light, to the point where he now has to organise seminars “in secret” (which sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for “invite-only”).
Some feel so strongly about this issue that facts are discarded altogether. At a speech at the Festival of Higher Education in June, Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, told an anecdote about a student at King’s College London making a formal complaint of “hate speech” against a history lecturer, who had allegedly taken the British side in a class about the Berlin Blockade. In an interview with the Times a few days later, Gyimah claimed that “at one institution when I turned up to speak to students they read the safe-space policy and it took 20 minutes”. The academic news website Research examined both of these claims, following up with the institutions concerned, and found no evidence that either was true.
The plea that conservatives have become an oppressed minority, especially on campuses, is reshaping politics across the west, with some frightening consequences in the form of the “alt-right” and resurgent nationalism. It draws energy from the sense that the left is uniquely intolerant of dissent, and is allowing its cultural and moral worldview to interfere with the pursuit of knowledge. The humanities are viewed as the worst culprits, having turned “truth” into a political issue that is ultimately a matter of perspective. For many free speech advocates, this sinister moral agenda is seeking to colonise other disciplines, including even the natural sciences.
But these emotive claims are often concealing something more prosaic though no less troubling for conservatives: demography is against them. In Britain, the way voting behaviour now correlates with age is quite startling: in the 2017 general election, Labour beat Conservatives by 66% to 19% among 18-19 year-olds, while these numbers were roughly reversed among the over-70s. The age at which someone becomes more likely to vote Conservative than Labour is 47 and rising. If this is a “cohort effect”, as appears likely, this means that younger people will retain these political views as they grow older, rather than shift to the right.
Given that graduates also tend to lean more to the left than non-graduates, and the number of graduates is increasing, it is scarcely any surprise that universities now provoke anxiety among conservative commentators and politicians. As Sachs has shown in the US context, the fact that no-platforming protests are more often led from the left is due to the far larger number of leftwing students, and not a reflection on leftwing values. Of course, this doesn’t make it acceptable for conservative students to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, any more than it is acceptable for other minorities to feel that way. But nor does it imply that a typical leftwing individual is any more censorious than a typical rightwing one.
The brute problem, from the point of view of conservative newspapers and politicians, is that the number of conservatives is falling. In an analogue age, when the public sphere was still guarded by traditional gatekeepers, this wouldn’t be so threatening: as long as newspaper editors and political parties still represented establishment interests and values, the vagaries of public opinion and demographic change didn’t matter so much. But in this less predictable, more open political and media landscape, dwindling numbers potentially means dwindling influence. Claims that traditional voices are being censored are often a distortion of the fact that they are simply not being listened to as much. Many conservatives must wish there were simply fewer people going to university.
Push a little further beyond the veneer of free speech controversies, and we can identify a deeper problem that universities pose to conservatism, both intellectually and politically. This resides in the moral and philosophical disputes that have fuelled the “culture wars” ever since the late 1960s. The core question that brings liberalism, conservatism, nationalism and identity politics into such conflict with each other is a fundamental one: who has the authority to describe society? Whose version of history will be heard? How will documents and artefacts be interpreted and judged? For a number of reasons, sections of the conservative commentariat and political class no longer trust universities to provide the answers.
If we reflect on the past half-century of culture wars, one clear trend is evident, especially in Britain and the US. Despite its many protestations to the contrary, the right has been far more successful at establishing a stronghold in the media, whereas the left has done better in universities. This isn’t simply about the political values of the people who are employed in these fields, or the ideas they generate. It is also about the different structures and mechanisms through which ideas and knowledge are validated. Out of a combination of ideological commitments and self-interest, media and universities have come to advance particular – and often conflicting – ideals of how knowledge and culture should be produced, accredited and paid for.
To the extent that it offers a market for public expression, the private-sector media has played a crucial role in advancing the pro-business agenda that triumphed with the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. For a figure such as Rupert Murdoch, treating “free speech” and “free market” as synonymous has very clear benefits. In the UK, where there are strict broadcasting regulations, this landgrab was mainly limited to the press, whereas in the US its victories include talk-radio and Fox News. But as Gove implied when making his criticism of Leveson, it is a core principle of contemporary conservatism that the market is the only guarantor of intellectual and political liberty. This is crystallised in the neologism beloved of free speech advocates: “the marketplace of ideas”.
