Afua Hirsch on the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’

Afua Hirsch

Last year I wrote a blog post where I suggested that the marketplace of ideas probably doesn’t exist and asked what that meant for free speech.

A week later I wrote a follow-up in which I posited a Cartesian defence of the marketplace of ideas: I know that such a marketplace does exist because I have personally changed my mind about many things.

In Prospect, the author, barrister and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written an interesting essay on the ‘fantasy’ of free speech and how we ignore power dynamics in our free speech debates. Within the piece, Hirsch makes this observation:

And here we reach the heart of the matter. In an ideal world, views from privileged people who want to keep things the same would—like all other views—be presented in a marketplace of ideas, competing fairly with the perspectives that challenge it. This is how free speech is meant to work.

But free speech doesn’t work like that. The marketplace of ideas, like many other markets, has monopolies, rackets and biases. Long-established “suppliers” of opinions with entrenched positions in “the sector” enjoy huge advantages. Marketplaces, inevitably, require merchants, arbiters and traders to work well. Why? Because the space in which they operate is rarely level.

I think this is a wonderful extension of the metaphor that perfectly captures why many people are less than enamoured with the fetishisation of the mythological ‘marketplace’. It does not discredit this important argument in favour of free speech, but it does remind us that simply asserting the principle is not enough if we want to abide by the spirit of free speech and reap the rewards it promises.

Such a conception of demands that we be proactive. One cannot claim to be defending the ‘spirit’ of free speech unless one ensures that new, diverse and minority voices are heard. Not just ethnic minorities, but all kinds of under-represented voices.

That’s why I am proud to work for English PEN. I usually only get asked to do broadcast media when they need someone to defend the free speech rights of offensive people. But that work is a tiny part of what we do. Most of our resources are spent giving new writers a platform, promoting literature in translation, or defending the free speech rights of embattled writers around the world.

You can support the work of English PEN by joining as a member.


Interesting addition by Hugh McLean.

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