Claire Fox certainly cannot be described as timid. Coming, with some enthusiasm, to give a speech to a generation she described in her book as ‘Generation Snowflake’ was bold, but it is clear that Fox is passionate about the issues on which she speaks out. First among these issues is her defence of free speech, which she believes is under threat, largely from universities like our own. Her book, ‘I Find That Offensive’, highlights a number of cases Fox finds particularly troubling, and these examples were prevalent in her talk. Asked why she believes the right to be offensive to be so important, Fox expressed a belief that progress and radicalism can only be achieved through challenging the status quo.
The status quo, it is fair to say, is not one which pleases the Brexiteer think tank director. “I think at the moment we’re in a democratic crisis and therefore I think we might say that Parliament has been shown up to be not representing the electorate.” A former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Fox’s opposition to the EU is long-standing and fits with a wider opposition to state control. Indeed, she is often dubbed a libertarian, and she regrets that “left-wing libertarianism hasn’t got a very strong tradition in the UK, even left-wing free speech activism or absolutism.” She rejects the big-state tendencies of the mainstream left, arguing that “the whole point of the state is welfarism -it’s a safety net.” Education is a keen example of this, and as a former college teacher, she thinks educational reforms are part of the problems facing society. When asked for reforms she thinks are pressing, Fox brings up the return of “knowledge-based education…the purpose of education has been completely confused by an over-micromanaging of types of schools that we have have rather than what is the point of [education] in the first place.”
Fox traces these problems, and a lack of positive political progress as a whole, back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. With the ending of political certainties, she argues that “the right won the economic arguments and the left got involved more in cultural politics”. Alongside this, in her view, came the advent of micromanagement and the stagnation of positive radicalism. “If you were involved in politics as a policy-maker, you thought of things like the NHS – can you imagine how radical that was? Free healthcare at the point of delivery? Now policy-makers basically sit round and work out how much salt intake thirteen year-olds should take in their free school meals!” There is much here that most people will agree with, especially as the spectre of Brexit continues to haunt British politics.
There is no escaping, however, the more controversial of Fox’s beliefs on free speech, in particular that no speech should be banned. There is a lot to tackle here, but at the heart of this argument is the belief in individual responsibility and a fear of an overbearing state. Fox is especially critical of what she dubs ‘culture creep’ regarding the definitions of hate speech and mental health problems, but presents this as a way of challenging certainties and the status quo. “There you are, you think you understand the world and then somebody comes along and starts prodding it, and that these days is called being offensive…if you end up in a situation where you can’t ask difficult questions and you can’t ever move things forward.” It is here that I depart from Fox, however.
Difficult questions can be asked in a way that is not offensive, especially outside of the echo chambers of social media, and, in some cases, university campuses. There is no need for offensive remarks or insults in debate, and while Fox agrees that “racial slurs or racial attacks of course you can say ‘I don’t like that’”, she also argues that “I wouldn’t stop their speech – that seems to me to be the wrong thing to do.” The counter to do this is to ask what society gains by allowing speech that has been widely accepted as offensive to continue. The very fact that most people find the extreme examples Fox cites shocking demonstrates that they are still anomalous.
Claire Fox’s portrayal of an Orwellian state is food for thought, but it does not play out in that way across society. We should be watchful for it, but allowing entirely unrestricted free speech does not serve anyone well, and instead can serve to encourage the divisive rhetoric of extremism.
IMAGE: Deputy Editor, John Jenkins with Claire Fox