Free-Speech for Progressives

by | January 18, 2018

‘No-platforming’ and freedom of speech are in the news at the moment. Under the new regulations introduced by Universities’ Minister Jo Johnson, academic institutions could be fined if it can be demonstrated that they have suppressed freedom of speech. It’s unclear why it is the role of government to regulate academic discourse. I also imagine that the policy is going to be near unenforceable. How do you provide evidence as a university that you have not displayed political bias in your choices of speakers? What do you point to as evidence that anyone you have chosen not to invite has been overlooked for strictly non-political reasons?

That said, I think we should welcome this safeguarding of free speech. The first reason for this is that attempts to curb free speech – such as the act of ‘no-platforming’ – often blur the line between what people should do and what they should be able to do.

The scale of ‘no-platforming’ as a phenomenon is, I think, much smaller than many on the right would have us believe. But it has come a long way since the 1970s, when it was first adopted by the NUS as a measure targeting only hate speech and fascism. More recently, figures such as Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, and Julie Bindel have been the subject of no-platforming campaigns.

Aside from the actual views of a particular figure, what no-platforming campaigns are really protesting is the decision of an institution to invite that figure to speak. But the premises of this protest are flawed. The first is that allowing the expression of a viewpoint equates to the endorsement and legitimization of it. But this notion denies any role for context as something which might complicate matters. The second, that the presence of certain speakers violates the university’s status as a safe space for students. Again, this doesn’t hold up. No figure who comes to talk gives their speech in a student’s house or halls of residence. No student lives in the Oxford Union. Speakers talk in the public spaces specifically designated for debate. If it is a debate you do not wish to participate in, then you are under no obligation to come to the talk. The third premise is that hearing a viewpoint inevitably involves conversion to it. This reveals a worrying lack of faith in our critical faculties to assess what someone is saying. Together, these lines of thought amount to the misconception that disagreeing with someone is a legitimate reason to prevent them from expressing their opinion.

If ‘they should not say it’ becomes ‘they should not be able to say it’, it will be a real threat to personal freedom. It will undermine the basic principle that we have freedom and self-determination, provided we are not causing harm to others. Credible attempts to incite harm are grounds for preventing speech, for which hate speech laws are already in place. Personal disagreement is not. We are already capable of performing this kind of thinking elsewhere. For example, it is not contradictory to think that you yourself would not have an abortion but nonetheless to defend passionately the right of a women to abortion. We must bring a similar kind of mindset to our thinking on freedom of speech.

Blurring the line between ‘should’ and ‘should be able to’ is, in fact, inimical to attempts to encourage the sensitive use of language. We should encourage people to be judicious in their choice of words. We should also be prepared for our opinions to be scrutinized, and be thorough in our scrutiny of others’. But when we replace scrutiny with suppression, we allow people to merely cite their right to freedom of speech as a defence of the content of what they say. ‘Thought police’ is the go-to insult for critics of political correctness. People who use this insult capitalize on an existing conflation of binding, legal restrictions on speech and non-binding encouragements to use language in a particular way. Political correctness is concerned with what people should say, given that they don’t want to be upsetting, inaccurate or inflammatory. The second part of this conditional clause is implicit, and should perhaps be articulated more often. What is essentially an attempt to influence how people speak, incentivising the prudent use of language, is tactically misconstrued as an attack on our right to speak. As such, the scrutiny is often rejected outright.

This brings me to the second reason for supporting free speech in universities. Progressives do not benefit their political causes by silencing or ignoring their opponents. Behind no-platforming is a kind of linguistic hard determinism. Strict policing and regulation of language makes sense if society is constructed wholly and neatly by its discourse. That is, if the mere expression of a viewpoint means that those who hear it will unthinkingly adopt it. Of course, our discourse is influential in creating who we are and what we think. This fact can at times have negative consequences. An example of this might be the correlation between reported hate crimes and increasingly nasty rhetoric about immigrants during the EU Referendum campaign. However, we already have hate speech laws in place. What’s more, the relationship between language and society is much more complicated than the practice of no-platforming would suggest.

Silencing a view does not necessarily mean defeating it. If anything, bigotry can be harder to deal with and more insidious in a society where its surface manifestations have been largely eradicated. The existence of reformed vocabularies should not trick us into thinking that structural or institutional injustices have also been reformed. The election of Donald Trump indicates that improvements in political discourse do not necessarily accompany changes in attitudes. America’s public discourse in 2016 may have been more PC than it was in 2008. Its president was not.

This is why it can be a useful exercise for progressives to hear viewpoints that they find offensive. This interaction is best, of course, in its proper setting. Such as an optional talk, arranged by an institution of learning, taking place in a neutral and public space designed for debate. In the 2016 Election, the American left’s problem was essentially an imaginative one. It could not understand the appeal of Trump, and, as such, could not effectively combat it. In February 2017, UCLA anti-fascist protesters prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from delivering a talk he was scheduled to give to the university’s Republican society. No doubt much of the speech would have been bigoted lies and misinformation. But he has a huge following in America. His success is an important symptom and cause of Trump’s. If progressives really want to defeat the ideology he espouses, they must start by being prepared to listen to it and attempt to understand why it has such popular appeal.

A renewed willingness from progressive students to listen to differing viewpoints could bring with it a wider political focus. This is because many conversations in young, leftwing communities are concerned predominantly with questions of race, gender, and sexuality. The entry of differing viewpoints to these conversations are, understandably, most likely to be resisted on the grounds of being hostile or offensive. But it could make them less exclusive, more accessible, and, as such, ultimately more worthwhile. Identity politics has been, and will continue to be, incredibly important as a movement. However, as Bernie Sanders’ success showed, progressive movements which seek mainstream popularity must seek to build broad, non-sectarian coalitions with a focus, above all, on economic matters. This remains, I think, the key to achieving the greatest and most widespread improvements to quality of life. What’s more, at least in America, the left can never have electoral success on a purely identity-based platform. The right is much more effective at politicizing and weaponizing identity than the left is. While the left’s demographic is varied and fragmented, the right’s is much more homogenous: largely white, male, blue-collar, and straight, it is easier to unite. Trump is an identity politician.

This, then, is the second reason progressive students should support freedom of speech in universities. They will be required to abandon a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ policy. But, in the long run, it could prove vital to bringing about real change.

Artwork by Isabelle Davies