Andrew Doyle, Free Speech and Why it Matters, London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2021.
Comedian and journalist Andrew Doyle is likely known to readers of the SAFS Newsletter as a regular columnist for British ezine Spiked and as the human behind the fictional Twitter character Titania McGrath. Doyle’s latest book, Free Speech and Why it Matters, emerges as this reviewer’s favourite on the topic to date (and I have been through a few). It is an unapologetically biting and highly pleasurable quick read that is also, at least in one regard, remarkably comprehensive.
This one regard has nothing to do with providing a theoretical framework or historical context for our illiberal moment, such as do other books like Campbell and Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Rather, Doyle casually positions his understanding of the anti-free speech phenomenon as a sort of nexus between, or blending of, post-modernism and the controversial notion of cultural Marxism. Although Doyle may seem oblivious to the sharp objections of certain Marxists to this forced conceptual marriage, it seems more likely that he has simply chosen not to be bothered by it in his pursuit of a more practical exposition of the problem. So, for example, when he implicates the Frankfurt School in the genesis of the phenomenon, he does so casually and in a take-it-or-leave-it way.
As an aside, the entire book is written in a similarly unapologetic manner. Doyle does not use space in anticipation of counter arguments though one does not get the impression that he is intolerant of alternative explanations. Rather, it’s more likely that he recognizes that a person of moderate intelligence will understand his contentions (even if not in agreement as to specifics) and that those who are determined to miss the point will simply not respond to any argument.
This one regard is also not a demonstration of the pervasiveness of this scourge by detailing the better-known, mostly university-focused, cases of which many of us are already aware. Rather, he cites such cases simply to substantiate his contentions and then only in a casual and superficial way. Thus, although the clear and cogent writing that characterizes this book briefly led me to think it would be an excellent primer for the uninitiated, it soon became clear that Doyle presupposes his reader to possess a moderate awareness of 1) the attack on free expression, and 2) the arguments advanced by the attackers to justify their censorious ways.
The regard in which this book is comprehensive is in its outlining and synthesis of the censors’ arguments. Doyle demonstrates just how flawed and vacuous they are, both when considered individually and, even more, when taken together. Although Doyle doesn’t categorize the arguments in the way a philosopher might, he destroys them in a logical and common-sense way that this reviewer found satisfying and somehow cathartic. Although most informed readers will find flaws they have already identified confirmed, one’s repertoire of errors to cite during argument is likely to grow from reading this book. Most importantly, the reader will benefit from the synthesis of the errors of woke-speak that will make the absurdity of the overall critical social justice position even more obvious.
So, for example, in the realm of ridiculous assertions advanced in the say-it-enough-times-to-make-it-true department, the author reminds us of the oft repeated “hate speech is not free speech” mantra and the hackneyed argument of activists that any argument challenging any political assertion as to the supposed rights of transgender people is to deny their existence (and by extension to be supportive of their deaths, by murder or suicide).
This book is not dependent upon any kind of sequential development nor, other than in the uniformity of its cover-to-cover attack of the vacuousness of the censors’ arguments, is it particularly thematic. I highlight two chapters briefly here because I especially liked them, though my choice of these selections as examples is arbitrary.
In the chapter on cancel culture, Doyle points out just how disingenuous the cancellers are in denying the reality of the practice (he accuses them of gaslighting and his appropriation of this buzzy colloquialism of the social justice crowd provides one of this book’s delicious moments). He argues convincingly how cancel culture tactics have little to do with fair criticism but rather are intended to harm others in tangible ways that extend beyond social opprobrium. Moreover, that prominent individuals like J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood have not been successfully de- platformed is not evidence that cancel culture doesn’t exist, as the censors contend, but rather, given their status relative to most of us, that it does. In Doyle’s view, cancel culture is “the heckler’s veto writ large.”
In the chapter titled “The New Conformity,” Doyle points out the contradiction of what used to be associated with the political right now being driven by the political left and of the irony of supposed progressives being the actual authoritarians. In another striking reversal of long assumed unchangeable demographic factors, it is now young people, society’s supposed rebels, who are most supportive of the censoring of views (and indeed facts) that might hurt feelings.
The many actual scholars who saw this tsunami coming and left it to others to fix lest they be placed in a position of social discomfort has resulted in a declining number of real scholars. These scholars know they not only face social sanctions but the very real possibility of job loss if they resist. That the social justice gang seeks to purge any nonconformists, to select only true believers into the professoriate from a pool of candidates increasingly inculcated to believe that feelings be favoured over facts, are not hopeful signs for those opposed to this new conformity.
It would be incorrect to assert that this book is only about debunking the arguments of the authoritarians. Doyle also makes a very strong case of the protection of free speech, including the perils of allowing the current trend to continue. However, this is familiar ground to most of us. (That said, the opening chapter’s report on how a British police officer accosted a citizen in his home because “We need to check your thinking” is an especially jarring anecdote and perhaps not widely known.)
The primary reasons to read this little gem of a book are 1) the pleasure to be drawn from reviewing such a well synthesized debunking of dangerous nonsense, and 2) to replenish your resolve in the face of such an all-encompassing zeitgeist. If you are ever wonder whether there’s something in the position of the censorious mob that you are not understanding, this little book will serve to assure that there isn’t! To the extent that Doyle may be preaching to the choir, you can at least take comfort that you have joined the right one.