Free speech had seemingly come to mean that no one had any right to object to what anyone ever said – which not only meant that no one should object to Johnson’s comments but, in turn, that no one should object to their objection. Free speech logic, rather than the pursuit of a lofty Enlightenment value, had become a race to the bottom, where the alternative to being “professionally offended” is never to be offended at all. This logic today demands silence from those who are defending themselves from abuse or hate speech. It is, according to the director of the Institute of Race Relations, “the privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life”.
Our alleged free speech crisis was never really about free speech. The backdrop to the myth is rising anti-immigration sentiment and Islamophobia. Free-speech-crisis advocates always seem to have an agenda. They overwhelmingly wanted to exercise their freedom of speech in order to agitate against minorities, women, immigrants and Muslims.
But they dress these base impulses up in the language of concern or anti-establishment conspiracism. Similar to the triggers of political-correctness hysteria, there is a direct correlation between the rise in free speech panic and the rise in far-right or hard-right political energy, as evidenced by anti-immigration rightwing electoral successes in the US, the UK and across continental Europe. As the space for these views expanded, so the concept of free speech became frayed and tattered. It began to become muddled by false equivalence, caught between fact and opinion, between action and reaction. The discourse became mired in a misunderstanding of free speech as absolute.