Fifty years ago, Enoch Powell gave the speech for which he is remembered. The words Powell used one day in Birmingham sent forth a ripple of hate that my grandparents saw translate into racist violence on the streets of London and inspire an aggressive reassertion of white supremacy across British society. Considered an abuse of his platform by the Conservative leadership, Powell was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet. The editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, denounced it as ‘an evil speech’.
Freedom of speech is a basic building-block of free society. But, just as we violate it if we give way to censorship, we betray free speech when we neglect to meet its responsibilities. For free speech is no empty platitude, and neither is it the freedom of speech to go unchallenged, nor the freedom to preach hate. When speech attacks certain groups, silences others, or incites violence, we have a responsibility to speak out against this. We also have a responsibility to be selective as to whom we give a platform.
We do not inhabit a vacuum. Speech that delegitimises the citizenship of black Britons takes place amid institutional racism and the abuses rendered unto the Windrush generation. Speech that implicates Jews in conspiracy theories takes place in a Europe that is becoming increasingly unsafe for those identified as ‘cosmopolitans’ or ‘globalists’. Speech that denounces rape victims takes place in a society where women often feel they cannot report sexual harassment or even assault. I could go on to homophobia, transphobia, and other hate speech. Meanwhile, what promises does free speech hold for Muslim students silenced by Prevent? For those fortunate enough to not be affected by these things, free speech might appear as a right without responsibilities; to the rest of us, it is clear that some people’s speech is less free than others.
In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, addressed many crowds of Blackshirts as they mobilised for the fascist takeover of Britain. Fascism at home and abroad had to be defeated by strength of force. In 1967, David Frost had Mosley on his ITV show. This time, Mosley’s brand of fascism no longer posed an existential threat to those he considered socially undesirable. This time, words said inside a hall found no echo in the striking of fists or the marching of jackboots outside. Mosley’s speech – once backed with destructive power – had finally become just speech, and the failed Hitlerite appeared to all as he was: pathetic.
Last year, I caused some controversy at the Oxford Union for disruptively walking out of a talk by the American far-right ideologue Ann Coulter. Her comments on ‘Mexican rapists’, which might have been absurd a few years ago, now inform White House policy. I stood up, thinking of my cousins in America, who see the ripples of speech like hers spread across their own school playgrounds. No one should have to justify their own existence – certainly not at their age.
Those of us who inhabit free society must fight for what freedoms we have, lest we lose them. To misinterpret and misuse free speech by contorting it into a justification for giving a legitimising platform to hate preachers would be to betray that freedom. Freedom of speech is worth fighting for, but it will only prevail so long as there is belief in it, and for people to believe in free speech, they must see it being put into practice meaningfully, rather than disingenuously. And if we hear ‘an evil speech’, we must speak out.