This is the time when new lines are being drawn. The time when the standard liberal view of freedom to speak, to protest and to publish is under strong challenge – not from the right, but from individuals and groups who see themselves as the real
liberals: and wish to silence those whom they view as causing harm by their use – they would say abuse
– of freedom.
The most storied battlegrounds are those on the campuses of US universities – where banning of speakers and discussion of issues, claims of 'hurt' and 'damage' to students both by other students and by professors abound. One example: in Princeton, a professor, Lawrence Rosen, used the 'N-word' in a lecture on hate speech, asking (according to a report in the campus newspaper): 'What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n****r?'. Several students complained to the authorities, asking for him to be censured for use of the word. Before the issue went any further, Rosen cancelled his course.
Challenged on its use, Rosen said he employed it because he thought it was necessary to his argument. It was clearly used to demonstrate a point of how hate speech is used, the word being strongly present in the rhetoric of those who hate people of colour. The cancellation appears to have been his decision only: the chair of the anthropology department, Carolyn Rouse – herself African American – strongly defended Rosen, writing that he was 'fighting battles for women, Native Americans and African-Americans before these students [in his class] were born' and that the course was designed, in part, to move beyond the impulse to ban words or arguments 'because it made me feel bad'.
Rouse's last comment is the central one. New lines are being drawn to limit speech and publication on the basis – largely – of the hurt that is claimed, or assumed, to be caused to others by the mere appearance of a word or words. The call to ban or de-platform also applies to an argument which is thought to cause an individual or a group to feel bad – as one made, for example, by Germaine Greer, who does not believe that surgery will turn a man into a woman, making her, in the view of some in transgender groups, to be a bigot, with no right to be heard. She was the object of an attempt to 'no platform' her when asked to speak at Cardiff University in 2015; the call, from the university's women's officer, was supported by nearly 2,500 signatures: however Cardiff authorities insisted, successfully, that she be allowed to speak.
An unusually clear expression of the limits, even the emptiness of free speech was made last March by the Guardian
columnist Nesrine Malik who wrote that 'freedom of speech is no longer a value. It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates… aided by the group I call useful liberals – the "defend to the death your right to say it" folk'. She condemned 'the delusion that freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social bias'. Her argument is that since free speech is used by racists and ethnic cleansers, it cannot be a 'neutral principle'.
Earlier this month, an essay – Designating Hate
– was published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It, too, was an usually clear argument – for
censorship, in this case of organisations 'which demonise specific groups on the basis of their race, religion, gender, nationality or sexuality'. The proposal would task the Home Office with the duty of drawing up a list of those organisations which habitually used speech designed to prompt hatred, and to limit them 'from appearing on media outlets or engaging with public institutions'. They would be given a chance to reform: reviews would determine whether or not the organisation had changed its behaviour, and if so, it could be admitted on to the media, or to an engagement with public institutions, once more.
The proposal, though working in a different register, is of a piece with those who would deprive certain speakers of a platform, or seek to censor or even have dismissed those with whom they disagree. But in one sense it is more extreme. Where the no-platformers aim to have the target of their action deprived of an opportunity to put their case, typically following an invitation to do so by one group in a university or other institution whom others in the same university or institution despise, the Blair Institute is calling for a state-backed ban – the Home Office would decide which were the offending organisations and silence them.
Of course, liberal democratic states do
silence some opinions, such as those that deny the fact of the Holocaust, or betray state secrets, or are believed liable to cause civil disorder. These are not without challenge from civil libertarians, and states differ on what to ban: Britain does not criminalise Holocaust denial, though France, Germany, Italy and many other states do. The principle that some limits should be imposed is generally uncontroversial: the issue is on what.
The standard liberal position – that everything not deemed too extreme can be said or published – is now strongly challenged by liberals who see themselves as more radical, more truly liberal, than the rest. It is one of the major cultural shifts of our times.
The view that freedom of speech furthers understanding, broadens the mind and sharpens, modifies or even changes one's own beliefs is now opposed by another view, often militantly expressed. This holds that institutions of all kinds have a responsibility to protect people from opinions they find odious because people will sustain psychological damage from exposure to them. It is a matter of sensibility, and it dictates that the person or group who would cause such harm should not be given any kind of platform – in person, on the web, in print.
The liberal order – derived, among other influences, from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty
and from his famous statement that 'If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind'. The new order has, in part, inverted that. The ill against which Mill preached was silencing: now, the ill is speech itself.
A last example. At a discussion on global warming I attended recently, one of the panelists – the well known Australian scientist/activist Tim Flannery, opened his remarks by warning the audience that some of the issues discussed on the effects of global warming in the future could cause distress: and that those who thought they would be too much affected should leave. No-one did. I thought, and said to others, that this was absurd: would not an audience coming to such a talk be well aware of the dire consequences of global warming? And for those who did not, should they not benefit from being upset, even shocked?
I now think it wrong to class such warnings as absurd. Warnings now should be given: perhaps generic warnings, saying that opinions and arguments which would likely arise in discussion of controversial, or distressing issues might cause offence, and that though the organisers believe that such robust debate is necessary in a democracy – indeed necessary for a democracy – others may differ, and should take action accordingly. That is, the warnings should both alert those unwilling to have their beliefs challenged that they will be – while asserting the principle that argument cannot proceed without challenge, which may be unpleasant.
That could be made clear to general audiences at public events and debates. It isn't, however, necessary in universities. These have worked on the implicit assumption that debate will and should be challenging. No need, then, for a warning. But we have perhaps reached the point where those who run, and teach in, universities need to make that explicit at the beginning of every university year – this month of September being one such beginning.