Universities should stick up for the underdog

Free speech at university isn’t a one-size-fits-all, argues Lu Allan.

May 19 2016
Free speech

“Free speech” seems to be a pretty hot topic right now – particularly in relation to universities, which have been the backdrop for a lot of recent no-platforming and protesting. Do universities have a right to prohibit certain individuals from giving public speeches on campus on the grounds that their beliefs are distasteful or harmful? Is it reasonable for students to boycott or protest against some speakers or speeches? Or should university campuses be a verbal free-for-all, where anyone may promulgate anything, no matter the implications or potential consequences?

I don’t think there is a hard and fast answer to these questions. In fact, I’m conflicted. Something in me is put off by the absolutism of simply silencing anyone who broadcasts objectionable ideas; however, I’m also a great believer in protecting the rights and interests of marginalised groups (who are most often the ones demonised and delegitimised by such “objectionable” ideas) – and this includes their right not to have to deal with public displays of hatred against them.

Richard Dawkins disagrees with me there. A few months ago, he tweeted:

A university is not a ‘safe space’. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.”

It is the ultimate insult to tell people who are already vulnerable that they are pathetic, or that their vulnerability is entirely their own doing. How unfortunate, too, that the “real world” is equated with danger; as if feeling unthreatened by society at large should be regarded as luxury, characteristic of overindulgence and spoon-feeding (of course, in many parts of the world, for many reasons, this is a luxury – but that’s a story for another day).

Maybe Dawkins just means, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, that students should be exposed to varying points of view throughout their time at university – as will happen once they leave and enter the more adult world – rather than be sheltered from all but one “correct” way of thinking. However, there is a crucial difference that is often missed here, and that is in the context in which ideas are introduced on campus. Of course, the point of university is to educate people in how to deal with and evaluate conflicting and often controversial ideas and points of view. An idea presented in a classroom setting is one to discuss from a distance and to analyse critically. On the other hand, an idea presented in the form of a public broadcast on campus is one that the institution condones. This is similar to the difference between religious education and religious observance in schools. There are ways of exposing students to all sorts of viewpoints while preserving vulnerable people’s safety and well-being.

It isn’t just Dawkins who supports this liberal attitude, though. All sorts of influential people, from John Stuart Mill to Barack Obama, have made the argument for freedom of expression – perhaps less confrontationally than Dawkins, too. In On Liberty, Mill proposes we should actually be thankful for the people who publicly present ideas that we may find abhorrent: we are thereby given an opportunity to strengthen our own, reasonable, views by testing them against opposition and showing how well they stand up to offensive criticism.

Universities, Obama said in a speech last year, should be a place where different views are explored; a place where students’ horizons are broadened and they come face to face with ideas they’ve never encountered before. Mill’s ideology is noticeable in Obama’s comments. When faced with objectionable beliefs, he says, students should challenge, debate with and engage in conversation with their holder, rather than outright refuse to have anything to do with anybody whose views contradict their own.

The crux of both Obama’s and Mill’s arguments is a valuable one: “bad” ideas won’t simply disappear if we ignore them; real social progress is achieved when we face opposition head-on and work hard to change attitudes on a deep level. This is a laudable ideal, but an ideal nonetheless. In reality, it can be exhausting for individuals of an unjustly demonised group to be constantly aware that they are the subject of regular public scorn, never mind attempting to actively challenge anyone who perpetrates such scorn. Talking on about Germaine Greer’s statements about transgender people, the journalist and activist Paris Lees said:

“And if I’d have known that Germaine Greer was coming to my university, knowing, as I did, the awful things that she said about trans people…and everybody was going, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful; Germaine Greer’s coming to talk,” I honestly think it would’ve been enough to tip me over the edge.”

When you choose, as an institution, to no-platform someone because you believe their beliefs to be harmful and incite hatred, you’re showing a bit of solidarity with those people who are most affected by these beliefs: isn’t this something universities could pride themselves on?

There will never be an easy, one-size-fits-all way of avoiding using judgement when it comes to deciding who should be given a platform and who should not. Trotting out a universal axiom of free speech too easily discourages us from exercising judgement in the actual context in which the event occurs and the likely consequences that we can foresee. I think students should learn about and be able to analyse ideas and viewpoints we may find controversial or reprehensible, but I also believe that universities should consider carefully the context in which these ideas are put forward. Students should have a right to protest – and universities shouldn’t be afraid of sticking up for the underdog.

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