Free speech, Virgin Trains and the Daily Mail

An earlier version of me regarded free speech as not only an absolute value, but additionally as one that should be shoved to the front of just about every queue. A value, to put it another way, that trumps most others (but not all – for example, it wouldn’t trump the value of continuing to exist, for most people).

This strong commitment to free speech can lead to exercising it even when you know for a fact your speech is likely to cause distress, and even if you aren’t causing that distress for considered reasons, such as when you have thought about the matter and concluded that someone needs to hear some “hard truth” to shake them from a delusion.

Instead of those considered reasons, my impression of the typical free speech absolutist (in the world-at-large, rather than in academic discourse) is of a person who gains satisfaction from speaking their minds in ways that are likely to shock or offend, regardless of whether there is pragmatic reason to do so.

They say things like “facts don’t care about your feelings“, even though a moment’s reflection can tell you that while this point is trivially true, and in one sense a caution against allowing relativistic or subjective interpretations of reality to be treated with equal deference as facts, it also serves as an implicit dismissal of the value of people’s feelings.

It’s possible to care about feelings as well as facts, which is why the Ben Shapiro slogan above, like many slogans, serves more as a rallying-cry for a certain in-group rather than a useful epistemological lesson for all of us.

I still believe in free speech as an absolute value in the sense that we should not be legally barred from almost all speech (discussing hate speech, libel and so forth would take this post off-topic), but have for years now regarded it as a value that can compete with others, such as humanism or compassion.

If it operates in competition with others, it becomes a value that we might sometimes voluntarily choose to deprioritise, and furthermore one that we sometimes should deprioritise because another value merits greater attention in some particular context.

For example, your free speech rights allow you to refuse to call John “she”, even though she (as a trans woman) asks you to, but perhaps you should  compromise on this trivial defense of free speech rather than be an insensitive ass. (This is an example from everyday life, to be clear, rather than a discussion about how one should respond in the face of proposed legislation that bars you from calling John anything other than “she”.)

This introduction to the issues I wanted to address has gone on too long, so I’ll conclude it by pointing you to a 2015 post on modern challenges to free speech, which articulates (especially in points 2 & 3) why social media in particular motivate for a more nuanced consideration of free speech, rather than a near-fundamentalist and non-contextual defense of it.

The issues I intended to address here are the difference between the right to speak (or publish) and the obligation to listen; the dangers of reinforcing our own filter bubbles when we choose to ignore certain perspectives; and lastly, how corporations should be careful about being paternalistic towards their customers in promoting certain values and viewpoints over others.

No guaranteed audiences

This will be an uncontroversial point to many of you, and it’s hardly a novel one. Citizens or corporations have no obligation to disseminate or engage with you or any given media, no matter how passionately you might feel about being ignored by them.

Yet, instances in which networks or publishers cancel particular shows or columns, or refuse to stock certain publications, are frequently referred to as acts of “censorship” by those people whose views are being discounted.

A recent example of this is The Daily Mail (TDM), who is accusing Virgin Trains of censorship after Virgin’s decision to stop selling TDM on its trains, and also to stop distributing it for free in first-class cabins.

Virgin Trains have every right to do this, whether they have made the choice on economic grounds (their passengers might not buy enough copies) or on value grounds (because TDM doesn’t match their values).

They are not legally obliged to stock everything, and your conditions of carriage offer no guarantee that any given publication will be on offer. You are free to bring your copy of TDM on board, and won’t be kicked off the train for doing so.

But legal obligations, or the lack thereof, don’t guide us as to what people or corporations should do, in a non-legal sense.

Beware the filter bubble

It’s possible to hate TDM and its values while still recognising the value of its existence for other reasons, and while also recognising that it is something that should be available to those who want to read it.

If you’re a jet-setting sophisticate who mostly lives in London, an occasional skim through newspapers like TDM might be your only clue as to what millions of Englanders who are not like you and your friends think and believe, and what their values are.

Not availing yourself of this sort of clue could be part of the set of reasons why you might get taken by surprise by Brexit, or fail to comprehend how widespread anti-immigrant feelings are, or how many people are suckered by pseudoscience that “proves” that Nando’s chicken causes cancer.

Even when ideas are false, knowing that they are out there – and how they are defended – is not only an essential resource for learning how best to combat them, but also a way to remind yourself that people feel as strongly as you do about entirely different things, and that you might sometimes be guilty of misrepresenting exactly what those views are.

This doesn’t mean that you have to read TDM, rather than something that represents a more considered version of conservatism. I’m rather gesturing at the problem of creating a Virgin-train-world where people can pretend that these uninformed others and their odious views simply don’t exist, because we’ve created a world that protects us from that uncomfortable reality, and from the messy business of having discussions with “them”.


Which brings me to the final point, illustrated by both the Virgin Train example as well as a recent decision by a gym chain in the USA to stop broadcasting cable news in its facilities.

Virgin Trains is deciding, on your behalf, that you need to travel in a world that is shielded from certain points of view. While they regard this as a brand identity issue, that doesn’t seem at all persuasive to me, as I’ve never been inclined to change my estimation of a company because of the fact that they stock something I don’t like, provided that they also stock things that I do like.

This is not a demand for corporations to bow to my value preferences, but rather the simple point that if, for example, you stock the four most popular newspapers, I’d simply think you carry the publications people want to read, rather than this being any expression of your brand. I might judge people for what they read, but I won’t judge you for what you stock.

Virgin Trains is, on this reasoning, engaging in a sort of virtue-signalling, which gestures at an affinity towards certain values because it wants to distance itself from others – and they are encouraging me as a passenger to ride along with that. And if I now choose to bring TDM onto the train, everyone knows that I didn’t get it from Virgin, and I’ll perhaps attract additional judgment, because it looks like I’m making some sort of statement.

It’s not clear to me that Virgin Trains should be in the business of social engineering (even though they are perfectly free to do so if they wish), but more to the point, humans might want to be aiming for more exposure to uncomfortable ideas rather than less, given how intolerant we seem to have become of dissent, and how binary our viewpoints are becoming.

As for the gym company (Life Time, based in Minnesota): they have removed all cable news, both conservative and liberal, from their franchises. So, this isn’t a politically partisan choice, but also a sort of value statement.

Their spokeswoman, Natalie Bushaw, said that the decision

was based on many member requests received over time across the country, and in keeping with our overall healthy way of life philosophy and commitment to provide family-oriented environments free of polarizing or politically charged content.

So, they seem to think that it’s simply too stressful to have cable news on the screen while you are rowing your boat, or whatever it is that you do in gyms. What has happened to adults, in Life Time’s estimation, that they have become unable to simply not look at the screen or failing that, listen to a recording of soothing whale sounds instead of the cable news audio?

Again, Life Time are free to make this choice, and if “many member requests” turns out to be a majority of members rather than just a few disgruntled loud voices, maybe it’s an entirely defensible decision.

But the defence offered here makes it sound like another example of helping us to “stay safe”, but not in a way that speaks to any genuine danger, rather than as a set of training wheels for an increasingly fragile and fearful species.

The problem, though, is that these measures don’t lead to the training wheels being taken off when you grow up – instead, they lead to more and more protection, and less and less ability to cope with “whatever it is you don’t like”.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.