There are two narratives that have dominated the discourse on freedom of speech in recent years. The first is concerned with the real or perceived rise in the extreme far-right, hate crimes and a general increase in hostile sentiments towards groups perceived as vulnerable or marginalised. The second is concerned with the apparent increase in attempts to curb freedom of expression, be that in the media, on the internet, on university campuses or by a general suspicion towards ideas that question the present dominant leftist ideas on issues such as immigration, gender, Islam, feminism and others. However, both narratives agree that the political landscape has become more polarised and that something needs to be done to address the growing divide.
Both concerns are rooted, at least in part, in actual evidence. Statistics have indeed shown that reported hate crimes have increased in the last few years. Although, many police departments acknowledge that a significant proportion of the increase is due to improved recording and reporting. However, the anonymity of the internet has also given rise to people sending vicious, racist, misogynistic and homophonic online abuse to anyone with little consequence, leading some to believe that this is emboldening trolls in real life. Importantly, actual extreme far-right attacks, have contributed to a greater sense that the far-right presence and their willingness to act has increased. Many who highlight these problems call for public institutions, tech firms and the media to censor certain opinions – based on the logic that if the general public is not exposed to certain views, fewer people will be convinced by them and consequently fewer people will adopt them. In addition, they argue that there is a relationship between hateful speech and hateful actions, and thus curbing the former will reduce the latter.
However, as well-meaning as these arguments sound, I disagree with them. Not only because I believe that they are leading to more harm than good, but also because many of the proponents of these arguments have questionable intentions. The fundamentally subjective nature of ‘hate speech’ makes it painfully unreliable as a concept. Naturally, because individuals are inherently different, what they perceive as hateful will widely differ. As a woman of colour, myself, I seldom find words hateful or offensive enough that I would want steps to be taken to ban it. Yet, I am continually having decisions being made for me about what speech I can and cannot handle, homogenising and infantilising me for my group identity, erasing my unique mind and voice. There are many views that I am inclined to strongly disagree with, but that does not mean that I would not want to hear why another person holds those views. Humans beings are diverse in every sense of the word and learning about each other’s experiences and perspectives are crucial to social cohesion and mutual respect. Banning certain ideas strips many people of their agency to decide for themselves what ideas they want to be exposed to, and it leads to hindered communication and understanding between individuals and groups.
In addition, there is no evidence that banning speakers actually reduces the prevalence of their ideas generally. If anything, it fuels their real or perceived grievances. In reality, there are numerous avenues to express ideas nowadays, particularly online, where views are expressed in an echo chamber and frequently go unchallenged. If people are genuine about wanting to tackle prejudice and discrimination, then equipping oneself with the tools to construct powerful arguments that challenge what one considers discriminatory ideas head-on will succeed greater in the long-term than shutting down dialogue. Indeed, historically and presently, certain groups have not and do not have equal access to platforms of discussion, but the solution to that is not less speech, it is more – continually creating and re-creating new dialectical domains. Social and cultural change should be decided by a continual process of negotiation and conciliation, not imposition.
Those that are concerned with growing attempts to curb freedom of speech have strong justification for this claim. In the UK, the police are increasingly being called by people who want to stop others from uttering things that they find ‘offensive’. The debate surrounding freedom of speech is often disingenuously framed within the false dichotomy of “the far-right” vs “marginalised groups” when in actuality, the implications of speech codes spread far wider than that. The state becomes emboldened to enforce constantly changing social trends – this has implications for scientific research, critical inquiry, and even an individual’s capacity to organise their own thoughts. Unfortunately, the internet has become a major battleground in the struggle for cultural dominance, with major tech firms taking particular ideological stances – banning people expressing a range of opinions from Sargon of Akkad to Alex Jones. The internet must be reclaimed as a means of engaging in free and open exchange of ideas.
Some argue that many in my generation do not know what it means to seriously live without freedom of speech or have never had to fight for it, leading us to take it for granted and shun it easily. However, I do not completely subscribe to this claim, I think there are a multitude of simple as well as complex reasons for our current situation, Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of The America Mind, wonderfully describes many of these reasons. In-any-event, our societies are almost inevitably becoming more diverse and therefore, we must be able to not only tolerate different viewpoints but empathise and communicate with different viewpoints also. As blindingly obvious as it sounds, it is okay to have conservative views, it is okay to have concerns about immigration, it is okay to take pride in Western civilisation and culture – but some university campuses will have people thinking otherwise. But, with any stance comes a responsibility to be able to defend your position in the face of pressure to conform.
People need to reflect deeper about the implications of many of the things that they call for. The recent rescinding of Dr Jordan Peterson’s fellowship at Cambridge University indicates that not even our most prestigious educational institutions are able to withstand the present nervousness towards the most basic democratic value, freedom of speech. That is why we, particularly young people, need to re-elevate and protect this fundamental value and re-claim its utmost importance to our culture. This doesn’t have to be done by means of angrily protesting, shouting people down or participating in meaningless twitter feuds. We must open up new and reuse old domains of communications: write a letter of complaint to your university, support and share alternative news sources and social media platforms. And one of the best ways to spark a conversation is to host debates, discussions and forums on these issues. Indeed, this is what I will be doing on May 7th, 5.30-7.30pm (BST). I will be hosting a debate about freedom of speech at Pyramid Theatre, Leeds University Union.
Universities primarily exist to support the education of their students. As a student, the university has an obligation to cater to the ideological diversity of the student body (and wider society). Hosting discussions, talks, and debates from a range of standpoints are part of that process – making students aware of the varying ideas that they will inevitably be exposed to outside of university life. We should not let this trend towards conformity continue. I am hoping that this event will inspire other students, staff and people in the UK to host similar events and reignite passionate debate onto university campuses and beyond.
This article was originally published in Areo Magazine and has been edited for The Gryphon.
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