Universities, meanwhile, are distinguished partly by their resistance to market principles. Current reforms (such as the introduction of the OfS) seek to weaken this resistance, but are a long way from eliminating it. At a university, who gets to speak, to publish, to be heard is – in principle – determined by critical judgment and public reputation, not by market forces. Whether a scholar’s work appears in an academic journal, or whether one receives a research grant, is determined by the evaluation of one’s peers, who ought to be basing their judgment on the credibility, originality and coherence of an argument. In a world increasingly governed by market forces and economic metrics, all of this can be grounds for suspicion from outsiders, if not outright resentment. In a populist climate, such feelings are happily stoked by certain corners of the press and politicians, who insinuate that universities are manipulating their curricula and research findings purely to promote their own cultural tastes.
Of course, scholarly ideals of intellectual exchange are never perfectly realised. But what’s indisputable is that universities have ways of valuing things that are different from how the market values things. Moreover, unlike the market (where price is the single arbiter of everything), the criteria that are used to judge academic work are never set in stone. Especially in the humanities, where the threat of political correctness is deemed greatest, established judgments and critiques can always be challenged. Controversies break out over the merits of different texts or ideas, and “the canon” is never permanently agreed. This is also what intellectual freedom means.
Conservatives like to paint universities as a monoculture of political correctness, but often the deeper anxiety is that the traditional monoculture of the nation, which dates back more than 200 years, is being questioned by feminists and post-colonial critics. Thus another paradox of the free speech panic is that what gets termed censorship is often quite the opposite – namely, the opening up of scholarly debate to a broader range of perspectives. This doesn’t mean that universities are “relativist”, simply that they employ mechanisms for establishing truth and consensus that are not used in the business world.
The conservative complaint against universities is therefore deeply inconsistent. On the one hand, universities are accused of acting like a cartel, resisting market forces so as to cling on to their traditional advantages. By this account, higher education needs to be “modernised” with the injection of competition, just as other public services experienced under Thatcher and Blair. On the other hand, universities are accused of being overwhelmed with trendy political correctness and moral relativism, which pose a fundamental threat to the fabric of the nation and the traditional identities that sustain it.
Unable to think through the latent contradiction between these two ideological complaints (one demanding greater liberal pluralism and modernity, the other demanding less), conservative ministers and newspapers end up appealing to “free speech” as some unwieldy synthesis of free markets and cultural traditionalism. The suspicion is that, despite all the rhetoric of freedom, they don’t mind intellectual conformity per se – just as long as it’s conformity to the right cultural standard.
As these culture wars continue, it produces the strange sight of both sides claiming defeat, so as to mobilise their own forces around a sense of injustice. The left can point to the dominance of neoliberal policy ideas since the 1970s as that which needs to be resisted, together with the cultural power of conservative media outlets such as the Daily Mail. The right can point to the ascendency of identity politics and the sustained influence of universities over cultural and public life, which has grown especially in the UK since the early 1990s, thanks to the expansion of higher education.
These culture wars have reached a deadlock. One thing that has emerged from them, however, is a distinctive community of “free speech” advocates, whose natural habitat is neither newspapers nor universities, but the digital spaces that now exist somewhere between the two. Nobody is benefiting more from the free speech panic, both reputationally and financially, than these free speech warriors. In the process, the very idea of free speech is being strategically reconfigured, even weaponised, to help push content virally towards online audiences. In the age of digital platforms, where there is an over-abundance of content, the claim that one’s ideas are dangerous or censored has become one of the most effective ways of attracting attention – the commodity that retains greatest scarcity value in the current media landscape. To understand what is new – but also deceptive – about contemporary free speech controversies, we also need to consider what changes once the public sphere becomes digital.
Earlier this year, the phrase “intellectual dark web” was coined to identify a group of academics and journalists who regard themselves as iconoclastic enemies of political correctness. A fawning New York Times profile of them reported that, “feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channel” online. Given that this group (according to a website set up to celebrate them) includes Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Spectator columnist Douglas Murray and Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis, it’s not clear why they would feel “locked out of legacy outlets”.
The internet allows these men to play two contradictory roles at once, appearing as heretics shunned by the “mainstream” and as global celebrities. Presenting oneself as an “outsider” is a proven strategy for going viral. Nobody has mastered this strategy as well as the famed Canadian psychologist and bestselling author Jordan Peterson, who curates his online presence with immaculate care. At the same time that the internet unsettles the institutions and norms of the public sphere, generating confusion in the process, it is also the precondition of a new style of conservatism, in which moral authority is asserted via overt displays of hostility. Resisting censorship (regardless of whether there is actually any there to resist) becomes a way of proving one’s commitment to truth.
