What can Durham learn from the Batley protests?

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The events at Batley Grammar School, where there have been protests against the use of illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on blasphemy, reopen a debate on the freedom of speech that the thinking of our age has polarised and tangled with identity politics. Yet, this act of heresy is especially poignant considering the academic context in which it was committed. Far from the preacher on the street corner, or the polemicist at the rally, the question no longer is about the freedom of speech but its more nuanced cousin: the freedom of discourse.

It is usually egregious to attack individuals on their person, and this attitude is often with merit. Such is what the usual criticisms of freedom of speech address; issues such as hate speech and discrimination against a person or persons arise. However, what has become more pathological in current social dialogue is the false equivalence between the freedom to criticise individuals and the freedom to criticise ideas.

This is where the waters have muddied. Intense devotion towards an ideology often leads to a dependence of a person’s identity on it; that an equivalence between the person and that notion is established – that criticising or attacking an idea held so highly is akin to doing the same towards the proponent of that idea, which is often a more controversial thing to do. Indeed, the individual is characteristically inseparable from their belief. In the current climate of political correctness (which can have its practical benefits) we thus often find that the act of criticising certain ideas can be construed as “offensive” in this respect, ultimately destroying any chance at possible productive discourse or balanced awareness. In the democratic contexts of public policy and academia, this is clearly unacceptable – terribly so when it comes to questions of religion and politics.

In a pluralistic society, how can the importance of discussing blasphemy or freedom of speech be denied?

Yet this is the joy of free discourse: people are able to choose their beliefs and accordingly advocate them. The simple caveat to this is that disagreement is equally possible, permitted and even encouraged in any liberal public forum: we get to test, contest and critique adopted views.

When children are denied the tools of critical reasoning and the freedom to respectfully disagree, we are suddenly overwhelmed with an unwelcomed nostalgia of the medieval ages. Indeed, it was by overcoming the absolute “truths” of our elders that developments in art, medicine, technology, and philosophy ensued. To protect our children from debate is not to “safeguard” them, as Baroness Warsi put in her Friday interview with the BBC Today programme, but it is to inhibit them.

The teacher from Batley Grammar was believed to have shown his students illustrations from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose office was brutally attacked by Islamists in 2015. In late 2020, Samuel Paty, a teacher in Paris, was beheaded in the streets for doing the same thing as the teacher from Batley Grammar who is now in hiding: showing his class some of these cartoons. In a pluralistic society, how can the importance of discussing blasphemy or this kind of freedom of speech be denied, especially with recent, historical cases so important as these?

To “safeguard” children would be to prevent the use of speech to do them harm; to dispel hatred, disrespect, and animosity directed towards themselves. It is not, however, an excuse to support the censorship of debate and discussion that masquerades as an aegis. This does not only apply to children, nor to religion either.

Respect is, nonetheless, an unshakeable pillar upon which a democratic and pluralistic society is built and I indeed hope that we display empathy, kindness, and tolerance to people even if we do not share their opinions. As such, we await the result of the investigation into the teacher and the pedagogical practices of the department: questions such as “did he warn his students before displaying the cartoons?” have yet to be answered decisively. However, those calling for him to be sacked do not find this to be a commodious option, as we have seen in those images of the police and protesters standing in front of the school gates. Consequently, the teacher having to go into hiding sends a clear message to other educators wanting to have a robust discourse about Islam. Why take the risk?

Shutting down and no-staging “controversial” ideas is nothing but an appeal to intellectual conformity

Dare I say it was as if, rather than protecting their children, the majority of the Batley protestors wish to protect their children’s faith. Though in a society where we draw hollow existential equivalencies between a person and the ideas to which they prescribe, there is little difference between the two. As such, by disrespecting Islam we disrespect these protestors.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this that we can take on board here at Durham. Particularly, Durham Students’ Union who adopted a policy last month bestowing upon themselves the right to cancel any speakers they deem “widely regarded to be controversial”. This is the same administration that, without consulting Assembly, its students’ representative body, disqualified all votes for ‘Re-Open Nominations’ in last year’s election. An Palatinate contributor was right when they said in their February 19th article that “the idea that the SU should set the standard of debate in Durham is, frankly, laughable”, and it is truly worrying that it would take it upon itself to become judge, jury and executioner in all matters related to public discourse. While I’m sure – I hope – that this was done with the purest of intentions, it is unbecoming of an academic student union to pre-emptively tell its members off with a diktat resembling “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all”.

Legal restrictions on the freedom of speech are undoubtedly necessary to fulfil a duty of care, being conceived of to apply to hate speech and bigotry. Shutting down and no-staging “controversial” ideas, however, is nothing but an appeal to intellectual conformity and internalised division. Rather, they should be addressed and democratically debated instead of opinions spoon-fed to us. While this policy was a step to tackle the threat of racism and bigotry present in our society, it was alas a step too far. Cancelling a speaker due to their extremist, hateful views is a job well done. It is sloppy and cheap, nevertheless, to do so by virtue of the interpretation of “controversial” by a select few.

Image: Remy CARTERET via Flickr

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