Free Speech and the Campus Discourse

Free Speech and the Campus Discourse

For my first post on my shiny new blog, I want to wade into the deep, murky waters of free speech, specifically as it relates to this one specific Thing That Happened. I’ve got a lot to say about this, and my position is a bit complicated, so buckle up!

Yesterday, it was widely reported that Warwick’s Student Union had declined the request by prominent public figure Maryam Namazie to give a talk to the Union’s Atheists, Secularists, and Humanists’ Society. The linked blog post (from Maryam herself) quotes the Union’s reasons for doing this. The general gist of it is that they believed there was a risk she would “incite hatred”, and that they have a responsibility to prevent this from happening.

Uh-oh.

Image from Wikipedia
Gotta admit, not a fan of the crest.

It’s important, then, to explain carefully who this person is and why the Union might feel that there is a risk she will “incite hatred”. Maryam is one of the founding members of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, an organisation I have huge respect for. The CEMB helps people who no longer wish to call themselves Muslim, for whatever reason that may be, do so in a way that allows them to live as normal a life as possible. This may be exceedingly difficult for many people, as in many families adherence to the Muslim faith is intrinsically linked to your status as a family member. For those of a Muslim background who wish to live a secular life, it may mean disconnecting entirely from your family, or death threats, or even actual physical harm.

Image from Wikipedia
Maryam Namazie

Given this, it is possible to construct the logical sequence of steps that led Warwick to make the conclusion they did. “Inciting hatred” is quite a vague term, and I can see how a student sabbatical officer could have read about the work she has done and interpret it as anti-Muslim bigotry. Just to be crystal clear — their conclusion is wrong and she is not inciting any kind of hatred or bigotry, but it’s at least possible to see the internal logic at work. More on this in a bit.

Although I’m not a Muslim, this is an issue close to my heart for several reasons. Firstly, I have been involved in student union politics for a number of years now, and so I’d like to think I have an ‘insider perspective’ on this sort of thing, which I’ll conclude this post with. Secondly, I’m a member of the British Humanist Association, and so a life explicitly free from religion has always been very important to me. I have always believed very strongly in Secular Humanist principles. Finally, I’m from a secular Jewish community which lives adjacent to a very orthodox Jewish community, and so I see the same kinds of things happen in that community. You hear all sorts of horror stories. Many families will “sit shiva” — a mourning ritual for the recently deceased — for their still living relatives who choose to leave the orthodox Jewish community. It’s truly outrageous, and more needs to be done to help people in this situation from every religious background.

I’m going into detail about this because I want to be very clear about something — Warwick’s Student Union has absolutely made the wrong decision in declining her request. Maryam and her organisation do a tremendous amount of good in the world, and I have absolutely no doubt that there are people from many faiths at Warwick whose lives would be significantly improved by hearing what she has to say. When you listen to the stories ex-religious people give of how much happier they are after shedding the lie they’ve been forced to live, it becomes exceedingly clear that as many religious people as possible need to be made aware of her work — it is possible to live a happy, fulfilling life free from religion, no matter what your family background is. The choice is open to you.

As you can imagine, the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society, and many prominent public figures have spoken out against this decision. Some prominent popular scientists (and Ben Goldacre, who insists I refer to him as a medical doctor specifically!) have declared they will not speak at Warwick until this decision is overturned. And again, I want to be clear, everyone is right to be outraged. This is a positive use of their energy, and I do hope that it results in the Union overturning their decision.

I say all this to make my position as clear as possible, because what I’m about to say next will muddy the waters:

Maryam Namazie was not censored.

The press have reported this by using the word “banned”: she was “banned” from speaking at the university. What’s important to note here is that in her own blog post, in her own words, even with all the (fully justified) outrage she felt, she didn’t accuse Warwick of “banning” her from speaking. I’ve used the same terminology as her — the Union “declined” her offer to speak. Is this just linguistic masturbation? I think not. I think there is an important distinction, and I think (without trying to assume too much of the mental state of another human) that she chose her words very carefully — she’s a smart person!

