Off Centre
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Timidity over free speech is a gift to political authoritarians

Criticising China for its attempts control free speech ignores what is happening in the universities of the UK and the USA: concepts such as “microaggression” seem tailor-made for regimes like China’s

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2015, 2:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2015, 2:52pm

Two political hemispheres, two very public commotions.

In Beijing the other week, camera crews and foreign diplomats were harrassed, pushed and punched by police outside a courtroom where the civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang stood accused of “inciting ethnic hatred”, and of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” His charges relate to posts he left on social media which were critical of the Chinese government, including one in which he questioned its “excessively violent” crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Looking on, foreign powers tutted, then went back to not caring terribly much.

Earlier in December, a humanist group at Goldsmiths University in London welcomed the activist Maryam Namazie to speak at an event. An Iranian woman who fled that country after renouncing Islam, Namazie has nevertheless consistently challenged “the erroneous conflation between Islam, Islamism and Muslims” and lobbied for British Muslim women to be afforded proper protection in family courts. To the Goldsmiths Islamic Society however, she was persona non grata. Having previously hosted Hamza Tzortzis, a man who advocates the beheading of apostates, has likened homosexuality to cannibalism and regards free speech as un-Islamic, it declared Namazie’s presence on campus to be a “violation of [their] space”. Members showed up to intimidate her, turning off her projector and shouting her down.

The response of the university was to put the humanist group under investigation – almost as cowardly an action as the decision of the students’ union at the University of Warwick, which in the autumn blocked a visit from Namazie on the grounds that her presence might offend Muslim students, only to relent when academics protested. Meanwhile, the Feminist and LGBTQ+ Societies at Goldsmiths enacted their own astonishing feats of gutless intellectual timidity in voicing solidarity with those offended by Namazie. The latter organisation explained that: “If [the speakers felt] intimidated, we urge them to look at the underpinnings of their ideology. We find that personal and social harm enacted in the name of ‘free speech’ is foul, and detrimental to the wellbeing of students and staff on campus.”

To attempt to draw parallels between what goes on in places like China and the narrowing of the parameters of free speech in the west is to invite guffaws.

To attempt to draw parallels between what goes on in places like China and the narrowing of the parameters of free speech in the west is to invite guffaws. For many bright people, it is enough to say that there is no such thing as absolute free speech, and that anyway it’s usually those on “the right” who complain that they’re being censored – and their views are nasty, so who cares? Those of us who value free speech as the starting point for most other freedoms worth having are the kind of people who “bang on”. The only response is to take things slowly from the top and explain why this stuff matters at all.

First, a few more recent examples – chosen predominantly from the realms of education and academia – of how things go when you hold the wrong views or say the wrong things. In October, the students’ union at the University of Manchester, also in England, banned two journalists from speaking at a debate – about free speech. One, Milo Yiannopoulos, had previously challenged the notion of a widespread “rape culture”; the other, the feminist writer Julie Bindel, was branded “transphobic”.

In America, where the policing of racial etiquette on campuses has reached a new intensity, Erika Christakis, a professor at Yale University, bowed to pressure and resigned some weeks ago over an email she had sent questioning the logic behind Yale’s request that students not wear “culturally insensitive” Halloween costumes. This followed the humiliation by university authorities of Val Rust, a professor at UCLA, for “disrespecting a student’s ideological point of view”: he had changed the student’s capitalisation of the word “indigenous” to lowercase.

In June, the Nobel prize-winning British biologist, Tim Hunt, said at a conference in Korea that when “girls” were present in a research laboratory, “you fall in love them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”. Taken in context, his audience said, it was an awkward attempt at a self-deprecating joke; nevertheless, when they got wind of it, Hunt was attacked by feminists and ultimately forced to resign: a distinguished career in tatters. In France, meanwhile, the former actress Brigitte Bardot has been repeatedly fined for describing halal slaughter as “barabaric”.

And then there is her countryman Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, an Islamic comedian accused of anti-semitism. Since 2014 he has been banned from entering Britain – where, in September, the students’ union at the University of East Anglia also banned sombreros, judging them “discriminatory or stereotypical”.

