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Jonathan Ayling: It’s crucial that those shutting down speech today understand this - you will not always be in charge
Jonathan Ayling
Contributing Writer, Free Speech Union
May 3rd, 2022

OPINION: Why do we constantly insist free speech isn’t a Left-Right political issue?

It’s not just so we don’t get branded extremists. Surprisingly enough, it’s actually because it’s true. And unless Elon Musk accepts that, his acquisition of Twitter is no great victory for free speech. It’ll simply be the same play, different theatre.  

Thankfully, Musk seems to appreciate that, but now we need action on those words. And by action, I mostly mean inaction - tolerate those who disagree with you, and let them be.

The belief that free speech is a "Right-wing conservative" ideal reveals a very limited knowledge of history. In different generations, the Left and the Right have both advocated for and opposed free speech. That’s why free speech is not a Left-Right issue; it’s a liberty-orientated vs authoritarian issue. Look beyond the past 10 years of woke lunacy (which fair enough, has come from liberal progressives on the Left), and you will see that the Right has more frequently suppressed speech than the Left (I say this as someone who comes from the conservative Right). 

So what does this mean for Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter? While woke progressivism and speech moderation on Twitter have gone hand-in-hand, that doesn’t mean the Right is the natural champion of the freedom to raise unconventional or provocative views. 

Ultimately, it is hypocritical and counter-productive to only care about free speech when it’s ours being silenced. Tragically, many who fight for free speech today would be only too pleased to silence those that they disagree with tomorrow. For these individuals, it’s not the principled arguments for free speech that hold water, it’s simply their specific opinions being allowed.

If these are the rules we play by, ‘free speech’ will be reduced to the cries of those out of power complaining merely because those with power are silencing them, rather than because they actually believe that dialogue and discussion have the capacity to elevate our ability to address society’s toughest questions.

It’s crucial that those shutting down speech today (like the censorious transgender lobby at AUT) understand this - you will not always be in charge.  

Twitter is a cesspit- we all know it. It’s a simplistic, caption-limited wrestling ring that has much to answer for as we consider the polarisation and divisions that continue to emerge across the West. All of that remains true if it’s controlled by an authoritarian Right instead of the Left. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will only be a victory for free speech if he resists the calls of the ‘free speech champions’ who are ready to exact utu by firing progressives from the company and banning their tweets. 

It’s no surprise I disagree with progressives. But to silence them is not only to engage in a tit-for-tat that sees us both poorer, it gives us a false sense of our own correctness. As the proverb says, ‘The first person to speak in court always seems right until his opponent begins to question him.’ 

For a small platform with relatively few users, Twitter has a disproportionate influence on public conversations. Because of its predominant users and moderation tendencies, it has had a major role in enabling progressive perspectives (again, disproportionately representing them as la pensée du jour). If Musk takes up his new found power as a chance to push a cultural-battle by silencing his opponent, he will lose; we all will lose. 

Yet, if he reinvents this as a platform for open discussion, then who knows, maybe it is a victory for free speech. Not because the Right is in charge, but because we can all use our speech to tell our story and move discussions forward.


Jonathan Ayling is the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union. In between running his Wairarapa vineyard and being Zen with his bees, he enjoys standing up for the freedoms that make New Zealand the stunning country it is.