I don’t want to call this a “ban”, or “censorship” because she hasn’t been physically prevented from stepping foot on the campus grounds. Her stuff hasn’t been taken away. She hasn’t been thrown in a gulag, or disenfranchised, or anything like that. She has had her invitation to speak at this one specific event on this one particular topic revoked. Maybe you would call that a “ban”, and ok, at that point it is just linguistics, but can you see where I’m coming from? Can you see how what happened to this speaker is far less bad than what happens to people who are actually censored, in countries where this is still a thing that happens regularly? I genuinely believe calling this censorship does an injustice to the actual victims of censorship in oppressive regimes worldwide (such as the Iranian regime Maryam spends a lot of her time actively fighting).

Because here’s the thing — the Union are perfectly within their right to do this. It’s their space, on their campus, and they can set the rules however they want. The Union is not obliged to provide a forum for anyone who wants to say anything they want. Your free speech is not inhibited by someone denying you a platform to voice your opinions. The legal right to say whatever you want without fear of legal repercussions is not the same as the right to have anyone and everyone always listen to what you have to say all of the time without exceptions. If a student union has actual good reason to believe that allowing someone to speak will cause actual harm to others, then they are absolutely within their right to deny the person the opportunity to speak.

Again, I want to stress as many times as possible, the Union, in this case, did not have a good reason to believe that her speech would cause harm to others, and have definitely made the wrong decision. They should not have exercised this right I believe them to have. The point I want to make is that I am defending their right in principle to “””ban””” speakers (is that enough scare quotes?) for the good of their student body; to curate the experience of university life to protect those who could actually, legitimately be harmed by certain forms of speech.

At this point you may be reading in disbelief my claim that it is possible to be harmed by speech. Sticks and stones, right? I’m sorry, but I think it is a bit more complicated than that. I believe it is certainly possible for speech to genuinely be harmful. Granted, only in very specific, rare circumstances, but the situations do exist. And in those situations I believe it’s important student unions (and other bodies) have the power to protect people from that sort of speech.

A good example is hate-mongering. (Harassment is another, of course.) It’s actually illegal in many places in many different forms. I’m a bit more wary of this, as when the government’s doing it, it actually is censorship, even if I can understand the motivations behind it. But in the context of student unions? They absolutely should have the right to “””ban””” speakers who deny the Holocaust, who call for the murder of infidels, who say homosexuality is a sin, who belittle women and deny them their dignity, and so on. We do not have to put up with this crap. We are not obliged to provide these people a forum to propagate their hatred. When these speakers are given a platform, it legitimises their views, even in a small way. It gives them the veneer of legitimacy, as if it’s still ok to hold those views. Look what happened when the wretched Donald Trump was given a national platform — it encouraged petty bigots to come out of the woodworks and declare their bigotry proudly for all to see.

Some may argue that there is a benefit to this — that by exposing the bigots we can challenge their views. And yes, that is an advantage to putting this in the open, and if a student union were to allow such speakers on those grounds it would be something I could possibly accept. If a student union were to err on the side of ‘let anyone talk no matter what’, that would be a morally defensible position, even if it was one I do not agree with. But equally, I think it’s important that unions who choose to err on the side of protecting their students are given the benefit of the doubt.

Because let me be clear — these types of speech can cause real harm, both emotional and physical. By legitimising the view that, say, homosexuality is a sin, it helps bigots to convince themselves that it is ok to then degrade and dehumanise people, and possibly even be violent against them. It also has the effect of making people feel considerably worse about themselves — to the point of genuine emotional trauma, which can lead to self-harm and suicide. Do those kind of people need to toughen up and learn to take it on the chin? It becomes very hard to argue such a position after listening to the accounts victims of this kind of speech give of how it affected them. It’s easy to dismiss this as ‘nannying’, but frankly, if you have the power to stop someone actually self-harming, and all you have to do is not let some asshole speaker from the middle ages speak at your university? Sign me up for that option.