In Britain, a similarly illiberal attitude of mind has taken hold – one that seems quite antithetical to the very notion of debate.

In the U.S. context, two academics – Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt – wrote in September about a “coddling of the American mind” that is evident in attempts to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offence”. In Britain, a similarly illiberal attitude of mind has taken hold – one that seems quite antithetical to the very notion of debate. We tend to take it for granted that education offers a test ground for competing ideas – including unpopular or wrong ones. Today’s university appears more and more to be a place where the “correct” sensibilities must go undisturbed.

The language used to stifle discussion is revealing: offense-taking has acquired its own lexicon, all the more absolutist for its vagueness. “Problematic” language or ideas are “offensive”, of course, but also “unacceptable” and “inappropriate”, and they present issues of “safety” and “risk”. Where the old saw had it that only sticks and stones could be used to hurt, now words have the power to inflict “verbal violence” and cause mental harm – although being made to feel “uncomfortable” is enough on its own to require redress. Endlessly “vulnerable” to language, people are enjoined to be “triggered” by the world in all its messy reality. With Maoist zeal, things (inappropriate songs, discriminatory hats) and people are served with bans, or “no platformed”, a practice quite beyond satire which involves being denied the opportunity to publicly discuss a matter on account of holding views divergent from those of other speakers. By clearing the pitch in this way, those who consider their beliefs above reproach are left with a “safe space”.

In Britain at least, the fancy for being “triggered” is incontrovertibly bound up with laws and regulations introduced in recent years to counter a feared rise in “Islamophobia” – well-meant laws which nevertheless make it very difficult for non-Muslims to talk about Islam in any meaningful sense at all and rather less difficult for citizens to be accused of “stirring up hatred”. By making it a crime to “incite” an idea or emotion in others that may not even in itself be illegal, such vague laws invite an intense scrutiny of language and have a chilling effect on speech. In the end, all that matters is whether an individual claims to be offended, in which instance lawful recourse other than simply ignoring, or gainsaying, what has been said, is now available.

To the engineers of this state of affairs, free speech is a source of tensions and part of the problem, not a solution.

To the engineers of this state of affairs, free speech is a source of tensions and part of the problem, not a solution. The orthodox liberal approach to reconciling disparate belief systems, on the other hand, would be to allow free speech full rein: if Muslims are to rub along with their secular and largely permissive British neighbours and extremism is to be rooted out then certain things must be open to discussion. Not a chance. Under the cloak of respecting “diversity” the law pretends to be on the side of both Muslims and homosexuals, who, by laws against homophobia, are similarly protected. This may explain why the LGBTQ+ Society at Goldsmiths University finds common cause with Islamists but it does not resolve any underlying conflicts.

Real dialogue, meanwhile, is made yet harder by the bullying absurdity of “microaggression”, a notion that gives the policing of thought its very own water cannon by assuming that, intended or not, discrimination is just waiting to be given breath in most minds (bar those belonging to persons held likely to be discriminated against). And even to question such vigilance is enough to alert the sentinels. Eager to flush out aggressors of all magnitudes, the University of Wisconsin’s Inclusive Excellence Center maintains a list of triggering terms to watch out for – and to that list was recently added “politically correct”, which it explains is used to suggest that “people are being too ‘sensitive’, and police language”.

By encouraging the proliferation of outrage, and its performance, such concepts as microaggression can only poison the well of normal social interaction, besides causing more of us to retreat into our “comfort” zones lest triggering occur. By placing offence beyond objective scrutiny, we remove a layer of stigma against paranoid individuals acting recklessly on their trauma. (Look at the perpetrators of most mass shootings: somewhere along the line they’ve had their feelings hurt; they’ve been triggered.) But it’s fear of something else that underpins the modern itch to restrict what can freely be said by others: an elitist fear of what the ham-headed masses are capable of thinking if not herded properly by those who know what is appropriate.

By expanding the scope of incitement to make it wholly subjective, and by shaming or silencing the heretic and the dissident, we also validate the more iron-fisted authoritarianism of regimes with no history of respecting difference. Punishment and re-education are their first and last resort. In the case of Pu Zhiqiang, the state has decided that his views are offensive and hateful. It does not matter to whom. We’re supposed to be better than that in the west.