Free Speech in the UK (and Europe)

I took a lot of pictures of cats today. There doesn’t seem much point in writing about that. Free speech is another matter!

The “moral panic over moral panics” lives in the UK (and mainland Europe) just as well as it does in the United States, it seems. Here we have an article decrying UK universities and their student unions for stifling free speech and debate:

Launched by online magazine spiked, 2016’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) have shown 90 per cent of institutions are now censoring speech, up from 80 per cent in 2015, as Aberystwyth University and the universities of Edinburgh and Leeds are among those for being the most restrictive.

Russell Group institutions have emerged as being the most censorious overall, this year, with 23 out of 24 of its world-class institutions having been flagged-up as being either ‘amber’ or ‘red’ in FSUR’s traffic-light ranking system.

Tom Slater, coordinator of the rankings, described how universities are meant to be spaces reserved for “unfettered debate and the pursuit of truth.” However, he added: “Today, in a time when campus bureaucrats see students as too vulnerable – or too easily led – to listen to difficult ideas, the entire purpose of the academy is being undermined, and the bar for censorship is only getting lower.

“In our research, bans on allegedly transphobic feminists sit alongside bans of allegedly racist sombreros. Today, students aren’t even trusted to dress themselves – let alone think for themselves.”

The most common cases of censorship were found to be centred around transgender debates, atheists and secularists, Israel and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, lad culture, and Muslim clerics.

These discussions always seem to turn on how efforts to show sensitivity toward groups and individuals who’ve historically been disenfranchised, dispossessed, and and mistreated are “going too far.” Students are dismissed as spoiled, coddled, or sheltered. It is suggested without irony that the real answer is a “free market of ideas,” in which it is evidently fine for the privileged, lazy, and self-proclaimed edgy humorist to fall back on tired, offensive tropes, slogans, and gestures. Why indeed should a functioning market for ideas make itself amenable to such rotten, passe nonsense? Rather, constraints demand and encourage more creative, inventive expression–not laziness.

Measures described as “bans” are more often merely guidelines or suggestions for which there is no real penalty beyond, perhaps, public embarrassment at being the only open racist at one’s school.

It’s certainly possible for measures designed to create “safe spaces” to go too far–but then those measures should be examined, adjusted, or removed. The underlying concept is sound, unless we are to assume that allowing discussions to be dominated by historically advantaged parties is a desirable outcome, and I would hope that’s not the case.

Fortunately, the term “political correctness” does not appear to have entered the vernacular here, across the pond, and cheap shots like the Independent piece linked and quoted above seem to be the exception rather than the norm. Political correctness–otherwise known as treating people with respect–is a value taken with some seriousness here, rather than viewed as a weakness or a concession to ideological extremists.

It’s hard for me to imagine a worse outcome than to reverse the narrative and endorse right-wing xenophobia characterized as “telling it like it is.” The whole problem with “telling it like it is” is the assumption that there “is” only one “it.” In truth, there are many experiences and perspectives on any given issue, and complaints that particular views are being suppressed tend to be invoked by those who are accustomed to controlling the dialogue, while truly marginalized voices have yet to be given a chance to speak. Somehow, offering the long-silenced a platform never seems to be on the agenda for those demanding unfettered “free speech.”

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Free Speech in the UK (and Europe)

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