Free speech or compelled speech: is silence violence?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London


This issue of ‘mandated’ or ‘compelled’ speech shot to prominence when ‘Silence is Violence’ emerged in 2020 as the slogan of Black Lives Matters protests. Just as words are often now deemed potentially wounding, so too is a failure to speak out in support of new racial justice etiquette or other identitarian causes. To defy taking the knee, hoisting Pride flags or entering pronouns in email signatures is to risk being judged complicit in discriminatory behaviour, and could lead to guilt shaming or shrunken career prospects.

The idea that there is only one way to think on the big issues, and one right answer, is not limited to ‘woke’ causes. Academics are expected to repeat the approved Western line on Ukraine; those who deviate face ostracisation as government ministers threaten a ‘crackdown’. Russian cultural figures, such as conductor Valery Gergiev, face demands for what is effectively a loyalty oath to the West: silence, it seems, is the hallmark of guilty Putin supporters.

Historically, it was considered a sign of progress when freedom of conscience became the norm, protecting individuals from being forced to express thoughts they disagreed with – the right to act without reference to authorities or majorities, custom or opinion. Today, pressure to speak to new political scripts threatens to undermine conscience-based freedoms.

Under new conversion therapy legislation, for example, religious groups and secular therapists alike may be forced to offer affirmative advice on sexuality and gender issues that goes against their beliefs. Elsewhere, political pressure to speak to an official line reduces space for debate and open-mindedness on important social, cultural and political questions. Ironically, while a fatwa tried to impose silence on Salman Rushdie, many teachers and cultural figures are now forced to rehearse official lines on multiculturalism or white privilege.

Is compelled speech an attack on freedom of conscience or simply the price we pay for trying to live in a more equal society? Isn’t it a positive thing that changing social and cultural linguistic norms means it is no longer acceptable to use derogatory racial and sexist slurs? And doesn’t staying schtum sometimes amount to cowardice, such as the official silence surrounding the grooming gangs? Or given the quest for free speech is largely focused on our right to speak freely, do we now need to go on the offensive over our right to remain silent? How can we defy pressure to embrace cultural or political norms and avoid the trap of a retreat into one-dimensional thinking?


Arif Ahmed
professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge; fellow, Gonville and Caius College; author, Evidential Decision Theory

Dr Shahrar Ali
former deputy leader, Green Party; author, Why Vote Green 2015

Abbot Christopher Jamison
Abbot President, English Benedictine Congregation; author, Finding the Language of Grace: rediscovering transcendence

Dr Joanna Williams
founder and director, Cieo; author, How Woke Won and Women vs Feminism


Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!