satoshi minakawa

In 2010, I spoke at a seminar in Oxford when Timothy Garton Ash launched his Free Speech project to explore the state of free speech in the contemporary world. Now, out of that project has come Garton Ash’s new book, called, unsurprisingly, Free Speech. So, it was a pleasure to be invited to discuss the issues again this week at a Guardian debate, at Conway Hall in London, to launch the book, together with Rowan Williams, Joanna WilliamsJonathan Freedand and, of course, Garton Ash himself.

It is a thumping book (almost 500 pages long). It is also a significant work, exploring the question of how to respond to freedom of expression in a world transformed by what Garton Ash calls ‘new forms of connectedness’, primarily mass migration and the Internet, that have helped created the ‘cosmopolis’, the ‘mixed-up connected world-as-city’, that we now inhabit:

Cosmopolis is the transformed context for any discussion of free speech in our time. Cosmopolis exists in the inter connected physical and virtual worlds and is, therefore, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, ‘urban and orbal’.

I agree with much of what Garton Ash argues about necessary attitudes to free expression, and especially with the two key themes that run through the book: the need for a robust defence of free speech; and the need to create the conditions for ‘robust civility’ in public debate, conditions in which free speech has most meaning. (There was, at the launch debate, some discussion about civility. Joanna Williams rightly observed that demands for civility are all too often vehicles for the imposition of censorship, by deeming certain ideas or perpectives ‘uncivil’ and therefore unfit to be heard. I agree with that. But the response, it seems to me, should be not to denigrate the call for civility, but to ensure that civility does not become censorship.)

I will, I hope, write a full review of the book in time. But, in the meantime, a few thoughts about free speech and ‘connectedness’. What makes the issue of free speech so explosive today is, in my view, not simply the greater connectedness of the world, but the fact that we live in a world that is simultaneously more connected and more disconnected than before.

Diversity is a fact of the world. It is neither new, nor necessarily a problem. It has become a problem because of the way we look upon it. In his book The Ethics of Identity, the Ghanaian-born American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah recalls his early years in Ghana:

When I was a child we lived in a household where you could hear at least three mother tongues spoken each day. Ghana, with a population close to that of New York State, has several dozen languages in active use and no one language that is spoken at home or even fluently understood by a majority of the population.

So why is it, he asks, that in America ‘which seems so much less diverse than most other societies are we so preoccupied with diversity and inclined to conceive of it as cultural?’ It is a question that could be asked with equal force about Europe, and, indeed, about many non-Western countries.

I have written about the historical amnesia that erases the diversity of the European past, and creates the myth of a once-homogenous Europe. But the perception of contemporary diversity is not simply a product of historical amnesia. It is the product, too, of the significance of identity politics in contemporary social consciousness. As broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, so many people’s sense of belonging has become more narrow and parochial, and many have sought to protect those narrower, more parochial identities from encroachment from outside. And this has inevitably shaped the questions both of free speech and of civility.

garton ash free speech

The argument for free speech as the foundation of liberty requires us to accept a universalist vision of political norms and moral values. From this perspective, the importance of free speech is that it creates the conditions necessary to think through problems, whether political, social, moral or personal; the conditions necessary to expand our horizons, to understand the viewpoint of others, to open up our own viewpoint for challenge, to be able to engage in the kind of political and social dialogue that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.

What identity politics expresses, on the other hand, is the breakdown of the universalist vision, and the acceptance instead of the idea that every group has its own culture, values and ways of being, that universalism is the imposition of an alien, indeed racist, viewpoint. From this perspective, free speech can be seen as a threat, precisely because of its ability to expand and universalize experience, to question that which is seen as unquestionable. And censorship can be viewed as a means to shore up the broken barriers, to exclude unwanted or unacceptable views and values.

Identity politics has helped create a more fragmented society, where each identity tribe lives in its own particular, fenced-off enclosure, where diversity becomes reduced to a landscape of silos in which we all sit shouting at each other. It is a landscape where, as I have argued elsewhere, we often view the Other only through the lens of fear or of indifference.

It is the simultaneous connectedness and disconnectedness that has encouraged both the demand for restrictions on free speech and the breakdown in the civility of discourse. At the roots of the contemporary transformation of attitudes to free speech lies, then, a transformation in the ways in which we view ourselves as human beings, our relationships to each other, and our vision of what it is to live in a society. Any form of progressive politics requires us to overcome, rather than embrace, the barriers of identity. Free speech is an essential tool with which to breach the barriers of identity. At the same time, only by breaching those barriers, reconnecting that which we have disconnected, will we be able to nurture free speech in its fullness.


The top image is by the Japanese photographer Satoshi Minakawa, from his ‘Light’ series.


  1. Rather than referring to connectedness or disconnectedness, which force us to the extremes, I like the Age of Entanglement, which itself contains the organic tension across a spectrum of possibilities.

  2. While it is right to oppose identity politics in all its manifestations I think there is a tendency to underestimate or dismiss the significance of identity in cultural life and its pivotal role in people’s sense of themselves. Identity or belonging expresses itself in manifest ways. There are subcultures and groups such as heavy metal rock fans who wear a similar dress, sport similar tattoos and obviously like or congregate around the same rock bands. That is a form of identity in itself. There is an unwritten group code and group identity. There is nothing wrong with having an identity. In fact it is probably crucial to your sense of self and well-being. To have an allegiance to a particular cause or group or even vocation or football team. It is part of who you are.

    The problem with identity occurs when it is politicized. The politicization of identity or culture is the root cause of division and conflict in society. That is why free speech is so important. It is perhaps the only means or at any rate the best means of opposing identity politics and the politicization of culture.

  3. yandoodan

    “…the importance of free speech is that it creates the conditions necessary to think through problems…”

    This actually understates the role of free speech. As Karl Popper emphasized, knowledge grows through testing ideas, knocking down the bad ones and fixing the stronger ones. Thus, scientists emphasize testing theories in ways that have the potential of breaking them. For instance, researchers set up the recent search for the Higgs boson as a test; if a certain period of time passed without a discovery the theory that predicted its existence would be refuted. (Note that it could have been salvaged by redoing the math to predict a lower probability of detection. Scientists would then have to judge whether this was an improvement or merely fudging. Refutation is seldom total.)

    If there are any ideas that are off limits to attempts at refutation, knowledge stagnates. Indeed, an idea that needs protection is so weak that its refutation is expected even by its acolytes; knowledge is rolled back rather than merely stagnating.

    This then is the role of free speech: to create the conditions for knowledge to advance. Hate speech, incivility, trolling make no contribution to this, and can legitimately be excluded. But, as you point out, excluding this type of speech cracks the door to censorship, and inevitably someone will push it open.

  4. damon

    ”Identity politics has helped create a more fragmented society, where each identity tribe lives in its own particular, fenced-off enclosure, where diversity becomes reduced to a landscape of silos in which we all sit shouting at each other.”

    The whole morning on two different London radio stations, they’ve been discussing the ”Operation Black Vote” poster which was released to encourage ethnic minority people to vote in the coming EU referendum.
    The last clown of a presenter on LBC radio was insisting there was nothing wrong with it.
    EU referendum: White ‘thug’ poster aimed at black voters

    It’s clearly a racist poster in my opinion. There are no skinheads like that anymore.
    What they are implying is, that working class white guys with short hair and views on the EU, are a bunch of violent racists.

  5. Now THIS is an interesting one Kenan ….but yep …feel personally that things maybe much more fluid than ‘connected or disconnected’ implies ….I personally feel it’s more an Osmosis kind of thing …a back and forth reciprocality that affects the whole …but Hmmmmm yep ….whatever….the discussions need to be had ….well …maybe it’s starting to happen regardless …we’ll see as the 21st century progresses I guess:)

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