Drawing on their boundless linguistic ingenuity, the British have worked out a neat little trick to take the edge off when endorsing restrictions on individual liberty. “I believe in freedom of speech,” members of parliament or representatives of advocacy groups will say with real poise. And then they will add the word “but” and explain disjointedly why they don’t. For some inexplicable reason, this is startlingly effective. Human ears, it seems, couch the truthful second statement in the more people-pleasing first. The preamble to the “but” makes what follows all the more persuasive, even when the statements are contradictory. It’s quite brilliant.
In practicing this nasty little maneuver, a distant cousin of the false dilemma, speakers drape themselves in the politically desirable cloak of moderation. And faux moderation is better than none at all. Even in the Britain of 2013, one can’t come straight out and say, “I think people should be imprisoned for saying things that I consider unacceptable.” Instead, one must display at least cosmetic fealty to the principles of liberty before one promises to undermine them entirely in practice.