Tiptoeing around free speech is no way to raise resilient children

Posted: 10th October 2022

We are heading towards danger. The great British liberal traditions of Locke and Mill have been under siege for some time. The idea that life is about learning by disagreeing, that free speech is the best way to gain new knowledge, that censorship is inimical to progress has been replaced by a culture of cancellation, trigger warnings and safe spaces, and children often lacking the resilience to make their way in the world.

The philosopher Karl Popper said: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” His point was that we should all be humble: however much we think we know, however confident we are in our own views, we may soon find our ideas are superseded by new information and bracing new ideas. This is why central control over speech is always dangerous, even from the most benign dictator. For it is often the supposedly dangerous ideas of today that become the accepted wisdom of tomorrow.

Our children have grown up in a world quite different to the one in which we, their parents, came of age. We are, to a certain extent, living through a gigantic social experiment, the results of which nobody can yet perceive or foresee. They are drawn onto platforms that gamify discourse, that reward comments that are emotive and sensationalistic. Not unlike the sophisticated algorithms designed to compel addiction to slot machines in Las Vegas, these platforms recycle our own pleasure bursts into additional capital for their billionaire owners.

And in this world lurk dangers of a frightening kind. If you say something that people don’t like, they can attack you as roving mobs once targeted suspected witches. According to surveys, these kinds of digital evisceration are happening ever more frequently, particularly on trigger topics such as climate change and colonial history. The high-profile examples are now depressingly familiar. JK Rowling argued that biological sex is real and was met with threats of violence and death. Indeed, she was also disowned by many of the actors whose lives she had transformed through the adaptations of her children’s books.

It is the lower-profile examples, though, that should trouble us more: chefs accused of cultural appropriation for using spice in their recipes, workers shunned by colleagues for offering “suspect” political views. One HR director told me: “People are frightened.”

Even the organs of the state are coming under the influence of these illiberal tendencies, not least the police. The actions of the Sussex force, which recently warned social media users not to “misgender” a convicted paedophile who now identified as a woman, fit squarely into this rubric, as does the shutting-down of open discussion in universities — a trend that experienced academics look on with astonishment. There is a creeping overreach here, a shadow cast over the kinds of debate that have always taken place in free societies, much to our mutual benefit.

And this takes us to perhaps the most troubling thing of all. We know from survey data on both sides of the Atlantic that people — and the young most of all — are reacting to the culture of blame and recrimination by self-censoring. They are so worried about getting on the wrong side of a pile-on that they take the precaution of not saying anything at all. This, I would suggest, represents a clear and present danger to the viability of liberal democracy itself. For how are we to drive progress when deprived of opinions from which we might all benefit?

So let us take a step back for a moment and ask: is it not time to address these imbalances? As a parent to two children — Teddy, 8 and Evie, 10 — I want to see a transformation in the way we think about free speech. I want children to disagree without falling out or seeking to cancel each other. I want children to be strong enough, robust enough, to hear challenging perspectives without the need for trigger warnings. I want safe spaces to be replaced by courageous spaces.

I spoke to a large room of young people a couple of months ago and encouraged them to speak up. Instead of tiptoeing around sensitive issues, we debated politics, rights, responsibilities, even (to lighten the mood) a controversial incident from the Premier League. You could almost sense the relief that long-suppressed ideas were being aired. And this feeling is baked by solid evidence. When we shield children from challenging viewpoints, it teaches them to react with trepidation when coming into contact with new ideas. When we encourage them to engage, on the other hand, they develop the resilience to listen, absorb and courageously evaluate.

And this is why I have written a new book for kids – called What Do You Think? – designed to help them navigate the online world, embracing its opportunities while avoiding its darker tendencies. My hope is that it will help them spot when they have been sucked into an echo chamber, to resist the temptation to retweet personal abuse, and to put their phones and screens down more often so they can actually live their lives. I don’t buy the idea that the next generation is flaky; I think they have grown up in a new world without maps. They do not need criticism or condescension; not unlike the rest of us, they just need a compass.

And a final point. Amid all the online rancour, I fear we are losing other qualities important to our way of life, such as forgiveness and compassion. “Pray you now, forget and forgive,” says King Lear, a sentiment that runs through the Book of Common Prayer and the great poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries. These qualities are not trivial but shed light on why we have rubbed along together on these islands, despite our differences, while other parts of the world succumbed to periodic conflagrations of ideological and internecine strife.

My father came to this country from Pakistan and embraced its ideals of open debate. I’ll never forget the discussions we had in our living room when I was a child: vigorous, curious and mutually enlightening, my father intervening to encourage us to think deeper. He grasped the central truth of the liberal tradition, the subtle idea that runs through Athenian democracy, Renaissance Florence and up into the modern age: namely, that no one side to any argument has a monopoly on truth. No one side commands all wisdom. Rather, it is through respectful disagreement that we find, often to our surprise, a synthesis that transcends both.

I look back with gratitude to him for this grounding and want other children to enjoy the same blessings. Equipped with resilience and courage, they can, I believe, rejuvenate the spirit of liberalism for the modern age.

Source: Tiptoeing around free speech is no way to raise resilient children | Comment | The Sunday Times (thetimes.co.uk)

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