The template for this rugged intellectualism was created during the latter stages of the Iraq war, by the movement known as “new atheism”. This assembled polemicists such as Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, offering a fresh assault on not only evangelical Christians but Islamic fundamentalism at the same time. They were defending evolutionary science and secular values, but as much as anything they were asserting their right to attack the beliefs of others, regardless of how cherished those might be. The belief system of this rationalist vanguard was best summed up in the famous George Orwell line: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” For speech to be “free”, it has to seek out an audience to offend. Far from being an obstacle to free speech, this suggests that “snowflakes” (who are all too willing to take offence) are actually one of its component parts.
The landmark polemics of the new atheists were Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’s God is Not Great, published in 2006 and 2007 respectively. But in the decade that followed, the public sphere was transformed by the rapid expansion of digital platforms, combined with the spread of smartphones that can serve as video cameras and broadcasters. Whatever can be captured as “content” can now be freely shared across a panoply of platforms. Information and ideas no longer need to pass through the traditional bottlenecks of professional publishing, and there is far wider choice of platforms and intellectual communities to engage with. This is partly why the politics of which platform to stand on, and who to share it with, is now so political. “No-platforming” does not realistically seek to ban a speaker from all platforms; it seeks to prevent them from using a particular one.
This has had profound implications for what freedom of expression means. On the one hand, the rise of YouTube, Facebook and podcasts involves an obvious democratisation of the power to speak and write publicly. Nobody can really be silenced if they possess a smartphone and a social media account. But at the same time, the power to be listened to remains very unevenly distributed. There may be near-infinite bandwidth and data storage, but there remains a finite quantity of attention, and much of it is still channelled via the “legacy” institutions of universities and professional journalism. Platforms now offer something that was unavailable for the first four centuries of the modern public sphere: a widely accessible medium in which to publicly and liberally question the judgment of editors and experts.
The most decisive interventions in this new media ecology are not acts of censorship, or silencing, but of curation – selecting and promoting the content that is most likely to go viral. Peterson’s sudden fame is due in no small part to a single Channel 4 News interview with Cathy Newman in January this year, in which he robustly resisted her argument. By June, the interview had been watched 10m times on Channel 4’s YouTube channel, but had also been edited and shared via innumerable conservative blogs and YouTube channels.
Live debates (such as those that take place on campuses) are now routinely captured, edited and shared as video by event organisers and audience members’ smartphones. This radically expands the political possibilities of an event, allowing a speaker to perform for the camera (and a potential audience of millions), using the live audience as a mere prop to show off one’s courage. Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of using prime minister’s questions in a similar way, aiming primarily for snippets of good video content for the Labour party to share on Facebook.
Hostility and bravado are proven tactics for commanding attention online, if they can be curated in a flattering way. This helps explain the resurgent emphasis on speech as that which needs liberating: the old-fashioned forum of the debating chamber has been revived, now that video of polemical combat can so easily be shared online. Hitchens drew adoration for his capacity to quickly and wittily dismiss an opponent in an argument. That same skill, otherwise referred to as “owning” an adversary, now generates video clips that can zip around the internet to an audience of millions. For Peterson’s fans, the standout moment of the Channel 4 interview was when Newman seemed lost for words and admitted “you’ve got me”. (She was subsequently the target of a vicious trolling campaign, including death threats, from Peterson’s admirers, although nobody thought to describe this intimidation as censorship.)
If one can claim to be ignored by the mainstream media, no-platformed by universities or silenced by snowflakes, the capacity to attract attention online is all the greater. This tactic is not the preserve of the right. Corbynistas make great play of how their rallies and achievements are ignored by the media. Outspoken remainers such as Andrew Adonis and Alastair Campbell have suggested that some sort of cover-up is under way at the BBC, which is suppressing criticism of Brexit. Framing editorial judgment as censorship provokes greater passion and engagement, just as the judgment of scholars is portrayed as a censorious imposition of their own leftist prejudices. The perennial irony of all free speech controversies is how much attention they end up bestowing on apparently censored and dangerous views.
