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Voices: Forget Bond or Dahl, Putin’s ban on ‘foreign words’ shows us what an actual threat to free speech looks like

One of the most successful ideological campaigns the political right has waged over the past decade is convincing the average voter that they are the sole defenders of “freedom of speech”.

The fact that the left, which has historically had a premium on freedom of expression (and in many important ways, as in the case of trans rights and science-based education, still does) has conceded on this point is embarrassing – not least because the current popular notion of “free speech” is so wildly inconsistent.

People seem to use the term almost exclusively when defending speech that will offend or potentially cause harm to vulnerable communities, while letting it fall by the wayside when it comes to defending the rights of those same communities. When people say “free speech” here in the UK, they’re often referring to a bastardised version of an American legal right that has been filtered through the lens of a thousand reactionary YouTube videos. As such, it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually means to have your right to free speech challenged – or even taken away entirely.

But now we’ve been given a stark reminder of what it looks like when a person’s free speech is actually placed under threat, as Vladimir Putin has banned government officials from using most foreign words (with the exception of those that have no Russian equivalent, a list of which will be compiled by a government commission and published separately) while carrying out their duties.

Officials will not be allowed to use words and expressions “that do not correspondent to norms of modern Russia”, in an amendment to a 2005 law designed to protect and support the status of the Russian language. While it isn’t yet known what – if any – punishment officials with receive for breaching the new rules, Putin isn’t really a “slap on the wrist and a stern talking to” kind of president, so we can only speculate.

It makes all the recent hand-wringing over Roald Dahl and James Bond books seem a little small-times, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, you can think both cases are bad, but in my view, calling for publishers to remove some upsetting words and phrases from a couple of kids’ books and pulp fiction novels pales in comparison to having your speech literally restricted.

Here in the UK we sometimes act like the sky is falling if our kids read the words “fat” or “ugly”, as in the case of Dahl – even though the argument that kids can’t challenge injustice if they don’t get to see or engage with it in the first place, is a good one (I say this as a former fat kid myself – and current fat adult). I personally don’t see a problem in taking out abusive slurs and insults, but I can also see why the original editions of the books should still be available for purchase.

But what is happening in Russia is actually a really great model to refer to next time some internet provocateur tells you that a stand-up comedian being yelled at for saying the n-word is an “attack on freedom of speech”. That’s largely because it contains three features that are often absent in hysterical “free speech” discourse:

Firstly, it’s arbitrary. Say what you will about the censorship of James Bond novels, but there’s an undeniably conscientious motivation behind it. Those books contain some pretty sexist and racist tropes and language, and we live at a time when sexism and racism are on the rise and should be criticised. Rewriting this nation’s literature is a bad way to do that, sure, but at least you can follow the logic. Putin’s ban on foreign words is a largely symbolic (and xenophobic) gesture based on the spurious reasoning of “protecting Russian identity”, as if foreign words are magic spells with the power to turn a Russian official into a Ukrainian sympathiser overnight. There’s no secretly-noble motivating factor at play; it’s just another spasm from a desperate and dying regime.

Secondly, it’s an actual example of “thought policing”. When people use that term here in the UK, or you see some far-right American politician use it, you can instantly suss out one thing about them without even trying: this person has never read George Orwell’s 1984.

In that novel, the point of Newspeak (the book’s state-mandated language) wasn’t to change the way people talked – that was a secondary effect, if anything. The actual point was to make them self-consciously aware of their every action, to the point that many of them believed that “Big Brother” could read their minds. It was an example of what you might call “brainwashing”, with the logic being, as in this new case in Russia, if you can control the way people communicate, you can control everything about them.

It’s why using words like “ban” when talking about the Roald Dahl situation is so disingenuous; there is no penalty for reading them or, as we’ve seen recently, loudly defending them in public. We are not living in an age of Newspeak, we’re just living in an age where people are more aware of how their words can affect the world around them.

Finally – and this is probably the most important feature that’s missing from British and American “free speech” discourse – it’s an actual law, coming from the actual government. This isn’t some blue-haired student yelling at you on Instagram for accidentally messing up their pronouns. That person doesn’t have any meaningful measure of control, and you shouldn’t build your entire political philosophy around getting even with them.

That last point is so often missing when people discuss freedom of speech in this country. People are allowed to be mad at you for the things that you say – that, ironically, is a foundational underpinning of free speech – but a lot of the time the so-called “woke brigade” isn’t actually in a position of authority to stop you from saying those things.

We have to stop acting like they are. because – as we’re currently seeing in Russia – there is a huge difference between people loudly disagreeing with speech they find offensive, and people who are actually in a position of power banning those things outright.

God willing, we’ll never be in the position that Russia currently is in when it comes to the ability to exercise our fundamental rights; but if there is anything that’s going to take us there, it isn’t going to be the fact that people are “too woke nowadays”.