This is just to call your attention to another article defending free speech by the wonderful Nick Cohen: a Spectator piece called “Britain’s hypocritical universities are naked before their enemies“. It was written after Cohen participated in a Guardian-sponsored debate on free speech at King’s College London. The audience was apparently outraged by the British government’s proposal to ban nonviolent Islamic “extremists” from speaking at universities. But this outrage was hypocritical because, as Cohen notes, less extreme Muslims, or even ex-Muslims, are regularly banned by British universities themselves (see my piece yesterday on Maryam Namazie). And not just those discussing Islam, but those talking on many controversial issues.
Cohen (my emphasis):
I spoke at a Guardian debate on free speech before an audience of students at King’s College London last night. I’ve argued with racists and Putinists in my time and – to put it as mildly as I can – these little bastions of academia were up there with them in their contempt for basic freedoms.
Contempt is perhaps not quite the right word. Most simply did not understand what freedom was, and could not grasp the need for universal human rights. They could not see themselves as others saw them, or understand that by giving up on basic principles, because they are difficult to live with, they had left themselves naked before their enemies.
The students, and the academics on the platform, were outraged by the government’s plans to ban “non-violent” Islamist extremists from speaking on campuses. By non-violent, ministers mean men, who may preach all the reactionary prejudices about women, Jews, homosexuals, and apostates, but stop short of advocating terrorism.
I said they had every right to be angry. The only justification for censoring opinion is when it incites violence. You can use every other weapon a free country gives you to confront speakers you oppose. You can fact check them, mock and undermine them, expose their fallacies and overwhelm their defences. But you cannot ban them. Give up on that principle, and you lay yourself open to every variety of dictator and heresy hunter rigging debates and suppressing contrary opinions.
Cohen should be seen by liberals as a British National Treasure—the Orwell of our day. But he’s largely crying in the wilderness, because even the Liberal party doesn’t favor untrammeled free speech; rather, they favor universities adjudicating potential speakers on a case-by-case basis.
For years the National Union of Students blacklisted feminists because they had once said in frank language that trans-sexual women weren’t real women. In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; officials at London Southbank took down an atheist society’s “flying spaghetti monster” poster because it might cause religious offence; the students union at UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”; and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Meanwhile half the campuses in Brtain have banned the Sun. You may be transsexual, God-bothering, pro-abortion, egalitarian, supporter of the Leveson inquiry. But you cannot pretend that any of these individuals, groups or images promoted violence.
Unless universities reformed they would be wide open to attack by the state, I told the audience. How could academics and students even keep a straight face when they told the Home Office it had no right to do what they were already doing?
Northern Ireland, also part of the UK, isn’t immune to this kind of censorship. As I reported in April, Queen’s University in Belfast cancelled a planned symposium on Charlie Hebdo because it posed a “security risk” (something you can always say if Islam is involved) and also threatened the university’s “reputation” (how was not specified).
I happen to favor abortion, don’t care whether transsexuals call themselves men or women, and see extreme Islam, even if nonviolent, as a danger to democracy. But never would I suggest that speakers whose views oppose mine should be banned simply because they’d offend me. These debates need to be had, and the very principle of democracy is that through free debate an enlightened society will emerge. Well, that’s not inevitably true, but one thing is for sure: without free debate—by structuring society so that nobody says anything deemed offensive by others—we move toward a totalitarian system where those who run the government decide what views are publicly acceptable.
And how could we change society for the better without free debate, for such change involves overturning entrenched institutions, like heterosexual marriage, whose supporters would be offended?