In this new digital public sphere, it is always possible to discover content that reinforces one’s ideological position and that can be used as evidence of one’s moral rectitude. An Islamophobe can find evidence of a Muslim man inciting violence. A climate change denier can find the one study that shows the planet getting cooler. A journalist can locate a Facebook group in which student activists talk of banning certain forms of speech. News doesn’t need to be “fake”, it just needs to be strategically extracted from the vast archive of digital content, and presented to the public as the frightening new norm. The British press are masters of this, establishing a new role for newspapers in tracking down online behaviour that will nourish their readers’ prejudices.
This is generating some weird forms of collective self-deception. A reader of the Times or the Daily Mail can convince themselves that they are a marginalised minority, while political correctness is now hegemonic. It becomes possible to see universities wholly through the lens of their most radical students, ignoring everything else. Politicians or journalists can point to anyone with a platform (and today, that is basically everyone) and declare that this person has now gained control of the public sphere, while everybody else is being silenced. But this is really a symptom of there being ever more freedom of expression, rather than less.
Taking together the newspapers’ constant focus on censorious snowflakes, the dubious anecdotes of the universities minister, the attacks on politically correct academics, and the self-styled heretics of the intellectual dark web, we can see the contours of an entire conservative programme in action. Despite the fact that communication has become, in many ways, positively anarchic, free speech now offers conservatives a guiding ideological principle, at a time when the right’s previous ideological bedrocks are no longer dependable. To really grasp why free speech has become the focus of a new crusade in Britain, we need to consider why conservatism has become rudderless.
The broader crisis of conservatism is that the free-market revolution of the late 20th-century is rapidly undoing the moral vision that originally fuelled it. When Thatcher and Reagan came to power, they promised that the free market would reward individual effort and responsibility, delivering upward mobility and property ownership to those who were willing to work for them. After more than a decade of stagnant real wages and spiralling housing costs, not even conservatives dare suggest that contract survives, especially not for those born after 1980. Family, that other bulwark of conservative ideology, isn’t much of an aspiration to a 30-year-old who is stuck living with their parents.
Meanwhile, it is not clear that the “freedom” once associated with “the market” has very much to do with enterprise or risk-taking any longer. Increasingly, as the work of inequality scholars such as Danny Dorling and Thomas Piketty has shown, it seems to mean growing autonomy for the very wealthy, and rising indebtedness and stress for everybody else. This poses a problem for the political right: short of acting as the servants of the super-rich, what is the point of conservatism today? When capitalism can no longer make good on the conservative moral vision of hard work and enterprise, where else is there to go?
In this moral and political crisis, the idea of free speech does what the idea of free markets can no longer plausibly do. A romantic ideal extracted from the past is seized and celebrated as a virtue that needs resuscitating. Meanwhile, the “snowflake” fills an ideological role once occupied by the “lazy welfare scrounger” or “feckless poor”. In 2018, nobody can realistically claim that being poor or unemployed is a pleasant lifestyle choice, or that the distribution of income in society is a fair reflection of effort. Just look at the outcry when Theresa May tried to justify prolonged wage stagnation to a nurse during the 2017 general election campaign. That game is up.
What conservatives can claim instead is that certain people – primarily the young – need to become better at enduring this hardship. It is no coincidence that this stress on the importance of building “resilience”, being forced to “hear what you don’t want to hear”, has coincided with a decade of economic stagnation, which has been regulated in such a way as to maximise the security of asset holders, while impoverishing the future of everyone under 40.
The suggestion that young people are uniquely intolerant and self-indulgent is a useful way of avoiding talking about other things. It throws the blame back on to a generation that is now suffering the aftermath of the credit-based economic model that, with a little help from monetary policy-makers, inflated their parents’ house prices and pension pots. At a time when student mental health is deteriorating, the panic surrounding “free speech” reinforces the notion that there is something wrong with young people, and not with their environment.
Promoting “free speech” might paper over the growing ideological cracks in the conservative edifice for a while. But it is afflicted by such deep contradictions of its own that it is hard to see how it can co-ordinate a political movement. In many ways, speech has never been freer than it is today, including speech that is hostile, emotional and potentially extreme. The traditional barriers and gatekeepers that used to restrict access to the public sphere and the intellectual canon are losing power, and nobody knows what the ultimate outcome will be. That uncertainty is the price one pays for intellectual and political freedom, rather than their death-knell.
Main illustration by Nathalie Lees