free speech

Posted by on February 16th, 2015

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 16th, 2015 at 7:07 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


7 Responses to “free speech”

  1. Sophie Hannah Says:

    Interesting post, Steve!

    Like you, I think (hope) I believe in free speech apart from in cases of incitement to violence. I think there are several problems with the Observer open letter, however.

    1) It didn’t mention the most glaringly obvious case of what it purported to be addressing: the cancellation of the Oxford university abortion culture debate between Brendan O’Neill and Timothy Stanley. Some students didn’t want the debate to take place, for safe-space-related reasons, but it seems to me that a debate, taking the form of two people telling one another they’re wrong, is not endorsing either view. Therefore, pro-choice students would have had someone there defending the pro-choice position, and the university, by hosting the event, would have been in no way taking a side. On the contrary, students’ votes would have determined the winner. Students are empowered, by the debate format, to tell one speaker he/she is a fool! Another argument against the debate taking place was that two men had no right to debate abortion. I disagree. Whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life, no one would dispute that foetuses can be male as well as female, and men can be parents (and non parents) too, and we can all have views on when a human life should be assigned (or seen as possessing) rights. For me, all of that makes abortion a unisex issue. Anyway, there’s a big difference, I think, between calling off a debate and cancelling a speaker; the former, symbolically, says, ‘No – don’t discuss that thing; disagreement on that issue is forbidden’, whereas the latter surely says, ‘On reflection, we’d rather not invite this person’, which is an event organiser’s prerogative if that person is felt to be a harmful presence. So why was the Oxford debate cancellation – the strongest example of free speech being threatened – left out of the letter, when it was such an obvious case to include, and when it concerned a university? The reasons for its omission make me suspicious: specifically, suspicious that some people didn’t care that much about the prevention of a pro-life speaker speaking at a university *even though someone else would have been present at the same event, enthusiastically disagreeing with him*. The thing is, a genuinely pro-free-speech impulse, were it behind this open letter, would surely have said, ‘Look, everyone, let’s include the abortion debate thing! Yes, I know we all think pro-lifers are reactionary and anti-feminist, but that only makes our point stronger.’ (Which of course it would – show that you’d fight for the right of a pro-lifer to speak and you’re more likely to be believed when you say that free speech is the issue you care about.) Yet the Oxford debate cancellation was not included. That leads me to wonder if free speech wasn’t, in fact, what the letter was really about for some people. (Only some, crucially – there must be loads who signed it for the usual ‘Are you a good person? Are you against bad things? Then sign here!’ reasons. P Tatchell and M Beard, e.g.) But the letter reads to me as if it was drafted by someone who wanted to defend the free speech not of everybody but of sex-work-abolitionist and no-such-thing-as-gender-identity feminists. Therefore, it reads to me as hypocritical.

    2) At the risk of lowering the tone by mentioning Dapper Laughs, I know that a good number of the signatories were vocal about their desire to axe his show because they disapproved of its content. When the show got axed, there was some celebration. Yes, DL’s comedy was shuddersome to a feminist sensibility, but it’s still a bit much to sign an open letter defending free speech when you’ve cheered on the axing of a sexist (i.e. offensive to you) comedy sketch show. There was, of course, the suggestion that Dapper’s rapey jokes might have contributed to actual sexual violence, but that’s no stronger a claim than the idea that the presence of a ‘No-sorry-trans-women-aren’t-women’ speaker on campus might prompt anti-trans violence. Either of these examples *might* lead to an increase in either appalling behaviour. For this reason, the letter strikes me as, again, hypocritical. If you want to defend free speech only for gender-critical feminists, say so; if you fail to say so, you’re (slightly unfairly) tricking well-meaning freedom of speech fans into signing without perhaps knowing your true agenda.

