Journalist and political commentator Nick Cohen spoke to a crowded lecture theatre at Conway Hall, where over 400 people gathered to hear him deliver the 2017 Voltaire Lecture on ‘Free speech in an age of fanaticism.’ As per tradition, the lecture was chaired by the President of the BHA, comedian and author Shappi Khorsandi.
Taking the appropriately Voltairean theme of free expression, Nick offered a wide-ranging and excoriating account of the current state of free speech, focusing primarily on the political cultures of the UK and USA. He began with a troubling comparison between the UK, USA, Hungary, and Poland, arguing that in each of these countries, ‘a very narrow form’ of democracy was taking hold, and that the primary reason for this was the compromised right to free expression.
Even outside the arena of politics, said Nick, the freedom to think and speak freely was being aggressively narrowed. One example he gave concerned self-censorship around extremist religion, and in particular Islam. He said that Western publishers which censored their writers and cartoonists for critiques of even the most brutal Islamic regimes were in effect normalising the brutality of places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. More concerning still, he argued, was that where Western liberals failed to advance fair arguments against even the worst extremes of religion, they surrendered valid arguments to be exploited by the authoritarian far right.
Nick argued strongly against the increasingly prevalent concept of the ‘post-truth’ society – a modern phrase to describe a culture where lies are more successful than the truth – arguing that this way of thinking inspires apathy, when what is needed is vigour. In a world where telling the truth offers no prospects of success, why would anyone support a cause they believed in or take part in the battle of ideas? Instead, he exhorted his audience to speak up about their causes, even when it seemed futile. He also challenged the presumption that there was something unique about the present moment in global politics: ‘We are in dark times,’ he said, ‘but we are not in new times… The problems we are facing now did not just appear in 2016. They are eternal struggles.’
‘New ideas, for good or ill, always come from the fringes of society,’ argued Nick, and he gave the example of racist fringe theories about ‘Jewish power’ peddled by German journalists. Left largely unchallenged by the intellectuals of their time, these spurious and facile ideas took root in society and became the movement that ultimately put the Nazis in power and brought about the Holocaust. ‘If you don’t take on bad ideas when they’re weak,’ he said, ‘they will overtake you when they are strong.’
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.
The Voltaire Lecture was established by the legacy of Theodore Besterman, biographer of Voltaire, for lectures on ‘any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or human activity as affected by or with particular reference to humanism.’ Previous Voltaire lecturers have included: Professor Sir David King, Professor Anthony Grayling, Professor Steven Pinker, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Robert Hinde, Baroness Wootton, Bettany Hughes, Michael Foot, Kenan Malik, Natalie Haynes, Bonya Ahmed, Lord Taverne, and Sir Ludovic Kennedy. It is always chaired by the President of the BHA.