The recent decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban two adverts because they promoted gender stereotypes has been discussed in terms of busy-bodying, freedom of speech, and whether such bans are proportionate. But there is a deeper issue here that raises the question of what sort of society we want to be, and what we understand liberalism to be fundamentally about.

As matters stand, dominant social norms in the UK include features such as expecting men and women to share tasks around the home, taking pride in British activities and understanding that other cultures have things to teach us as well, accepting that at least the world’s major religions ought to be treated with respect, thinking that public displays of affection by both heterosexual and homosexual couples are proper, and many others.

Obviously, we believe that we are right in adopting these norms. But, equally obviously, many people in the past, or in other countries today, would fundamentally disagree with many of the above norms.

In the past, advertisers have sometimes sought to be provocative in challenging society’s norms. Back in past times, when most people believed that women ought to be the primary caregivers of their children, some adverts showed women going out to work and men looking after children. Or when a lot of people believed that public displays of homosexual affection were inappropriate, adverts sought to challenge that view.

Why should we assume that today’s norms are the end of history? Perhaps people will, one day, decide that men should not be left in charge of babies again. Adverts that challenge our current assumptions may be part of that evolution. And while we might hope that doesn’t happen, nobody wins arguments by suppressing the opposition.

Again, some advertisers might want to target those of heterodox opinions, for their products. For example, they might want to sell things to conservative Muslims or fundamentalist Christians who believe in gender roles. Why should they be banned from communicating with their target audience?

A society in which we hound from their jobs anyone who disagrees with the majority view or in which we ban any advertisement that clashes with or subverts current social norms differs only from the mediaeval Inquisition by methods of enforcement. Each is so certain that it is right in its beliefs that it feels justified in oppressing anyone who seeks openly to challenge them.

Today’s “woke” dogpilers and supporters of positions such as that of the ASA usually like to imagine themselves as liberals. But the oppressing of beliefs that challenge social norms is not liberalism – it is the opposite.

Classical liberalism is not a view about which beliefs we should have. It is, instead, a view about how beliefs should interact and evolve. It is intrinsically dynamic, not static. It believes that there may well be answers to the differences that separate people, and we may even find them one day – indeed, someone in our society might even have found them already. 

However, though each of us believes ourselves right, we might be mistaken. An enormous advantage of having a plurality of opinions and approaches is that I might find out where I am wrong and be corrected.

That also means that, since I may be right and others wrong, I should not be required to accept points of view and behaviours with which I disagree. I need merely to tolerate them and accept their presence, so that when I try to convert others (and when they try to convert me) we all dynamically evolve (hopefully) closer and closer to the truth.

So the error of the ASA in banning adverts that offend people or promote ideas that society considers harmful is not simply an absence of common sense or taking things too seriously. The whole principle of seeking to prevent challenges to prevailing social norms is flawed, constituting a deep assault on the very idea of a free society.

We may not always have lived up to our liberal ideals in the past. Doubtless, many adverts were banned that ought not to have been (and some permitted that should have been banned). But mistakes then are not a good reason to repeat them now. Advertisers should not have to produce adverts that conform to current social norms. We might be wrong, and it might well be an advert that shows us that.

Written by Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico is a political commentator.