    3) The letter was contained inaccuracies. (Again, it would have benefitted from the abortion debate example, which was a genuine cancellation in the face of protest!) As you say above, Sarah Brown’s blog post explains that Germaine Greer wasn’t cancelled; all that happened there was that some other feminists of a different stripe staged a kind of competing event – everyone got to speak and no one’s freedom to do so was stifled. The letter, however, cites the Greer case as one of its ‘Freedom of speech was threatened’ examples. This too makes me suspicious: all that seems to have happened is that some people expressed their upset with Greer being invited – quite understandable upset. I really can’t understand how freedom of speech supporters can complain if those upset by a putative speaker express that upset. Protest – peaceful and civilised – *has to* be allowed. I fear that the open letter disagrees with that basic point, which again leads me to wonder about its commitment to freedom of speech. More inaccuracy: Kate Smurthwaite, from what I gather, wasn’t cancelled due to low ticket sales, or to protests. She was cancelled because she feared protests, expressed that fear, and the event organisers wanted to avoid possible trouble. Again: no evidence anyone tried hard or indeed at all to get her uninvited. Rupert Read, the Green party guy: what happened there was that, again, some people expressed shock and upset when he (I think?) suggested that cis women should perhaps be given the last word when it comes to deciding whether trans women should be able to use public loos or not? As I read it, trans women responded by saying, ‘Hey! This is not okay!’ Quite understandably.

    So…it’s just very odd for the letter to seem to be about freedom of speech – a laudable ideal – when so many of its examples are just a bit…inaccurate and off, and the one shining example was omitted. Which makes me wonder what it is if it isn’t that, and whether it might just be an indulging of the very common human desire to really stick it to the other side.

    As for the two sides, there’s been an interesting blog in the New Statesman today – about what makes people call other people TERFS. One para in the blog says that the jury (scientific) is still out about whether there’s such a thing as ‘brain sex’ – apparently some scientists say there is, and some say there isn’t. I found this a fascinating revelation, because when I read anything written by gender-critical feminists, they all seem to take it as a given that there is no such thing as brain sex. They say things like, ‘There’s biology, which is real, and everything else is social conditioning or just your individual personality.’ Whereas if scientists are undecided, perhaps there IS such a thing as brain sex – which would make trans women biological women, despite being born with bodies traditionally defined as ‘must house a male’. Also, if there is a possibility that trans women’s female-ness *is* in some sense biological (and see Sarah Brown timeline from earlier about that scientific article claiming this very thing) then…having to read endless articles and tweets saying ‘You are a biological male and not in any meaningful way female’ must be galling *in the extreme*. And…well, possibly factually incorrect. And then for some of the people saying that to sign a letter saying ‘You can’t express your upset when one of our gang comes to speak at your uni…’ I don’t know, but you see where I’m veering. Clearly Mary Beard is a good sort, and no doubt many others who signed, but…I can understand the massive resentment towards the letter from within the trans community, and equally, the sex-worker community.

  2. stevemosby Says:

    I think those are all solid points, Sophie, although I’m not 100% sure of the circumstances surrounding the abortion debate. From (dim) memory, wasn’t the main objection that it was two men debating the issue? I know it wasn’t about the right to abortion, as such, so much as the effects of it on society, but I can still imagine the all-male perspective getting people’s backs up, especially with O’Neill’s involvement. I can’t really agree that abortion is a unisex issue. It affects the sexes in different ways, but the fact that it’s a woman’s body being discussed and controlled remains crucial for me.

    I do agree with the general thrust of what you say, though, and perhaps I was leaping slightly by assuming the letter was intended as a defence of free speech, rather than a defence of certain specific feminist arguments. I would imagine a few signatories took it as the former, but it’s true that the examples given come over as self-serving: a defence of free speech the content of which the signatories agree with, which is a relatively painless position to take on the subject as a whole. So I would tentatively agree with the letter, but I suspect I would use the same underlying principle to go much further than most of the signatories, which would then make me curious what principle they were operating from in the first place.

  3. Suw Says:

    I think it’s well worth reading Kate’s own account of what happened:

    Not least to debunk the claim that the problem was ticket sales. The gig was supposed to be mostly free for students with some tickets sold on top of that. Ultimately the decision was made to cancel the gig not just on the basis that there might be a picket which might affect student safety, but also because “if anything was to be said (not saying you will) it will have massive reprocussions [sic] for the SU and fem and comedy society just because it has been discussed so highly.”

    The latter point worries me intensely. It’s very similar to what happened with Jonathan Ross and the Hugos – a group of people made a collective decision about what they thought Ross was likely to say and protested about it before it happened. Smurthwaite has had the same thing – people complained about what they thought she might say, and the one complaint we know of, about what she has said in the past, was based on mis-hearing Smurthwaite’s words.

