29 January 2008

Free ... to stand on my soapbox

As readers of this blog may have gathered, I have strong views about the importance of free speech, in the sense of not criminalising the written expression of any viewpoint, however offensive some may find it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes talked about the value of letting the 'marketplace of ideas' do its work (though he didn't himself use this particular phrase).

... the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas ... the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market ...

However, the complete picture is more complex. Making it possible, in theory, to make statements or express opinions without being arrested or imprisoned is fine in principle, but there are other ways to suppress particular viewpoints.

Take the current division of the media. In the mainstream, we have such institutions as the BBC, Channel 4, British academia, the broadsheets, and the major publishing houses such as Routledge and Random House. These, subject to minor exceptions, basically generate material in line with the left-‘liberal’ consensus, even if some of the time these days it comes from individuals labelled ‘Conservative’.

In the other corner, we have the blogosphere, which represents many of the viewpoints which the mainstream media no longer tolerates to any significant degree. E.g. classical liberal, libertarian, old-fashioned Conservatism, and so forth. Prior to blogging, where did such views receive expression? Probably nowhere, is my guess, at least not in this country.

So I suppose it's lucky we have a blogosphere, otherwise certain views would be suppressed altogether, notwithstanding the fact that they are not exactly illegal (yet). I myself am arguably benefiting from the internet, because I probably get a bit more of an audience for my ideas than I would otherwise. You may say it is as good a form of expression as any. Do I think this is good enough? Not really.

Blogging is all very well, but the fact is that the same statements or analyses made in a newspaper or a book are regarded differently from those published on the internet. Call it framing or social proof; the effect is the same.

Expressing viewpoints is one thing, getting them taken seriously is another. Writers like Oliver James or Naomi Klein can get pernicious nonsense taken very seriously indeed because they have well-established publishers. Why do they have well-established publishers? Partly perhaps because the Western intelligentsia likes reading books which blame their ills on capitalism, and which call for more intervention, just as Victorians enjoyed reading moral tracts which blamed their ills on permissiveness.

(It’s non-threatening guilt, one of the psychological benefits of a religion. You can beat yourself up, then go back, post-catharsis, to what you were doing.)

For the limitations of a high culture driven purely by popular demand, see here. But there is more to our cultural asymmetry than market preferences. Leftist views receive a far more ready platform than those sceptical of leftism because most arms of the media are now dominated by individuals of a leftist persuasion — contrary to fantasies about right-wing hegemony.

As for the fortunate few not on the side of the il-liberal consensus, but still permitted to be active in the mainstream media, they tend to be careful not to give away their favours too readily. After all, it’s a shrinking pool, and another entrant will (they may fear) only put more pressure on the available Lebensraum.