It is often assumed that young people are the most likely to hold liberal attitudes. And on many fronts, that is the case; among those under 35 there is widespread support for the values of liberalism and tolerance, as demonstrated in the national debate about gay marriage. But data from the latest British Social Attitudes survey exposes how young people’s views are now hardening about the freedom to express extreme views. This is troubling.
Between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of people aged 34 and under who feel that groups with extreme religious views should not be allowed to hold public meetings has doubled. Young citizens are now more comfortable with groups with racist views being free to speak openly than those who hold extremist religious attitudes. This is despite the fact that, in general, social attitudes have become more liberal right across the generations in the past three decades.
Allied to that trend, perhaps, separate figures show that young people are now less trusting of others, and more likely to believe they are treated unfairly. Only a third of those born after 1990 say that many people in their own neighbourhood can be trusted, compared with two-thirds of those born before 1945.
So what is going on? People are, inevitably, shaped by their experiences. Since the terrorist attacks on London on 7 July 2005, the risk of terrorism – both actual and, importantly, perceived – has increased in the public consciousness. Terrorism has also become inextricably linked with religious struggle, rather than exclusively political causes. There can be no doubt, as the researchers also acknowledge, that the shift in perspectives around free speech, and what should be considered an unacceptable threat to the community, has changed as a result. Terrorism perpetrated in the name of religion elsewhere in Europe, not least the abhorrent attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, and the rise of Isis in the Middle East, have no doubt also contributed to this shift in attitudes.
What at first might appear a welcome development – our young people are less likely to have sympathy for attitudes which are at odds with a tolerant society – actually masks a significant threat.
We may be more tolerant of one another’s beliefs, relationship choices and lifestyles than ever before – but where those choices are believed to pose a threat to others, that tolerance now has a tighter limit.
It is an extension of another trend: individualism. A government study of young people’s views published at the end of last year found they were more likely than older generations to be critical of the Welfare State, and more concerned with independence and opportunity than with the shared benefits of social redistribution. That attitude, especially to benefits reform, was apparent in this year’s general election. As individuals, we might feel that there is personal safety to be gained from muffling the voices speaking of uncomfortable or unwelcome things. But as a society, as a collective, we are on the cusp of forgetting the enormous benefits of freedom to challenge extreme and dangerous views in an open, public forum.
Our young people have lived through the threat of terrorism, but not through the threat of the erosion of democracy. We must not allow a generation to become naïve or complacent about the fundamental role that freedom of speech plays in upholding the democratic process. No one has ever been persuaded to change their minds because of a ban. Indeed, it is more likely to transform preachers of hate into unlikely martyrs for religious freedom.