Universities have a responsibility to challenge their students, to take them out of their comfort zone, and to expose them to interesting ideas they haven’t seen before. But there’s a difference between the moral discomfort of having your political, religious or philosophical views challenged, which is a good, healthy discomfort, and the psychological discomfort caused by certain types of speech. The term “psychological discomfort” numbs what it actually is, though — trauma. Speech can be traumatic, and in those cases, it is actually in the interest of (in this case) the union, to minimise its effect on its students. It’s possible to have a healthy campus discourse about a range of topics without letting assholes ruin the fun for everyone, and that’s what I care about.

Free speech is an important human right that should be defended. You should not be persecuted for your beliefs. But I’m sorry, but this is so far removed from actual persecution of ideas that the comparison just doesn’t work. The problem with trying to devise any sort of rule-based system of ethics (such as “always protect free speech”) is that there’s always going to be edge cases where the rule makes people worse off, even if for the majority of instances it actually serves to make the world a better place. Some people find this hard to accept, and so they contort their internal logic to find any sort of rationalisation they can latch onto to allow themselves to believe the rule is causing less harm than good, even when it isn’t. It’s okay to not have an internally consistent ethical framework to live by. It’s okay to be a bit hypocritical, if it’s actually for a good cause. “I believe in free speech, but I won’t let that asshole misogynist speak in my union” is an okay thing to say. (I will be doing a blog post on hypocrisy at some point in the future to elaborate on this.)

This is one of those edge cases. And I think it’s important that we, as a society, are brave and mature enough to appreciate this, and allow a discussion to be had about possibly allowing some “rules” to be broken (even though you’re not actually denying free speech, as I’ve outlined) for the actual greater good, even a rule as common sense as “always protect free speech”. Who decides when to break the rules? We do. We shitty humans with our dumb monkey brains. That’s actually a fundamental principle of humanism — the notion that we can trust humans to make up our own rules about how to live in societies, without adhering to rigid moral absolutism. Of course, this means we will get it wrong sometimes, as we have in this case, but I believe on the whole that it is worth us having this power.

I want to end this discussion by bringing up one more point. As I said, I’ve been involved in student union politics for a while now, and I have seen this sort of situation come up before. I had the pleasure of working, in my time at Imperial College and its Union, with a phenomenal sabbatical officer team, who cared about the Union, were enthusiastic about helping people, and genuinely wanted the best for the students. I have never interacted with the Warwick Student Union, but (and maybe I’m being naive and optimistic) I’d like to believe that the same can be said of the people who made this decision.

Let’s be clear here — no matter what decision they made, someone would have been pissed off. I’m pissed off they didn’t let her speak. Someone else would have been equally as pissed off if they did. You’re pretty much always going to piss someone off, so make sure you piss off the right people. Here the right people to piss off absolutely would have been bigots who use words like ‘apostasy’ and ‘infidel’ as if they have any meaning, who deny people the right to self-determination, who believe that the family one happens to be born into somehow should have any bearing on what theological beliefs you should be expected to have about the world. They didn’t piss them off, though, they pissed me off instead… but I can absolutely understand why they did it.

When you’re a sabbatical officer, you have a million and one things to deal with, and on top of that, you are expected to personally vet every speaker who comes through to protect the students you love and care for. Of course under those conditions mistakes will be made. Student politicians are terrified of the spectre of ‘bigotry’, because it is very easy to be bigoted when you’re dealing with these kinds of situations, even unintentionally. When you are in charge of a large, diverse body of students, you do want to do whatever you can to deflate tensions between different parts of that body. A university like Warwick will have people from all over the world with all sorts of conflicting beliefs, some of which are toxic and harmful, and it’s impossible to know for sure which speakers will make it all kick off.

To conflate what Maryam does with “inciting hatred” is misguided (the blog post by Maryam herself provides an excellent explanation of why this is, and how it relates to a fundamental misunderstanding of the “Muslim community”, which I highly recommend you read), but having been behind the scenes of a student union, I can vouch for the pressure these people are under, which I hope will allow you to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I do hope that they revoke this decision (and I believe they will — again, optimism). It must suck for them to be under this intense, international scrutiny. No one likes being a pawn in the culture wars. If you can’t get to Warwick to see her speak, I recommend coming along to a whole panel of ex-religious people, which will take place in two weeks at UCL!

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