“You can’t say anything nowadays.” Actually, you can say quite a lot—and Western governments hate to prosecute people over speech, even in Europe, because it is so tricky and contentious. What does exist, however, is a metacensor. It works as so: back in the 1970s, in New York, cops used to arrest gay men on various petty charges in the parks, in Times Square, and in the favourite cruising spots—they never prosecuted these men, they released them from the cells the next morning. That was the point: pick up and release—the polysemy in the arrest was to “cool it” with the lewdness, to keep ’em in their place. It was rarely worth a prosecution, but it preserved the tone.
The same situation pertains as regards speech in the West. Hence in Britain we have what is called “a recordable hate incident”—it is not a crime, it is just that an officer will visit someone, note that a complaint has been made about what they said, advise them to delete whatever they said, and tell them that the incident has been recorded. In this way, the police can censor people without formal censorship—for most people the scare of a police visit and the thought, especially for the middle class, that “a record” has been made somewhere (a police record) is enough to deter them. As with the New York gays, nobody is prosecuted—technically, homosexuals are not persecuted; technically, people are not censored.
Yet the de facto situation is that people are intimidated into shutting up, just as the NYPD forced gay men to keep a low profile. “The record” is a powerful instrument in atomised bureaucratic societies—to have been entered “in the system” in some way is shameful, suggests implications for credit scores and employment (even if not real). What is an “incident”—a crime? Am I really in trouble? The doubt and fear spreads well beyond the people it actually affects. “Can you say that, mate?”.