In Britain, if you have extreme views on anything from Western democracy to women's role in public life, you might soon require a licence from the government before you can speak in public. Seriously.
Nearly 350 years after us Brits abolished the licensing of the press, whereby every publisher had to get the blessing of the government before he could press and promote his ideas, a new system of licensing is being proposed. And it's one which, incredibly, is even more tyrannical than yesteryear's press licensing since it would extend to individuals, too, potentially forbidding ordinary citizens from opening their gobs in public without officialdom's say-so.
It's the brainchild of Theresa May, the Home Secretary in David Cameron's government. May wants to introduce "extremism disruption orders", which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound.
Last month, May unveiled her ambition to "eliminate extremism in all its forms." Whether you're a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May's words, a lack of "respect for the rule of law" and "respect for minorities", then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).
Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, "The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line." How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about "this distinction" between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn't actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.
Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police. There will be a "requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web, social media or print." That is, you will effectively need a licence from the state to speak, to publish, even to tweet, just as writers and poets did in the 1600s before the licensing of the press was swept away and modern, enlightened Britain was born (or so we thought).
What sort of people might find themselves branded "extremists" and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.
So you won't have to incite violence to be labelled an extremist —in May's words, these extremism-disrupting orders will go "beyond terrorism." May says far-right activists and Islamist hotheads who have not committed any crime or incited violence could be served with an order to shut the hell up. She has also talked about people who think "a woman's intellect [is] deficient," or who have "denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs," or who have "rejected democracy"—these folk, too, could potentially be branded extremists and silenced. In short, it could become a crime punishable by gagging to be a sexist or a religion-hater or someone who despises democracy.
Never mind violence, you won't even have to incite hatred in order to be judged an extremist. As one newspaper report sums it up, the aim is "to catch not just those who spread or incite hatred," but anyone who indulges in "harmful activities" that could cause "public disorder" or "alarm or distress" or a "threat to the functioning of democracy." (By "harmful activities", the government really means "harmful words"—there's that Orwellian slip again.) This is such a cynically flabby definition of extremism that it could cover any form of impassioned, angry political or moral speech, much of which regularly causes "alarm or distress" to some of the people who hear it.
As some Christian campaigners recently pointed out, they are frequently accused by their opponents of being "extremists" and of "spreading hatred" simply for opposing gay marriage and taking other traditional stances. Will they potentially be silenced for saying extreme things and causing distress? It's not beyond the realms of possibility, given that May has said that anyone who wants to avoid being thought of as an extremist should "respect British values and institutions" and express "respect for minorities." Slamming gay marriage could very well be read as disrespect for a British institution (gay marriage was legalised here this year) and disrespect for a minority.
What the government is proposing is the punishment of thoughtcrimes, plain and simple. Its insistence that officialdom must now move beyond policing violence and incitements to violence and start clamping down on hotheaded, "harmful" speech that simply distresses people is about colonising the world of thought, of speech, of mere intellectual interaction between individuals—spheres officialdom has no business in policing.
But self-styled progressives, members of the left and those who consider themselves liberal, don't have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to challenging May's tyrannical proposals. For it is was their own arguments, their claims over the past decade that "hate speech" is dangerous and must be controlled and curbed, that gave legitimacy to May's vast silencing project, that inflamed the government's belief that it has the right to police heated minds and not just heated behaviour.
For the best part of two decades, so-called progressives have been spreading fear about the impact of dodgy words and dangerous ideas on the fabric of society. On campuses, in academia, in public life, they've continually pushed the notion that words hurt, that they cause terrible psychic damage, especially to vulnerable groups, wrecking people's self-esteem and making individuals feel worthless. From Britain's student-union officials who have banned Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' in the name of protecting "students' wellbeing" to feminists who have demanded (and won) the arrest and imprisonment of misogynistic trolls, a climate of intolerance towards testy and vulgar speech has already been created in Britain, and the government is merely milking it.
May's proposal to set up a system of licensing for speech, essentially to provide a license to those who respect British values and deny it to those who don't, is the ugly, authoritarian endpoint to the mad obsession with hate speech that has enveloped much of the Western world in recent years.
We should defend extremists. Extremism can be good. I'm an extremist, especially on freedom of speech, which I don't think should ever be limited. Extremists enliven public debate; they sex it up, stir it up, forcing us all to rethink our outlooks and attitudes and sometimes to change our minds. A world without extremists would be conformist and dull and spiritually and intellectually dead.
Let's remember the words of the 17th-century poet John Milton in his impassioned argument against those authorities that last tried to license public expression: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Guess what was said about Milton after he said those words? Yep, he was called an extremist.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.