This essay anticipates a debate at the University of Leeds which will be live streamed on Inaya’s YouTube channel, on 7 May, from 5.30–7.30pm (BST).
Two narratives have dominated discourse on freedom of speech in recent years. The first is concerned about the real or perceived rise in the extreme far right, hate crimes and a general increase in hostile sentiments towards groups perceived as vulnerable or marginalized. The second is concerned about the apparent increase in attempts to curb freedom of expression, in the media, on the internet and on university campuses and about the general suspicion towards ideas that question present leftist orthodoxy on issues such as immigration, gender, Islam and feminism. However, both narratives agree that the political landscape has become more polarized and that something needs to be done to address the growing divide.
Both sets of concerns are rooted, at least in part, in evidence. Statistics have indeed shown that reported hate crimes have increased over the last few years—although many police departments acknowledge that a significant proportion of the increase is due to improved recording and reporting. However, the anonymity of the internet has also allowed people to send vicious racist, misogynistic and homophobic online abuse to anyone, with few or no consequences, which, some believe, may serve to embolden trolls in real life, too. Importantly, actual extreme far-right attacks have contributed to a sense that the far-right presence and willingness to act have increased. Many who highlight these problems call for public institutions, tech firms and the media to censor certain opinions—based on the logic that, if the general public is not exposed to certain views, fewer people will be convinced by and consequently adopt them. In addition, some argue that there is a relationship between hateful speech and hateful actions, and thus curbing the former will reduce the latter.
As well-meaning as these arguments sound, I disagree. Not only because such views lead to more harm than good, but also because many of the proponents of these arguments have questionable intentions. The fundamentally subjective nature of hate speech makes it painfully unreliable as a concept. Since individuals are inherently different, what they perceive as hateful will differ widely too. As a woman of color, I seldom find words so hateful or offensive that I would want steps taken to ban them. Yet, I am continually having decisions made for me about what speech I can and cannot handle, decisions which homogenize and infantilize me on the basis of my group identity, erasing my unique mind and voice. There are many views I strongly disagree with—but that does not mean that I do not want to hear why another person holds those views. Humans beings are diverse in every sense of the word and learning about each other’s experiences and perspectives is crucial to social cohesion and mutual respect. Banning certain ideas strips people of the agency to decide for themselves what ideas they want to be exposed to, and it hinders communication and understanding between individuals and groups.
In addition, there is no evidence that banning speakers actually reduces the prevalence of their ideas. If anything, it fuels their real or perceived grievances. There are numerous avenues to express ideas nowadays, particularly online, where views are often voiced within echo chambers and frequently go unchallenged. If people are genuine about wanting to tackle prejudice and discrimination, then they should be equipping themselves with the tools to construct powerful arguments that challenge discriminatory ideas head on. This will succeed better in the long term than shutting down dialogue. Indeed, certain groups have not had and do not have equal access to discussion platforms, but the solution to that is not less speech, it is more: we need to continually create and re-create new dialectical domains. Social and cultural change should be decided by a continual process of negotiation and conciliation, not imposition.
Those who are concerned about growing attempts to curb freedom of speech have strong justifications for their fears. In the UK, the police are increasingly being called by people who want to stop others from uttering things that they find offensive. The debate surrounding freedom of speech is often disingenuously framed within the false dichotomy of the far right vs. marginalized groups—when the implications of speech codes spread far wider than that. When the state becomes emboldened to enforce constantly changing social trends, this has implications for scientific research, critical inquiry and even for each individual’s capacity to organize her own thoughts. Unfortunately, the internet has become a major battleground in the struggle for cultural dominance, with major tech firms taking particular ideological stances and banning people from Sargon of Akkad to Alex Jones for their opinions. The internet must be reclaimed as a means of engaging in the free and open exchange of ideas.
Some argue that many in my generation do not know what it means to live without freedom of speech or have never had to fight for it—which has led us to take it for granted and readily discard it. However, I do not completely subscribe to this claim. There are a multitude of reasons for our current situation. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of The American Mind [reviewed by this magazine here—The Ed.] wonderfully describes many of them. In any event, our societies are almost inevitably becoming more diverse, therefore we must be able to not only tolerate different viewpoints but empathize and communicate with those of different viewpoints. It is okay to have conservative views, it is okay to have concerns about immigration, it is okay to take pride in Western civilization and culture—although some university campuses might have you think otherwise. But with any stance comes a responsibility to be able to defend your position in the face of pressure to conform.
People need to reflect more deeply on the implications of many of the things that they call for. The recent rescinding of Jordan Peterson’s fellowship at Cambridge University indicates that not even our most prestigious educational institutions are able to withstand the present nervousness about the most basic democratic value: freedom of speech. That is why we, particularly we young people, need to re-elevate and protect this fundamental value and reclaim its utmost importance to our culture. This doesn’t have to be done by means of angry protests, shouting people down or participating in meaningless Twitter feuds. We must open up new and reuse old domains of communication: write a letter of complaint to your university, support and share alternative news sources and social media platforms. One of the best ways to spark conversation is to host debates, discussions and forums on these issues. So, on 7 May, from 5.30–7.30pm (BST), I will be hosting a debate about freedom of speech at Leeds University.
Universities primarily exist to support the education of their students. The university has an obligation to cater to the ideological diversity of the student body (and wider society). Hosting discussions, talks, and debates from a range of standpoints is part of that process—it makes students aware of the variety of ideas that they will inevitably be exposed to outside of university life. We cannot let this trend towards conformity continue. I am hoping that this event will inspire other students, staff and people in the UK to host similar events and reignite passionate debate on university campuses and beyond.