Backchat: Freedom of Speech

In response to the apparent conflict between free speech and ‘wokery’ in the university setting:

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Freedom of speech is a cherished cornerstone of democratic societies and often celebrated as an unassailable right and fundamental tenet of liberal thought. Universities must be the epicentre of intellectual exchange, where ideas, even those on the fringes, are allowed to flourish. I shall consider whether freedom of speech should be absolute, unburdened by social responsibility. There are evident benefits for freedom of speech in the university community; it fosters a rich intellectual environment where diverse perspectives can be freely expressed and debated. It encourages critical thinking, challenging preconceived notions, therefore calling forth the expansion of knowledge. It allows students and faculties to probe into controversial topics, engaging in debates that drive progress and innovation. Open dialogue is the bedrock upon which intellectual growth and the pursuit of truth are built.

A zealous pursuit of political correctness can inadvertently lead to self-censorship

Nonetheless, if unchecked, extremist views, hate speech, and discrimination may equally be given a platform within the university and subsequently foster an atmosphere of exclusion and harm for marginalised communities. Counteract this hypothetical detrimental academic environment with ‘cancel culture’, and such comments or views may be rapidly eradicated from a conversation. I am going to walk on eggshells and hope to not immediately provoke such reaction by suggesting a second understanding of this phenomenon: that it can sometimes result in a chilling effect on free expression. The very principle of open discourse — in specific instances — may be undermined, as individuals become hesitant to voice dissenting opinions or engage in controversial discussions. The risk of excessive ‘wokeness’ and a culture of reservation is that it may curtail freedom of speech in the name of protecting individuals from harm. A zealous pursuit of political correctness can inadvertently lead to self-censorship, stifling open dialogue and academic inquiry. The result may be a sanitised, echo-chamber environment that discourages intellectual diversity, constraining the very principles that universities are meant to uphold.

In seeking to safeguard open discussion, universities must carefully avoid an overzealous emphasis on “wokeness” or excessive reservation that may, paradoxically, hinder the very ideals they aim to protect. To strike a balance, universities must acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns on both sides of the freedom of speech debate. While protecting marginalised voices and fostering inclusivity is crucial, it should not come at the expense of open discussion. The key lies in crafting institutional policies that respect the boundaries of free expression, without enabling hate speech or discrimination.

In response to Adrian Gorman’s article ”Chilling’: Ariana Grande, Amanda Gorman and others sign letter against book bans’ in The Guardian:

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A recent article in The Guardian highlighted a public letter with 175 signatories criticising the “chilling effects” of “oppressive bans” on books within American schools. With book bans in U.S. schools at an all-time high according to research conducted by Education Week, the letter called for these “censorious efforts” to be vehemently opposed in order to “support free and open creative industries”. For signatories such as Ariana Grande, Mark Ruffalo and Guillermo del Toro, there is particular concern over the restriction of literature produced by LGBTQ+ and minority ethnic communities.

The letter concludes that content restriction, particularly when used to scapegoat marginalised communities, is “antithetical to free speech and expression”. I fully agree, and as such this letter represents a pleasing intervention into a deeply polarising topic. For several prominent Republican Party politicians, the school, and more widely the education system, has been chosen as the latest battleground for the ‘culture wars’. In particular, current governor of Florida and potential Republican presidential nominee Ron DeSantis has used education to cultivate his own public persona, launching a ‘Stop-Woke’ campaign that has, for example, led to divisive rhetoric over transgender students, political alterations to the school curriculum, the banning of many books with themes of race and gender, and his infamous ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.

Banning books that don’t conform to the orthodoxy of thought of the ruling party is behaviour symbolic of authoritarianism

Simply put, banning books is unconstitutional, illiberal, and deeply unethical. As we come to embrace diversity and systematically break down the prejudices of old, engagement with a diverse expanse of literature ought to be fundamental to modern-day education – it should not be prohibited.

Furthermore, banning books that don’t conform to the orthodoxy of thought of the ruling party is behaviour symbolic of authoritarianism, not democracy. It is thus perhaps worth noting the irony that the very political forces that weaponise the rhetoric of freedom of speech, railing against the supposed-ills of wokery and cancel culture, are actively restricting that very right. Although this phenomenon so far appears to be restricted to across the pond, British politics has been experiencing a recent sweeping sense of Americanisation, particularly within the Conservative Party. We must therefore remain wary of this particularly dangerous trend sailing our way.

In response to philosopher Karl popper’s idea on the paradox of tolerance:

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Tolerance is listed as one of the core ‘British values’, but to whom do we owe tolerance, and to what extent?

The idea of symmetry in tolerance is an interesting one: if you call out the intolerant behaviour of others, does that make you equally as intolerant? Some would argue you should tolerate their intolerance according to the principle of freedom of speech. But when misinformation is spread, and moral panics are cultivated, harming marginalised communities, I am left wondering about the cost of this freedom. It seems that one person’s freedom of speech can conflict with another’s freedom from harm.

It is for this reason Karl Popper developed the paradox of tolerance, suggesting that without limits to tolerance, society’s very ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. With European Law and the Declaration of Human Rights outlawing hate speech, we can see that this paradox is heeded at least in a legal sense.  This highlights how it can perhaps be preferable to limit free speech, insofar as there should be a distinction between free speech and hate speech, or there should be freedom of speech but not freedom from consequences.

Without limits to tolerance, society’s very ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant

However, this is not a universally accepted idea. One need only look to the USA, whose first amendment in their constitution enshrines freedom of speech. The nature of the US constitution makes this difficult to adapt or limit, setting it apart from European attitudes. Professor Bollinger labels free speech as one of America’s ‘foremost cultural symbols.’

This leads to an interesting conversation over the purpose of free speech. Contemporary ideas about free speech suggest harmful speech should fall under the same umbrella, because this encourages self-restraint, which is seen as a virtue. However, this could allow society to fall to ruin according to the paradox of tolerance. Another reason for free speech is its democratic function, but it is within liberal democracies specifically that the paradox of tolerance warns free speech should be limited. I think it’s important to acknowledge systemic inequalities and hierarchies that makes the intolerance of hate speech far more harmful than the intolerance of interfering with it. The state should intervene to protect marginalised communities from the tyranny of the majority. In my opinion, to allow free speech without limits entails, at best, an underestimation of the power that speech holds, and, at worst, the state’s neglect of society’s most vulnerable.

Image: Brain Turner via Flickr

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