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‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!’ Timothy Garton Ash on the future of free speech around the world

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At an awards ceremony in central London on Monday night (30 October 2017), the British Academy presented the historian, author and journalist Timothy Garton Ash with the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. The £25,000 annual prize, the Academy’s biggest annual prize, is awarded for outstanding scholarly contributions to global cultural understanding and is designed to illuminate the interconnections of culture and identity in world civilization.

We caught up with Timothy to discuss his reactions to winning the Al-Rodhan Prize and to get his thoughts on the future of free speech in a fake news world.

Congratulations on receiving the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. How do you feel about receiving the prize?

I’m absolutely delighted to receive a prize from the British Academy anyway, but particularly because transcultural understanding seems to me so vital in a world where everyone is becoming neighbours with everyone else.

Well, you say in the book that everyone’s neighbours with everyone else but the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and the rise of anti-immigration and anti-globalist parties suggests that not everyone wants to be neighbours with everyone else. What can internationalists like yourself do about that?

That’s dead right. We have this unprecedented world where because of mass migration and the internet, everybody’s tendentially becoming neighbours with everybody else and, put very crudely, half of us love it and half of us hate it. So, there’s a very strong reaction, which you see, for example, in the Brexit vote and in populism all over Europe and the world. Of course, what we should do about it is the question of our time and there’s no simple answer. But, in terms of freedom of speech, I think we need more and better speech. That’s to say, we need to be able to really hear the concerns of people who vote for the populists, not merely to shut them up and disqualify them as xenophobes and racists or neo-Nazis but really to hear those genuine concerns. But they also need to hear the reality of immigration and of a multi-cultural society, which is nothing like what you read in the tabloid press. So, we need to make the case for more and better free speech rather strongly.

And are you optimistic that liberals and internationalists can make that case successfully?

(Laughs) Well, I’m actually talking to you from the house in which Antonio Gramsci [an Italian Marxist theorist and politician] lived and worked in Turin, and one of my favourite sayings is one that was favoured by Gramsci, which is, ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ So, analytically, I think it would be extremely naïve and foolish to think that the wave of what I call ‘anti-liberalism’ – and this is in fact a global counter-revolution against liberalism – is going to end any time soon. It certainly feels like a big wave to me but that doesn’t mean that we should give up. And there are quite a few things that we could be doing and should be doing and are not doing.

Can you elaborate on those?

Yes, well the first one I just mentioned, which is to really listen to the people who vote for the populists, understand their concerns and let them know that we are taking them seriously, that they’re not dealing with the infinite condescension of a liberal elite who basically view them all as, in Hilary Clinton’s fatal phrase, a ‘basket of deplorables’. At the same time, we have to explain the reality of immigration – to take that issue as an example – and why it is, long term, very good for economies and societies, despite carrying a short-term cost, particularly for less-skilled, low-wage workers.

The other thing we have to do is address the future of the world of work. If, as seems plausible, there won’t actually be enough jobs to go around because half of them will be done by machines and artificial intelligence, then what are we going to do about that? I think the centre-left, in particular, needs to come up with some new answers, maybe to do with life-long learning, maybe to do with job-shares, maybe to do with a guaranteed basic income, but concrete answers to give people who feel like their losing out some respect.

When it comes to free speech and shutting down debate, who do you think is worse: the left with the rise of no-platforming and safe-space culture or the right who – in the UK at least – are attempting to shut down the debate around Brexit and who in the United States are using ‘fake news’ as an excuse not to engage with the media?

Very sadly, there are problems coming from both sides. From the right, in particular – and I include in ‘the right’ white supremacists, racists, extremists, radical Islamists and other fanatics – is what I call ‘the assassin’s veto’: violent intimidation which is having a major chilling effect on speech. And we’ve seen that in Europe with the Charlie Hebdo attacks and other Islamist acts of violent intimidation but we’re also seeing it in the United States. When white supremacists march around with guns in the name of free speech, as it were mixing the first and second amendment, that becomes very intimidating.

On the other hand, we also have from the left – in a way that’s less life-threatening but quite widespread – attempts to shut down whole areas of speech in the name of ‘no-platforming’ and ‘safe-spaces’ and so on. I think one has to take that apart quite carefully because I think there are some valid points in there and things that need to be taken very seriously. For example, women writers online are subjected to torrential abuse and harassment and it’s a serious problem. I was just talking to a female writer yesterday who’s had this experience. But once again, the answer is not to prohibit or shut down whole areas of speech. The answer is more speech and what I call ‘robust civility’.

And moving forward, what would you say is the most important of the 10 principles you outline in Free Speech?

Well, the first principle [‘Lifeblood’, which for Garton Ash is the idea that “We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers”] is the fundamental principle because it spells out why we have a right to free speech and why it’s so vital. It’s a sort of simplified version of Article 19 of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights so in that sense that’s the first principle.

But during the work on the book and on this project, which has taken us 10 years now, we actually revised and lifted up the principle on violence to be the second principle and that principle is that we neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation. We don’t yield to the ‘assassin’s veto’. And frankly, if you look at it, if you could remove the explicit or implicit threat of violence, then all other limits on free speech we could talk about. We could debate them. Privacy, national security, religion: these should be debated in a democratic and civilised society.

