Interesting Discussion about Free Speech and Censorship at Universities

If all mankind minus one were of one 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.
“On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, 1859

Conway Hall has put up a debate on free speech and censorship at universities: “London Thinks – Trigger Warning!“. The participants were (left to right): Dr. Pam Lowe, Beatrix Campbell OBE, Samira Ahmed (moderator), Brendan O’Neill, and Bahar Mustafa.

I found it an interesting debate — not in the sense that it answers questions (that’s not what a debate is for), but that it shows different perspectives and mindsets. (Not sure what happened around 15:26, did the video cut out for a second or was something removed?)

Personally, I was very impressed by Brendan O’Neill. Not because his position is closest to mine, but because he switched to a meta perspective frequently. He actually did what a good moderator does — putting things in perspective and showing where the fault lines are (summarizing points and asking questions).

And he made very good points, e.g.,

  • about the pathologization of legitimate moral viewpoints (I’d add that these topics are emotionally heated and taken personally — akin to some religious people who think that any different view puts the validity of their belief into question; or akin to Marcia’s foreclosure identity)
  • there’s a difference between speech and act (e.g., conflation of words and violence), e.g., you can talk about issues, even when it is not legal (for very good reasons) to act in a certain way (here the issue was “child pornography”, but you can expand it to any other issue, e.g., murder — hello mystery/detective novels — or genocide).
  • his definition of victim feminism:

    “Victim feminism is the idea that women have an inferior form of autonomy to men, which means that public life needs to be rearranged in order to make sure that women aren’t offended or that their self-esteem is not damaged. That to me, as a humanist, I find that an offensive idea.”
    Brendan O’Neill

  • And yup, his summary:

    “I’m more committed to freedom of speech now than I was before. Because it seems to me that there are numerous slippery arguments against it and we need to go out and wage war against them.”
    Brendan O’Neill

The other positions … Beatrix Campbell OBE seems to feel very persecuted (Really, “pillaged”? Perhaps a bit out of touch with the world today?) and seems to want to decide the result of a discussion (and what it’s about), instead of arguing for a position. Bahar Mustafa seems to like speaking for others and have a queen-bee room for herself (and strange comment about the police investigating what she has allegedly tweeted). And Pam Lowe — I liked that students want to discuss difficult subjects, but regarding the method … the question is always: “Who decides?”

It’s one thing to say you want a respectful discussion, but the problem seems to me that merely stating a viewpoint is already seen as offensive (and disrespectful) by some people. And for those people, getting people to be “respectful” actually means having them adhere to certain ideas. It’s really a problem if a mere question is seen as offensive — that cuts off any discussion. Aristotle’s “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” comes to mind here. And even if a person accepts the position, it would still be wrong to try to silence the person (see the quote in the beginning).

For example, could you discuss studies that show differences between people of different races? It would be a prerequisite to find out whether there are other things than race that are responsible here (touching upon how to conduct studies), and to discuss the consequences of group differences if the studies are well done. What group differences actually mean. For example that just because a person is a member of a group, which — on average — is better or worse than another group, it does not mean that this person is better or worse than any member of the other group.

The debate also showed the perspectives at work. For example, if in a group exercise all the words which are “never okay to use” are words used “against women and homosexuals”, I’d question the diversity of the group. I’d also question whether the heterosexual men could be open about their negative experiences. In short, I would not see it as an adequate representation of society, but as ideological incest. Same with the issue of voting. It’s relatively new. For a long time, only a few decided. The right to vote was fought for by all who have it — and paid for. Not only by women (or blacks in the US) — and many people still pay for it (e.g., via mandatory military service).

So, yup, unfortunately, free speech is still under attack. It’s something that is probably as old as mankind itself: People wanting to determine what others may say (or even think).

But luckily there are always people fighting for free speech.


Update: Some post posting edits for clarification.

Update 2: Thinking about it some more, one thing that I object to very much is the idea by Mustafa that only members of groups should be allowed to talk about these groups (“… they just don’t want their lives to be debated by people who do not directly experience their lives. Directly experiencing what it is to be a transwoman, to be a sex worker, etc.”).

First, unless she’s a transsexual sex worker (no problem with either, but a clarification would have been nice), demanding that only transsexuals and sex workers are allowed to speak about transsexuality or sex work seems hypocritical. Even if she says nothing about how their experiences are, she is saying that only they might speak. My guess is that there are members of marginalized groups who do not want a special status for them, because it would set them apart. They would never be “normal”, but always remain “special”.

Second, as O’Neill put it, everything is debated in life (“That’s a life. All our lives are debate by all sorts of people — that’s life. You just have to get used to it. Get used to it.”).

Third, how can you talk about your own group and not at the same time talking about other groups as well? You are making comparisons when you point out what is special about your group, what you are not, what differentiates you from the rest. That’s the thing I find completely stupefying when some people say “you are not x, you don’t know how it is for x“. No, I’m not x, but you’re not “not-x”, so if you have to be a member of a group to see how bad it is, how can you argue that I don’t have it that bad if you are not a member of the other group? The whole concept is … untenable.

And fourth — and perhaps most importantly — there’s in-group bias that has out-group consequences.

Groups do not exist in a vacuum separate from everything else. They interact with other groups, and with people in general. These interactions have consequences. Esp. when it comes to government support and the like. Also, groups (like individuals), rarely have an unbiased perception of themselves. Or would you trust a bigoted racist organization when the members tell you that they are “really nice people”? So groups have to discussed on their impact on wider society.

Additionally, groups usually aren’t homogeneous (echoing O’Neill’s comment that “white men” is an incredibly diverse group with huge status and life experience differences). So what happens when members of a group have different perspectives? Who would be allowed to speak? How could you make sense of the chorus of voices.

The problem for me is when people claim to speak for a group, ostensibly because the members are too weak to speak for themselves, and the self-interest of the person speaking is conflated with the interests of the group. But that does not mean that different perspectives aren’t possible or even needed. You’d cut off groups from feedback — and a lack of feedback is (almost) always bad. And BTW, taking to the logical end, it would mean no reporting, e.g., on foreign countries, or on sports, or on any group you are not a member of. There’s something to be said for critique.

Personally, not only do I think that everything is open to discussion by everyone, I also think that there’s something to be said for impartial analysis and debate. Especially when adhering to scientific standards (e.g., in psychology, even though even psychology does have a bias as well). Otherwise you have a couple of anecdotes badly biased by a person’s individual perspective.

But hey, if she’s really serious about this position, then perhaps she should stop speaking about white men, given that she is not a white man. And she can stop talking about MRA’s as well.

Seriously, preventing people from discussing groups they are not a member of — I think many voices would be lost (even though some of them are unreflected and bigoted) and society would be much worse off.

After all, we all have a stake in mankind’s future.


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