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Anorak | Trigger Warning: free speech is being attacked and downgraded in Anglo-American culture, says Mick Hume

Trigger Warning: free speech is being attacked and downgraded in Anglo-American culture, says Mick Hume

by | 17th, June 2015

Trigger Warning sm

 

Anorak asked journalist Mick Hume about his new book, which looks at the highly topical issue of free speech…

 

Your new book is entitled ‘Trigger Warning’. For those not familiar with the phrase, could you explain its origin and its relevance?

A ‘trigger warning’ is a statement stuck at the beginning of a piece of writing, video or whatever to alert you to the fact that it contains material you may find upsetting or offensive. For example, ‘TW: Islamophobic language’, or ‘TW: references to sexual violence’.

Trigger Warnings took off in US colleges (where student activists want classic works to carry them, suggesting for example that The Great Gatsby should have one along the lines of ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’). They have since spread across the Atlantic and the internet. If you are not familiar with ‘TWs’, they are coming soon to a website near you.

For me the mission creep of trigger warnings symbolises the stultifying atmosphere surrounding freedom of expression and debate today. They are like those ‘Here be dragons’ signs on uncharted areas of old maps, warning students and others not to take a risk, not to step off the edge of their comfort zone, not to expose themselves to ‘uncomfortable’ ideas, images or opinions.

 

What is the book about?

The sub-title of the book rather gives the game away: ‘Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech?’ To which its unsurprising answer is yes, unless we do something about it.

Trigger Warning is about all the various ways in which free speech is being attacked and downgraded in Anglo-American culture today. It describes ‘the silent war on free speech’. It’s a silent war because nobody in politics or public life admits that they are against freedom of expression; all of them will make ritualistic displays of support for it ‘in principle’, as they did after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In practice, however, they are all seeking ways to restrict freedom of expression, whilst insisting that ‘this is not a free speech issue’, it is merely an attempt to protect the ‘vulnerable’ against offensive and hateful words.

To that end, the book examines the complementary trends towards official censorship, unofficial censorship and self-censorship in the West today, covering everything from online ‘trolls’ to football and comedy as well as more conventional political issues.

Of these three, the most insidious is the informal, unofficial censorship promoted by Twitter mobs and assorted boycott-and-ban-happy zealots. They are a relatively small minority, but they exercise disproportionate influence by preying on the loss of faith in free speech at the top of our societies.

I describe these people as ‘reverse-Voltaires’, who have taken the famous principle linked to Voltaire ‘I may hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ and twisted it into its opposite ‘I know I will detest what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it’. They do not want to debate arguments they disagree with, but merely to close them down as offensive. Trigger Warning takes on their most powerful excuses in a section entitled ‘Five good reasons for restricting free speech and why they’re all wrong’.

 

What is the main message of the book?

The main message of the book and I fear it is a ‘message’ book, or ‘polemic’ as we pretentious authors say is twofold, I suppose. That we have forgotten how important the fight for free speech has been in the creation of something

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Posted: 17th, June 2015 | In: Books, Key Posts, News Comment | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink