The freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive to others, has been regarded since Locke as the sine qua non of a free society. This freedom was enshrined in the American Constitution, defended in the face of the Victorian moralists by John Stuart Mill, and upheld in our time by the dissidents under communist and fascist dictatorships. So much of a shibboleth has it become, that journalists barely distinguish free speech from democracy, and regard both as the default positions of humanity – the positions to which we return, if all oppressive powers are removed from us. It seems not to occur to people now that orthodoxy, conformity and the hounding of the dissident define the default position of mankind, or that there is no reason to think that democracies are any different in this respect from Islamic theocracies or one party totalitarian states.
Of course, the opinions that are suppressed change from one form of society to another, as do the methods of suppression. But we should be clear that to guarantee freedom of opinion goes against the grain of social life, and requires people to take risks that they may be reluctant to take. For in criticising orthodoxy you are not just questioning a belief; you are threatening the social order that has been built on it. Moreover, orthodoxies are the more fiercely protected the more vulnerable they are.
Both those principles are surely obvious from the reaction of Islamists to criticisms directed at their religion. It is precisely what is most absurd that is most protected: just as it was in the wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the 17th century. And the critic is not treated merely as a person with an intellectual difficulty: he is a threat, the enemy of society and of God. It is not surprising to find Islamists in the forefront of modern censorship.
- There are no relevant differences between men and women when it comes to matters of employment, aptitude, or the tenure of office
- Homosexual desire is morally just like heterosexual desire, except that the object is of the same sex as the subject
- All cultures are equal, and none has a special claim to legal or political precedence
All three of those orthodoxies are being enshrined in the laws handed down by the European Commission and the European Courts. Most of us can think of people who have been hounded for denying one or other of them. The second in particular is leading to the widespread discrimination against Christians, for whom it is a matter of faith to question it. Prominent among the persecutors are the humanists, the secularists and the advocates of human rights, for whom it is outrageous that people with unorthodox views should hold positions of influence – witness the Humanist Federation’s current campaign against Tonio Borg, designed to prevent his appointment as European health commissioner, not for anything he has done, but simply for things that he thinks.
Conservatives should not need reminding of this. As a rule their views are not criticised but held against them, in any question of public office or academic advancement. Over the last two decades a social order has been built on leftist doctrines, and the age-old fear of the heretic is aroused by anybody who shows even the slightest reservations as to their truth. Until now we have believed that our press is free, and that this numbing orthodoxy might at any moment be overthrown. But what do we make of the Leveson enquiry? Is this an attempt to defend press freedom from its abuse, or another move in defence of orthodoxy?