Who are the true warriors for freedom of speech, Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) or Elton John? This puzzle comes out of last week's furious bust-up between the Italian fashion designers and the widely loved piano man. When Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who are gay, told an Italian magazine that they aren't big fans of in-vitro fertilization treatment or surrogate pregnancies for gay couples, John hit the roof.
Being dad to two surrogate children, John was understandably offended by the designers' dissing of gay families, which they described as made up of "synthetic children" born of "semen chosen from a catalog." So John called for a boycott of D&G, and hordes of celebs and tweeters heeded him. Before long, #boycottD&G was trending on Twitter and an angry crowd had gathered outside D&G's big store in central London to holler "Shame! Shame!" at the staff inside. Commentators insisted that all self-respecting supporters of gay rights should stop buying D&G's stuff, at least until its founders apologize for or, ideally, retract their "vile" comments.
Let's leave aside the question of which camp is correct on the matter of gay families. Instead, let's ask which side is respecting free speech and which side is doing something else.
Both claim to be pro-free speech. In an echo of the post-Charlie Hebdo global cry, D&G's supporters have been tweeting "Je Suis D&G." Stefano Gabbana said that, unlike their stinging critics, he and Dolce "firmly believe in democracy and the fundamental principle of freedom of expression that upholds it." An Italian politician accused John of behaving like the Taliban, describing his crusade against D&G as "shameful and intolerable."
But wait a second, counter the D&G boycotters—aren't we just exercising freedom of speech also, the same as D&G did? A Guardian writer said that just as D&G "used their public platform to make gross generalisations," so John and his backers have "exercised [their] own right to freedom of expression in response." A writer for Pink News said D&G's claim to be suffering some kind of "censorship" is nuts, and it's a "gross mutation of freedom of speech" to suggest that people should be able to "express whatever offensive view [they] like… without being offended in return."
So is this a simple clash between competing views, with both sides exercising free speech in a fair debate over values? I don't think so. The boycotters' claim to be merely "exercising freedom of expression" is spectacularly unconvincing. In truth, they have brought to bear against D&G what John Stuart Mill called the "tyranny of prevailing opinion"—the informal, non-governmental policing of the parameters of acceptable thought, and punishment of anyone who steps outside those parameters. Whatever one thinks about the gay-family stuff, I'm in the "Je Suis D&G" camp: they're the ones whose speech rights have been dented here.
Yes, the anti-D&G side is using words, and could therefore be described as "exercising freedom of speech." But they're doing something else, too: they're using financial pressure to force two individuals to abandon their deeply held moral beliefs (or at least pretend to) and conform to what others consider the correct way of thinking. They aren't simply saying to D&G "You're wrong, and here's why," which is the lifeblood of good, testy debate. They're saying, "Your views are unacceptable—so unacceptable that we will seek to punish you financially until you retract them." This moves beyond speech into action, censorious action.
The anti-D&G brigade have responded to accusations of censoriousness by saying no one has a right to speak his mind without being criticised. They're absolutely right about that. But the campaign to hit D&G where it hurts—in the bank—isn't criticism. In fact, it's the avoidance of criticism; it's the dodging of grown-up, heated debate in favor of simply saying: "You can't say that! What you have said is so vile that we will seek to expel you from polite society and the free market until you have apologized."
There's nothing wrong with boycotts, per se. But traditionally they were aimed at overturning discriminatory behavior—think the bus boycott in the 1950s. Boycotts harnessed "people power" to throttle an actual discriminatory action that heavily impacted people's lives. More recently, however, we've seen the rise of boycotts designed to punish a company for what its bosses think, not what they do.
Philosophers have warned us about this. Consider Baruch Spinoza's essay on freedom of speech, published in the 1660s. Yes, Spinoza tub-thumped beautifully against "government by compulsion." But he also took aim at those who "seditiously stir up the quarrelsome masses," so that even "in a free state, [they] seek to curtail the liberty of judgement which they are unable to tyrannize over." That is, even where speech cannot legally be trounced, it can still be informally assaulted by the "quarrelsome."
The clearest argument against non-state authoritarianism came later, from Mill. His On Liberty (1859), perhaps the greatest of liberal texts, isn't really about the state; it's far more about the "deep slumber of decided opinion" and the informal intolerance of those who snub mainstream thought. Mill couldn't have been clearer about the need to liberate thought and speech, not only from the officialdom's dead grip, but also from the spittle and fury of non-state authoritarians.
"Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough," wrote Mill. "There needs [to be] protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."
Here, in these 150-year-old words, we have the perfect description of what the financial punishers of D&G are seeking to do, and what is now done by so many Twitter-mobs infuriated by offensive speech: a stab at imposing "by other means than civil penalties" the prevailing opinion on those who have dared to turn their backs on it. From the campus authoritarians who win the disinvitation of controversial speakers by threatening to disrupt their speeches, to the protester-won sacking of Brendan Eich by Mozilla over his views on gay marriage, ours is an era of weaponized majority opinion—the imposition of "right thinking" not only by the church's flames or state coercion, but through informal threats of financial hardship or social ostracism against mis-speakers.
The end result is that the worst kind of censorship—self-censorship—spreads. Who will now dare express religious reservations about gay families following the fury visited on D&G? Every act of non-state authoritarianism is a reminder to all of us to silence our darker or simply non-mainstream beliefs. It's the straitjacketing of public debate, the informal silencing of out-there or eccentric views. And that's a disaster, for as Mill said: "The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time." And of ours, too.