    It’s like the department of pre-crime.

  4. Phil Mordue Says:

    As an ex-debater from school and uni, it’s unsurprising for people to learn that I’m heavily in favour of the most liberal form of freedom of speech. (As per Steve’s drawing the line at potential incitement to harm/violence.) The letter struck me as a bit focused on what a few people wanted freedom of speech to talk about. Essentially I can’t take it seriously until they start supporting the right to freedom of speech for people who disagree with them or people who put forward views they don’t agree with. That’s really a bit of a tack-on to the discussion Sophie and Steve have already had. Essentially I’d agree with Sophie, I’d want more from somebody arguing the freedom of speech point. This is because it boils down to a traditional “the good outweighs the bad” argument. I’d want to see people acknowledge this and accept it/deal with the bad. Our culture (esp our political culture) seems to like trying to pretend the bad side of most things doesn’t exist. Right now, as Steve says, it all appears very self-serving.

    The cancelled debate at the Oxford Union is something which I’d discussed in a bit of detail with an old debating partner who’d gone on to become President of the Oxford Union after I’d left university. He (in his charmingly uncompromising fashion) declared the cancellation to be “intellectual cowardice of the worst kind.” He went on a bit of a rant that the president should not only have been removed from his position, but also that they should be expelled from Oxford immediately for “not having the brains to realise that University is the number one place where all topics should be considered openly and honestly for intellectual growth. He’s failed the University’s principle for seeking knowledge and therefore has no place there.” Granted, he was a few pints in by this point and I don’t think he really cared who was speaking or peoples’ feelings about the topic. That’s where he and I tend to part company as I err more towards the diplomatic. That said, I still think there’s a need to educate people about the purpose of public debate.

    I felt it would be interesting to share that view from my friend who was around to see the Nick Griffin debate there. If memory serves, the then president had argued it was essential to bring these people into the open and get them to share their point of view. (I think the House of Lords have made the same point on this topic.) That’s theoretically how you defeat extremism. You let them speak and then prove them wrong. You won’t convert the closed minded, but at least you prevent any open minded people being converted. (Which is a serious risk if you drive these people underground.)

    As for my own point of view… I’m very concerned by these new anti-terror laws Theresa May has been pushing through. The language describing extremism is so wishy-washy (extremism is described as “vocal or active opposition to British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”) that it feels like it’s right next door to thought policing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust my government to make a fair decision on what’s acceptable for me to say. So I’m glad the universities are speaking up about it. Any attention being drawn towards maintaining a solid freedom of speech and expression in this country can’t be that bad.

  5. stevemosby Says:

    Suw – thanks for that. I actually thought I had read it, but apparently not, as the narrative I had in my head was that she’d sold 8 tickets, with the threat of protests, and an unknown number on the door, so it had been pulled as the cost of policing it was too high for the return. That seems not to be the case, and I agree that the messages she’s posted are troubling, so thanks for the clarification.

    Phil – that’s all very interesting, so thank you for that. You’ll not be surprised to know that I agree with everything you say.

  6. Sophie Hannah Says:

    Suw – completely agree with you re ‘pre-crime’, and also agree about what led to cancellation in case of Smurthwaite, but this seems less an issue of anyone rallying to close down Smurthwaite’s free speech – which is how it’s being portrayed in some quarters, with anti-Nordic-model and pro-trans-rights people being cast as villains of the piece – and more an issue of the fear/timidity of one event organiser. If he/she/they had been braver, the gig would have gone ahead, but it’s hard to condemn anyone’s fear when we can all see on Twitter that days of haranguing can ensue!

  7. Sophie Hannah Says:

    Sorry, pressed send too early! Was also going to add: Smurthwaite has her detractors, who might have protested had the gig gone ahead, but free speech has to cover that protest too, I think. The Greer case shows what ought to happen, in a way: Greer was invited, some people objected, she spoke, they spoke at a separate event – everyone spoke! Yet this was portrayed as problematic by the open letter, so I can’t help suspecting some of them (not all, by all means) might in some cases be in favour of stifling peaceful protest.

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