nesrine malik

This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist

Nesrine Malik is a British-Sudanese journalist. She has won numerous awards and was longlisted for a 2019 Orwell Prize. Before journalism, she spent 10 years in private equity. Her first book, “We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), argues that the old frames of reference – on free speech, political correctness and other areas – are not working.

The book is about dismantling dominant myths. What is wrong with myth-making?

The fundamental myth is that Western society has reached a level of social and economic and political evolution, beyond which all it needs is kind of tinkering around the edges, as opposed to the idea that something is seriously wrong and certain rights remain unmet. Basically, the myth is that we are doing fine, and any calls for change are made out of [a sense of] entitlement. That underpins much of the reason why we stall in terms of social progression and equal rights – because there is this myth nothing is wrong in the first place. I think that is the root of political volatility, and also why we get so much resistance to claims of racism or sexism or homophobia.

Has there been a shift in attitudes to free speech?

Even in the past 10 years, the volume of content around the internet has grown exponentially. Our ability to post debate online has become more sophisticated technologically. There are far more ways that people can speak online and with the explosion in content, there is more objectionable content. So it’s not a unique or new issue. It’s just that it’s more visible. It’s challenging to manage because we still haven’t caught up with how we police speech online – although we have found a way of doing it in real life with laws, for instance, on incitement to racial hatred. Online, we’re not really there yet. The online debate about what speech should be governed has intruded into real life, and is affecting the way we consider free speech in the mainstream, offline world, rather than the other way around.

In what sense does the proliferation of speech online affect offline discussions?

That framing of people demanding rights as aggressive has happened for ever. Whenever anyone has demanded change, it’s always been “shrill” or “unreasonable”. It’s always been considered violent. But because of social media, we can cherry-pick examples of the most extreme arguments. It has become even easier to smear people as aggressive. If the [US] civil rights movement had happened at a time when social media existed, it would have faced even more resistance because it would have been far easier to find examples of people behaving badly. What happens a lot with, say, the trans debate is that people pick out the most unreasonable examples and scaremonger about more nuanced and complicated arguments.

How would you define free speech?

What is free speech? Is it an absolute? No, it’s not absolute. Who gets to say where the red line is? The principle of free speech is so inflected by societal values, and arbitrary red lines, and the question of who in a society is worthy of protection. It is therefore a far less basic principle than people think it is.

You argue that people defending the right to free speech are often actually asking to be able to say things without being challenged.

This is the most insidious and deliberate tool used by free speech advocates to chill dissent or objection. It’s a practice across the board. At the more cynical end, it is practised by people like Tommy Robinson, whose supporters know that if you call something free speech, then all the liberals will clutch their pearls and you’ll get a special discussion on Newsnight. On the other, more sophisticated end, you have liberals who are so fixated on the abstract principle of free speech that they end up being trapped by those who want to weaponise it, and end up defending them.

What are the repercussions of this?

When people of colour and LGBT people and immigrants tell you that [unfettered] free speech is harming them, that it is increasing hate crime on the street, and that it is making their daily life more difficult and more dangerous, we need to listen. The problem is because of the weaponisation of the free speech debate, the first response is not: “Let’s try and draw a line between what someone has said and how it has impacted your life and wellbeing and safety.” It is: “But surely it’s that person’s free speech.” The first thing is to try and make the associations between what people say and how it impacts real life and then make a determination. Is it worth it?

Well, is it worth it?

Rich men hand out gagging orders because they’ve had an affair and want to muzzle the press, but we do not extend that sanctity to marginalised people. The mainstream is kind of muddled about what free speech is. Fundamentally, at present, we often subordinate the rights of marginalised people – even their right to life – to some abstract notion of free speech.

Nonetheless, the defence of free speech is an important principle. Where is an appropriate place to draw the line?

People are so fixated on what happens online, they forget that these questions are already being answered in the real world all the time. We have a free speech mitigation framework in the UK. There’s a very sophisticated one in the US. A lot of time and effort has been spent coming up with free speech laws: incitement, libel, marketing. Interestingly, people don’t have this muddled view of free speech when it comes to marketing, so there are very strict rules about misrepresenting an item to a buyer. But when it comes to the online dimension, we think that it is really, uniquely challenging. Actually, all you need to do is apply the logic and the history of freedom of speech that we have in our constitutions and our legal frameworks to online speech.

Why isn’t that being done?

The problem is that this online speech is hosted mostly with private companies. We have outsourced the managing of free speech away from government to private companies. They can therefore be more reticent about it because it is at odds with their financial bottom line – they could lose money if they limit certain keywords or ban accounts. This is kind of cheating people into thinking it’s super complicated. The challenge is not how we come up with legislation. It is how to force private companies to come up with their own rules or mimic other legislation, without that being at odds with [their] money making.

“The marketplace of ideas” is a phrase that gets repeated a lot in discussions about free speech.

This is an extension of this view that if you leave everything unregulated, the best practices will rise to the top. The problem is that not everyone has the same access to the marketplace. So it’s more like an oligarchy of ideas. The concept of the marketplace of ideas is predicated on equality, based on the notion that we all have equal projection into the mainstream – and we do not. It is a fundamentally flawed concept. The people that came up with it are those who are in the marketplace. They only see themselves having a discussion, perhaps disagreeing with each other. They don’t see that outside the so-called marketplace is the majority of society, who do not have access to that space.

How is the idea of rationality deployed in debate?

We do not acknowledge the ideology of the narrator class, because we think if you look a certain way and you’re male and you act a certain way and you have a certain background, then you are reliable, neutral and unbiased.

What do you mean by that?

These are myths that all societies come up with to protect the position and the capital of the powerful. It’s all about maintaining class, maintaining the establishment, making sure that any demands for change are easily dismissed. In all societies there are default identities. They are always the ones that are at the top of the totem pole, a group that has more monopoly on political, economic and social power and therefore can dictate economic and social values.

What impact does this have?

The expectation of competence can cannibalise actual competence – that applies to both media and politicians. And the tendency to frame any challenge as hysterical, and the people who are being challenged as reasonable victims, underpins resistance to change. The first response is: “You’re being unreasonable, you’re being entitled, you’re being demanding, look how much you’ve got now versus how much you had in the past.” When people criticise people like me for talking about identity, it’s because they refuse to acknowledge that we live in a non-meritocratic society, where being from a certain background gives you an immediate benefit when you are born. This is not about crude prejudice, it’s about division and allocation of resources. Those who have the most resources will always try and hang on to them.

Political polarisation in the UK and US seems to make productive conversations more difficult. What’s your view?

I am optimistic. Because of the political meltdown in the UK, in the US, more people are beginning to ask deeper questions. It’s not really about right or left. It’s about how actually something is fundamentally broken and we have swaddled ourselves in myths about our history. It sounds quite nihilistically dispassionate, but a certain level of societal breakdown is required before we begin to understand how we were going wrong all along.

It has become harder not to ask these questions about how we talk about identity, how we talk about immigration, how we talk about the tabloid press. The edifice was rotting, and now we can see it. In that sense, I am very optimistic and I think there’s a young generation that has a more jaundiced view of the establishment, that in the wake of the referendum have become more aware and are questioning the more powerful established political and media narratives that we have been getting for so long.