Critical Analysis Project

Attacking free speech only feeds the conspiracy junkies

In his 12 December Guardian column, Nick Cohen argues that the petition that Donald Trump be banned from entering the UK is misguided. In support of this claim, he gives a number of arguments. Here we analyse three of the most salient and interesting of these arguments (click on the hyperlinks to see where they appear in the text).

Click HERE for a clean version of the article and click HERE for a marked-up version of the article


  1. If you did, the US could, or would be morally justified in, banning Jeremy Corbyn from entering the US.

This argument involves two well-known argument forms, which are combined into a single overall argument. The first has a Latin name, indicating a long history: reductio ad absurdum (‘reduction to absurdity’). The second is an argument by analogy.
A reductio ad absurdum takes a statement and shows that something absurd follows from that statement. The absurdity of this conclusion is then the reason to reject the initial statement.

In Cohen’s case, the statement is “Donald Trump should be banned from entering the UK”. From this statement, Cohen seeks to derive –via an argument by analogy- that Corbyn could be banned by the US. To the extent that such a ban for Corbyn seems wrong or unpalatable, the initial statement that Donald Trump should be banned is to be rejected. So the key question in evaluating the argument is whether it really does follow ‘by analogy’ that Corbyn could easily be banned by the US.

In this context, the argument by analogy makes the point that two cases (banning Trump and banning Corbyn) should be treated the same way, because they are relevantly similar. Such an inference underlies legal reasoning by precedent, for example. Here a new legal case is decided analogously to an older case, the ‘precedent’. The problem with analogies is always whether the two things being compared are similar enough. There are typically no hard and fast rules for this, which can make arguments by analogy rather subjective and, as a result, often fairly weak.

There is a, however, a particular case where the claim for equal treatment is strong: this is when the new case has even more of the features that justify the decision about the precedent.

This seems to be what Cohen is aiming for by comparing a Corbyn ban to the precedent of Nigella Lawson, who ‘has brought nothing but happiness to humanity’. If Nigella Lawson can be banned, then it should be even easier to ban Corbyn. But Nigella Lawson was banned for admitting to a crime –‘snorting cocaine’. Cohen lists no crimes for Corbyn, so nothing follows from the Lawson precedent.

That leaves the analogy to Trump. Cohen says that it is easy to make a case for keeping Trump out, but he is not trying to argue that Corbyn is worse than Trump. If Corbyn is not, however, then a clear case has to be made that Corbyn is ‘bad enough’. (and the Nigella Lawson case does not suffice for this).

For anyone who believes that ‘stopping Muslims coming to the US’ is worse than ‘quietly defending anti-semites’ or that ‘casting Mexicans as rapists’ is worse than ‘being a useful idiot for the state propaganda channels of Russian and Iran’ the analogy between Trump and Corbyn carries little force. It would be entirely consistent to believe that Trump merits banning and Corbyn does not.

Given that the argument by analogy itself is weak unless one thinks Corbyn clearly worse than Trump, the overall reduction ad absurdum fails, because the intended absurd conclusion (ban Corbyn) simply doesn’t follow from the premise ‘ban Trump’.

  1. It is an ineffective way of combatting extremism.

Cohen seems to be giving three arguments in support of this view:

2a) Constraining freedom of speech makes it easier for far right leaders to “persuade their supporters that dark forces are scheming against them”.
2b) Constraining freedom of speech will turn away “lukewarm supporters and potential converts”.
2c) Constraints of freedom of speech has not “slowed the growth of far-right parties and movements across the developed world”.

2a), 2b) and 2c) concern causal mechanisms by which constraining freedom of speech produces good or bad outcomes. We focus on claim 2c.

For claim 2c) that “constraining freedom of speech has not slowed the growth of far right parties” Cohen gives one piece of anecdotal evidence: “France has more laws restricting free speech than any other western democracy. It also has Europe’s largest far-right party, which revels in its status as a victim of a coercive technocratic elite.”

This is a weak argument. To see why, let’s consider an alternative conclusion: “constraining freedom of speech is not enough to slow the growth of far right parties”. For this alternative conclusion, it is enough to point to the fact that France has a sizeable far-right party despite restricting free speech. The evidence provided (French laws and far right movements) makes this conclusion true. To establish that something isn’t enough or doesn’t always work, it is enough to provide a single example where it doesn’t.

But this is not the actual claim of 2c). Instead, Cohen claims that constraining freedom of speech hasn’t slowed the growth of far-right parties. We cannot know whether constraining free speech slowed the rise of far-right parties, because we do not know how big far-right parties would have been without such laws. It is possible that France’s far right would have been even bigger.

To work out whether constraints on free speech cause slowing of growth in far right movements, we have to compare cases where free speech is constrained with cases where it is not, and see whether there are differences in the size of far right movements in these two cases. This is a general principle for establishing causes: one cannot determine whether smoking causes cancer solely by considering smokers, or solely by considering non-smokers, one has to compare rates of cancer in both.

So, to provide argumentative support for the claim that constraining free speech does not slow the growth of far right parties, one has to consider more than one country, specifically, one has to consider countries that vary in their laws on free speech, and see whether this variation is accompanied by differences in size of far right parties.
Pointing to France as a single example is insufficient.

In summary, Cohen’s argument over-reaches and he should have opted for the weaker claim (‘not enough’), because it is only for this claim that he has real evidence.

3) There is a more effective way of combatting extremism; viz. engaging in dialogue where you are prepared to give up some of your own views.

To support this claim, Cohen argues that “you must admit that not all of their grievances are unreasonable”. He gives some support to this claim. However, even if it were true, it does not follow that engaging in dialogue where you are prepared to give up some of your own views is an effective, let alone a more effective, way of combatting extremism.

Moving the debate forward

The critical analyses are restricted to the arguments that are actually advanced within the article or opinion piece we are analysing. However, further debate on controversial issues is always possible. This section of the site, provides a space for new arguments and counter-arguments on the topic of pieces analysed. It is open to anyone who wishes to advance such an argument. To add an argument, please use the relevant comment box.

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