Thursday, 26 November 2015

Free Speech vs Respect - Do We Have The Right To Not Be Offended?

by Alex McKirgan

Ben Affleck and Bill Maher argue over free speech
Sometimes one comes across a contemporary social or political issue that illuminates the problems of a society trying to find a path through competing rights and values. I came across an issue recently that took me on a fascinating trip through this landscape.

On many university campuses today, the big hot topic is the battle between advocates of free speech and those trying to create 'safe spaces' free from discrimination and hostile speech. I actually first came across this issue close to home. Before PGS hosted a hustings meeting for the candidates in the Portsmouth South constituency for the 2015 General Election, I searched on YouTube and found a video of a similar event at Portsmouth University. Before the meeting started, the President of the Student Union stood up and reminded everyone that Portsmouth University has a 'Safe Space' policy, so no hostile or discriminating speech would be allowed during the meeting. The expression of puzzlement on the face of the UKIP candidate was priceless but this was the first time I'd come across this kind of policy. I searched the Internet and found the policy published by the University of Manchester which is typical (my emphasis):


1. The University of Manchester Students’ Union believes in liberation for all and everything that we do has equality and liberation at its heart. By enabling all of students to participate in the work that we do, we are helping to progress towards a fairer and more equal society.
Students are expected to respect the right of all members and staff to enjoy the Students’ Union as a safe space environment, defined as a space which is welcoming and safe and includes the prohibition of discriminatory language and actions.

2. The Students’ Union is committed to providing an inclusive and supportive space for all students. This policy is applicable to the whole student community, whether an individual or a member within a group, including but not limited to; Students’ Union societies, volunteering projects and assemblies and public social media. The Students’ Union believes all students should be free from intimidation or harassment, and from prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, marital or maternity/paternity status, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or sexual activity, gender identity, trans status, socio- economic status, or culture, or any other form of distinction.

3. The Students’ Union believe strongly in the right to free speech however acknowledge that this should not be to the detriment of the rights of other individuals and groups. Freedom of speech is important, yet intention to incite hatred is never acceptable.

This reads like the right to free speech on campus is secondary to the right of other students not to be offended or upset and as a progressive and a committed atheist, I had a problem with this. Shouldn't universities, of all places, be somewhere you can be exposed to all sorts of competing views? Even if they are offensive?

Next, I was watching one of my favourite TV shows Real Time with Bill Maher, and he was talking about how he had been dis-invited from giving the Commencement Address at the UC Berkeley Graduation Ceremony. This was just after his infamous argument with Ben Affleck on attitudes to Islam and the justification for withdrawing his invitation was that his robust views on Islamism might cause offence and create hatred towards Muslims on campus. Bill thought this this was ironic given the history of the Berkeley Free Speech movement in the 1960s.

As a progressive and a committed atheist, I was instinctively on the side of Bill Maher and the free speech advocates. Surely free speech only has meaning if it robustly challenges conventional thinking. I rejected the idea that young minds should be coddled and wrapped in cotton wool.

I was feeling pretty settled in my opinions when another story caught my eye. I read a story in The Atlantic Magazine about an issue at Yale University. Before Halloween, the university sent out an email reminding students that some traditional Halloween costumes could cause offence to other students (Pocahontas, black-face, Mariachi etc). In response, a lecturer with a background in child psychology sent an email to students suggesting that an important part of growing up is occasionally breaking boundaries and taboos, suggesting that the university email was petty and restrictive. Cue outrage, protest and an attempt to get the lecturer fired. This came a week after the President of the University of Missouri had been forced to resign over not being sympathetic enough to the concerns of minority students. To contain the protest, Yale announced:

-    a doubling of the budgets for the African-American, Native-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American cultural centres on campus.
-    an expansion of the financial aid program for low-income applicants.
-    The creation of a multi-disciplinary centre studying the issue of race, gender and social identity.

What appeared like an over-reaction seemed to confirm my earlier view. Weren't the students who were protesting being a bit immature when they suggested that the email from the lecturer had caused them so much distress, they were unable to attend class? Just when this all seemed to fit my idea of Regressive Liberals pushing Political Correctness too far, I listened to the weekly Political Gabfest podcast from Slate Magazine. On the podcast I heard Jamelle Bouie, an African-American journalist who attended a university not unlike Yale. He explained what it is like being a minority student in a white, privileged environment. He also pointed out that some African-American students at Yale are living in a house named after John Calhoun, the intellectual brain behind the Confederacy and advocate of slavery.

Listening to Jamelle, I stated to understand what it might feel like to be a minority in an environment that appears not to accept or welcome you. There may be many things that either make you feel uncomfortable or reinforce the feeling of being 'other' or different, like you don't belong. Finally, I was struck by his closing comment. 'It's not really on for white, privileged males to tell minorities or women what they should and shouldn't be upset or offended by'. This helped me to see that while some efforts to impose Political Correctness seem to go too far, the motivation is noble. We should be aspiring to create a society where some groups of people don't feel discriminated against or marginalised. The desire to create an environment in universities, which were historically white and male-dominated, that is more welcoming to people that don't fit that description is a good one.

Back to Real Time with Bill Maher. After the events at Yale, they revisited the topic about whether some Halloween costumes were offensive or inappropriate. Surprisingly, the wisest words were said by former Talk Show host Jay Leno. He explained that societies don't progress in a straight line. The pendulum usually swings too far, then comes back the other way. Over time, we make progress. He talked about the 1970s when sexist attitudes towards women in the workplace were commonplace. Wolf-whistling and inappropriate comments about women's bodies were a daily occurrence. That kind of behaviour is now viewed as totally unacceptable and while not completely absent, is becoming less of a problem. We have made progress.

So when there is a petition to get Germaine Greer dis-invited from giving a talk at Cardiff University because she said that she doesn't think that men who have sex re-assignment surgery are really 'women', lets bear a couple of things in mind. Firstly, the fact that the issue-de-jour is now transgender rights shows that we have made progress combatting gender, race and sexual orientation discrimination on campuses. Secondly, lets not dismiss those still striving to make our public spaces more welcoming to those who feel marginalised, they are trying to do a good thing. Finally, lets not confuse these noble aims with limitations on people's ability to express unpopular views, particularly when it comes to religion. At heart, I'm still a robust defender of free speech but I now have a more complete picture of the issue. Both sides of the argument have good intentions. As long as both sides try and recognise that, I'm sure we as a society, can continue to make progress.

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