We’ve spoken about left and right but how much of a role does the centre of the political spectrum have to play in keeping things together and supporting and improving the right to freedom of expression?

This leads to the question of what’s left, what’s right and therefore what’s the centre? I am a lifelong small ‘l’ liberal and so I certainly think that the future of freedom of information and liberal democracies altogether depends on, if you will, a liberal fightback. And I think, in that sense, the centre can be defined as small ‘l’ liberalism.

One must acknowledge that part of what is happening is a response to things that have gone wrong in a quarter century plus since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a time when in many ways liberalism has been ideologically hegemonic in much of the world and has accumulated problems – for example, inequality, the problems that flow from globalisation, even – arguably – extreme forms of speech restriction like safe-spaces and what I call the ‘I’m offended’ veto. So, what small ‘l’ liberals have to do is be self-critical fighters. We have to fight but also be self-critical at the same time.

And how much of a role do Facebook and the likes of Twitter have to play in leading that fight?

I’m not sure that ‘lead’ is the right word but one of the things I argue in the book is that, traditionally, the debate about free speech has been about what limits the state places on speech. I argue that we now have, in Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, what I call ‘private superpowers’ and that actually what these private superpowers do is as important as what any state does.

One thing I’m working on right now in our Free Speech Debate project at Oxford is the simple question, ‘What should Facebook do?’ Now, working out what Facebook should do is actually quite complicated because we don’t want them to become private censors. We don’t want them to become arbiters of what is true and what is false, of what can be seen and what cannot be seen by two billion people. On the other hand, a small tweak to their algorithm is more important than any law passed by any government. So, helping them to get it right is absolutely crucial.

On the subject of technology, the e-book of Free Speech links to material on the Free Speech website and other websites. Is this the future of publishing in the new connected world?

I hope so. I mean, we put an enormous amount of work into turning this into what I call the ‘post-Gutenberg book’. It’s a kind of electronic pyramid. So, you have the text of an e-book and in the text, you can click on links to take you to the website Freespeechdebate.com or other secondary sources. One further click from there and you’re at the original source. This presents amazing opportunities, given the power of the internet. We’ve never had that chance before.

However, interestingly, at the moment in publishing the trend is almost the other way. Most non-fiction is still bought on paper in old-fashioned books. Only something like 10-15% are bought in e-book. Still, I hope that one day we’ll exploit the amazing opportunities of the post-Gutenberg book.

What one thing can we all do to improve the picture of free speech around the world, as individuals?

I’m not going to say, ‘Read my book!’ (laughs), although I recommend that. One thing I argue very strongly is that we are not as powerless as we may think we are. We may think, ‘What can I do as a little mouse against these enormous public and private superpowers: United States, China, Russia, Facebook, Twitter. But there’s good evidence that the internet gives us a chance to network and networked mice actually have a considerable impact, particularly on the platforms for these big companies. So, I would focus on working out what we want Facebook to do, Google to do, Twitter to do, and then – using online mobilisation tools like Change.org, for example – make it happen.

And to bring things full circle, what was it that drove you to write the book?

Interesting question. In a way, without wanting to sound too pretentious, the two leitmotifs of my work have been freedom and Europe. About 10 years ago, I thought, ‘Do I want to write a book about freedom or a book about Europe?’ And I thought, ‘Well, freedom is the primary value and Europe as a project is ultimately a means to an end.’ So, I decided to write a book about freedom. And then I thought, ‘What area of freedom do I want to concentrate on? Which is the one that personally is most important to me and most of a challenge?’ And the answer was free speech, particularly in the context of terrorist attacks and Islamist attacks in Europe, which got me started.

So that’s a purely biographical answer. But it’s led me into whole new vast and fascinating territories, particularly around the private superpowers, which is extraordinarily interesting and takes me far away from my home territory of Europe.

And where do you hope we’ll be in 2027 in terms of free speech? Can you describe the ideal picture?

At the moment, there are three great global norm-setters: China with its model of information, sovereignty and comprehensive censorship, the United States with its First Amendment model, and Europe – very much part of the Western liberal tradition, but also much more concerned with things like hate speech and privacy. China is not only winning at home, and that model has also won in Russia and Iran but it is actually gaining traction on the world stage, because of China’s growing economic power, because of its investments in media and information technology in Latin America and Africa, and because of the intrinsic appeal to sovereignty. Therefore, the answer to your question depends on liberal democracies in Europe, North America, the English-speaking world and elsewhere coming up with a better model of how we maximise the extraordinary possibilities for free speech on the internet and minimise the very real dangers, such as threats of violence, harassment, cyber bullying, surveillance and gross invasions of privacy, which also come with the internet.

So, my hope is that in 10 years’ time, we’ll be able to say, ‘Yes, we have a model of how this can work, how we can maintain and enhance freedom of speech while minimising the dangers that come with the internet, and that’s what the book and the whole project is trying to contribute to.

And, as I say, pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will!

Nominations for the 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize are now open.

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