Saturday, April 16, 2016

Free Speech is not a delusion

If there were an award for charging off in multiple wrong directions at once, a truly awful article by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman called The free speech delusion would probably win this year's.

She begins her piece with perhaps the most comprehensively wrong and untrue statement which I have heard in 2016 (and considering the amount of rubbish talked by the hardline elements on both sides of the Brexit debate, that is really saying something) which is as follows:

"Those who want to facilitate bigotry and shut down dissent among voices that have been silenced for too long are exploiting the language of free speech."

"Oscar Wilde, who knew a few things about censorship, once wrote that he could 'tolerate everything except intolerance.' Today, the rhetoric of free speech is being abused in order to shut down dissent and facilitate bigotry."

That is not just rubbish, but dangerous rubbish. Anyone who really believes in free speech, and many of those who have been complaining loudly about what has been going on in too many Universities have impeccable credentials showing they really do, wants it for everyone. I don't agree with everything that Noam Chomsky said but he was dead right on this one

The people who are trying to defend "safe space" and "no platform" policies sometimes suggest that it is only rich white straight middle class males who have been prevented from speaking by such policies.

Laurie Penny stops just short of endorsing that view, but appears to suggest that she is on the same page, in her article when she says

"I hear the phrase "freedom of speech" so often from people trying to shut down radicals, queers, feminists and activists of colour that the words are beginning to lose all meaning."

I don't know what planet Laurie Penny is living on, but the people I hear defending freedom of speech have been defending it for radicals, gays, feminists, and people of colour.

Peter Tatchell is not a "rich white straight middle class male" and ticks at least two of Laurie Penny's boxes. Yet an officer of the National Union of Students, Fran Cowling, attempted to get Peter Tatchell's invitation to an event cancelled by refusing to share a platform with him at a debate in Canterbury in February.

The people who were trying to "shut down debate" and shut down people on Laurie Penny's little list here were not the ones using the phrase "freedom of speech" but the National Union of Students.

The apparent reason they accused Peter Tatchell a "transpobe" and "racist" is not because they had any convincing evidence that he is any such thing but because he had signed a letter suggesting that Germaine Greer should be allowed to speak - a letter which did not, incidentally, endorse the views which people who were trying to ban her for: to quote for the letter itself

"You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying."

So again, the person who was being silenced is someone who for most of my life was regarded as a feminist icon: the people who wanted this famous feminist to be allowed to speak were the ones who  were using the language of free speech and the ones who were trying to shut down a feminist were the ones who were using the language of "safe spaces."

And perhaps most egregious of all was the ridiculous attempt, subsequently overturned, to ban ex-Muslim campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking to the atheist society at Warwick University.

I cannot think of anyone who more perfectly meets Laurie Penny's description of "voices that have been silenced for too long" than Maryam Namazie, who does not match a single point of the "rich white middle class male" stereotype and does match three out of four of those which Laurie Penny accuses the people she criticises of trying to silence.

The fact is that we do have a freedom of speech problem in British Universities and elsewhere and it is important for the growth of democracy that we try to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is available to all points of view.

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