Brendan O’Neill is right – the ‘tyranny of custom’ is a threat to free speech

Eric Bristow is no free speech hero. The footballers he's attacking are.


It was agonisingly predictable that, as growing numbers of footballers disclosed the terrible reality of abuse within their sport, some have-a-go hero would try to discredit them.

Step in Eric Bristow, a darts player who doesn’t like these ‘wimps’ ruining the fun for everyone. It’s just not the same going down the pub for the footy when you have to consider the possibility that structural problems within the sport allowed serial child abusers to ruin the lives of ambitious young men.

It’s such a chore to have to question whether the toxic masculinity that still pervades too many sports might have contributed to these horrible events. Much easier to blame the victims themselves, for being wimps, for not fighting back, for not being masculine enough.

And it was agonisingly predictable that after Bristow had tweeted his cruel and bigoted ramblings, that some free speech champion from the right-wing press would leap to his defence.

Step in Brendan O’Neill, with his usual schtick about ‘the insatiable outrage machine on Twitter, which needs to crush tweet-criminals as surely as Moloch needs to devour souls.’

Now, I have no interest in detailing the reactionary trollishness on which O’Neill has built his so-called career (for that, go here or here). Nor do I have much interest in getting into a broad argument over free speech and no-platforming.

I just want to quickly point out that, in this particular case, he falls foul of his own rhetoric.

For the Spectator, O’Neill writes that ‘illiberal hissy fits’ are having a chilling effect on public discourse, forcing people to self-silence.

‘You don’t need a court or a copper for censorship,’ he continues.

“As John Stuart Mill argued, a non-official ‘tyranny of custom’ can chill speech more effectively than statute. It nurtures conformism, until ‘the mind itself is bowed to the yoke’. Twitter is a hotbed of the tyranny of wisdom, always bowing minds.”

He’s right. Tyranny of custom does force people to self-silence. The footballers who have come forward this week, many after decades of suffering, know far more about that than a Spectator columnist ever will.

These men know how powerful social groups rally against anything that disrupts their privilege, they know that speaking out can destroy a career, most have been prevented from telling the truth with threats to their personal safety.

But they also know the more insidious ways in which truth is suppressed. They know that many with privilege would sooner discredit those who speak out than listen to what they have to say — by calling them wimps, asking why they didn’t take matters into their own hands and ‘sorted that poof out’ like ‘proper men’.

By attacking players who have spoken out, Bristow is warning others not to. ‘Don’t say anything,’ is his clear message. ‘Otherwise everyone will say the same things about you.’

Claiming this was an act of free speech heroism is not only absurd, it’s insulting to a group of people who’ve risked more for the truth than the Troll O’Neill will ever understand.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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