This weekend, an open letter on the subject of censorship and free speech – “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” – was published in the Observer. It stems mostly from the cancellation of a recent gig by the comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmith’s College, but also touches on other cases where political pressure and no-platforming have allegedly been used to silence individuals, including Germaine Greer, Rupert Read and Julie Bindel.
The letter, which has over a hundred signatories, many of them notable, suggests that universities “have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying”, and links to an earlier article by Nick Cohen, in which he argues that universities “must end the censorship of debates that provoke no violence beyond the violently hurt feelings of the thin-skinned”.
A campus should be a place of debate and disagreement, in other words, where ideas can be exchanged, attacked and defended. I find little to disagree with in this idea. As a general rule, I like a heated argument: if I stick an opinion out there, I’m happy for it to be challenged, and perhaps even to change my mind as a result. Because I presume it’s just my ideas that are being kicked around, and my ideas are a constant work-in-progress, I never take disagreement personally, however vehemently it might be expressed in the moment. And where is that a more appropriate approach to debate than on a university campus?
There have been objections to the letter, though, largely because of its context. The letter has an explicitly feminist edge, and the examples given are individuals who have expressed views that are perceived as negative, and who have been protested against, by sex workers and the trans community. If you follow these arguments on twitter, a number of individuals on both sides are familiar from the respective trenches, but particular attention has been directed towards signatories such as Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell, who had previously been seen as allies. In a blog responding to criticism, Beard said she had gone to bed in tears and explained:
“Anyway since the letter was posted on the Guardian website first thing on Saturday, for two days I have been bombard by tweets (and a few emails). Some tweeters have been very polite in their disagreement; for which, thank you. Others not quite so (i should be clear, though, there have been no threats of violence). I mean bombard. I got 60 tweets in the space of about an hour from one person alone.”
There are a few obvious points that can be made. Having free speech does not entitle you to a platform on a university campus upon which to express your views, and you are not being censored if a booking is retracted, or not offered in the first place. You may still publish your views in the myriad of places available to you, including the Observer, without fear of arrest and in anticipation of debate. If a booking is made at a particular place, and people object to that, the concept of free speech allows them to protest. And more basically, the cases the letter references are perhaps more nuanced than they might at first appear.
Leaving most of that aside, I’m not quite sure what I think overall. My own views on free speech fluctuate a lot. I like to say I believe in it absolutely, which means I believe anyone should be able to say anything at all, with the exception of outright threats and extremely direct incitement to violence. At the same time, I’m aware that – with pretty much every privilege box checked – I’m highly unlikely to encounter speech that attacks me for what I am, or which strikes at my very existence, so it’s a very painless theoretical position for me to take. I can argue that a Holocaust denier should be allowed to express his stupid and ignorant views, say, but I’m never going to be a victim of anti-Semitism. I can say someone using the N-word is just saying a word, but I’m not the one who has to deal with it being directed at them, over and over. And so on.
The damage done by language is difficult to quantify. One famous example is that free speech does not include the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre, but the reason for this (assuming there isn’t a fire) is that someone hearing you shout that has no real way of evaluating the claim. They simply have to act, which results in a violent stampede. That is direct incitement; there is no realistic mental space for the individual to make an informed decision. And that’s where I generally draw the line, as to do otherwise seems to me to deny individual autonomy and responsibility. But of course, speech can contribute to and build a general atmosphere of violence, so while a particular utterance may not directly result in harm, it might still be harmful. So where do you draw the line, and who chooses? I don’t know. I’m aware that my absolutist position is perhaps just an attempt to avoid the knot of the problem altogether, but I’ve also never seen a solution that successfully untangles it, and so for the moment it remains my position. The distance between an example of speech and an example of an actual act of violence feels key.
Which means, I think, that I have to part company with the letter:
““No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety.”
Reading it, there is no evidence that the signatories believe in unfettered free speech. This passage indicates they would restrict it when it came to certain difficult views, just not their own difficult views. And I find that problematic. Now, I can see that giving a platform to the far right (for example) risks violence, and while I wouldn’t personally count that as direct incitement (the individuals in the crowd remain in control of, and wholly responsible for, their own actions), I guess it’s close enough that I can just about see the argument. At the same time, I remain unconvinced that many far right speakers and Holocaust deniers are no-platformed solely because of a realistic fear of immediate violence. And I can also appreciate the responses of trans people to the letter, which argue that the points and language used by some potential speakers cultivate an atmosphere that allows or encourages real violence against them. Overall, I think my absolutist position forces me to side with the signatories on the examples given. But I’m not remotely sure they would side with my absolutist position on others, or that their arguments against them would convince me.
Regardless, all that said, I certainly can’t condemn any of the people disagreeing (mostly politely, albeit in great numbers) with Mary Beard on Twitter. It’s an imperfect, overwhelming medium for such things, of course, but that is still free speech in action. Let positions be made, and let others disagree, and let very few be censored and silenced. Julie Bindel commented: “This is how the bullies do it: Mary Beard left “wanting to cry””, apparently not realising that her own views may well have felt like bullying to other people, and maybe even made them cry too. But of course, I’m sure we’d all agree that you can’t dispense with free speech just because it makes someone cry. As Mary Beard herself observes:
“I do believe that if you sign a public letter, you should be there to respond to the interlocutors (it’s debate after all)”
It is indeed.