November 09, 2006

Freedom of Speech

Today's issue of Spiked carries an article which raises an interesting issue. The article is an interview of the American public intellectual Wendy Caminer, who raised in the American tradition of respect for the first ammendment, argues against any restriction of free speech on university campuses. Her fury embraces not only the student Union of the SOAS who banned the Israeli ambassador but also students at Sheffield who dubbed Eminem too homophobic to be heard. In my view Caminer is over sensitive to these issues- there are in particular two distinctions that she isn't making that allow us to decide what is and isn't dangerous on the university campus.

The first distinction is about the nature of students. Students are young people emerging for the first time into their intellectual maturity, encountering ideas for the first time. When I was at university and still I think that produces a fair amount of self righteousness- when you first encounter the world you tend to think it is a simple thing and that right and wrong are labels to be simply applied. Part of the process of university life is to teach you that that isn't neccessarily true- that the world is complicated and difficult and that pontificating doesn't always work. Student Unions are always likely to be places where stupid resolutions are adopted but firstly they have little impact on the student population as a whole and secondly in my view they reflect an immaturity that people soon grow out of.

The second distinction that Kaminer doesn't make is between what we might call argument and abuse. It is important for example that every argument could be heard on a university campus, though I should add a caveat which is that there is a heirarchy of arguments at university based rightly on academic knowledge- unless we have good reason to think it is true I can't imagine that the thesis that the moon is made of Stilton or that Nazi eugenics were right will ever get a hearing at any university because they are ideas held by those out of contact with the real world. But abuse is a different matter. If I shout 'fag' or 'Paki' at someone in the street I don't mean to have an argument about the nature of homosexuality or the culture of Uttar Pradesh, I want to make them feel bad about themselves, I want them to hate themselves. That kind of act is a mental fist in the face- consequently I see no reason why it should be tolerated and in many places correctly it isn't tolerated.

What Kaminer misses therefore by lumping everything together is instances where we actually need to be worried- where a lecturer for example, and I don't know if this has happened, is sacked for supporting a particular intellectually respectable theory (obviously lecturers are sacked for supporting stupid theories but then academia should be about intelligence) together with student politics and the prohibition of abuse. There are subtle lines here and legitimate argument about all sorts of things in this post, but we should all agree that this represents a way of going forward- Kaminer is wrong because her scaremongering and absolutism could lead to us neglecting real abuse. We should guard free speech but not against imaginary dangers.


Anonymous said...

Indeed Gracchi. The situation is far more nuanced than the constitution allows for. The world is less black and white than is often portrayed. The European convention on Human Rights rightly confers certain rights (excuse the use of right so many times!) upon every individual but, with the exceptions perhaps of life and slavery, these rights are not absolute. Often rights are in conflict with each other - the right of free speech often contravenes the right to have respect for your private life and so there is a need to figure out upholding which right causes the least harm.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous two - what anonymous one misses is that seldom are there rights that are absolute - with rights come responsibilities; you can't have one without the other. Too often in the HR debate, responsibilities that accrue from rights are taken for granted or worse still disregarded.

Gracchi said...

Anonymous 1 and 2 thanks very much- I feel like I'm a quiz show questionmaster with anonymous 1 and 2 but anyway thanks for your comments.

To the arguments I think you are actually using different language to say similar things. The thing is that having a right implies a responsibility from everyone else to respect that right. If I have the right to live in the way I choose, then it is your responsibility to respect my right. The problem as Anon2 rightly gets at is that often people use the language of rights without thinking about recipricocity. In many ways that's what my earlier post about toleration was getting at- that if I have the right to be tolerated then you have the responsibility of being tolerant but likewise if you have the right to be tolerated then I have the responsibility of being tolerated.

However where I think Anon1 has got at something is the idea of conflicting rights or responsibilities. It isn't neccessarily my responsibility to be insulted neither is it your right to insult me. In that sense the two languages imply each other- but more people need to recognise that and by recognising it we avoid the problem of toleration outlined by Fish below.

Ok moving on- there are rights and responsibilities that conflict though. A general right to behave to other people as we choose and a general right to not be harmed by other people conflict, we can't get round that. Now both rights involve reciprocating responsibilities- but both the rights and responsibilities clash. I think in the freedom of speech debate we see that at some level and so I think it is sensible to discuss it in terms of a clash of the r words.

Sorry rather cumbersome reply but the sense I hope is there.

edmund5 said...

I'm not sure I agree with you in this -or at least not entirely. What i think you ignore is that student unions whilst oftne very powerless are given a great deal of power ( enormous power) in some universities over student speech-that is they are often given control over studnet socieites-which means effective student speech-that's why they could (outrageously) ban the Isreali ambassordorfrom coming to SOAS-over student life they often have real power . It's not the same as a meanginelss motion in a student union. Cambridge and Oxford have very weak student unions in this respect (though even there they have the stranglehold over the Freshers fair) which may influence your comment.

I also think your discusson of abuse done cover it here. the fact people may feel it like a blow to the face or it may not advance arguemtn 0is not enough- comments that are simple expresson of opinon can be much more upsetting (eg more got upset about Summers very reasonalbe comments and certialy free speech comments about differnt strengths of women and men, ) i think the key is whether it's a form of abuse (eg shouting at someone without intelleucal content) not that it's about "making them hate themelseves" for a start such abuse is oftne not htat-it's about expressing hatred or annoyance not causing self hatred, and furthermoere that is too subjective- it allows ideas to be banned on the grounds they're about making groups feel bad about themslves( an incredibly subjective judgement) . I think a concpet of shouting and insult is the best way to regulate such speech-not "self hatred" or the like

I was also uneasy about the point about "nazi eugenics" ect after all a lot of univwiy professors did teach it-and it was the collapse of freedomi nthe univeisies (by student activism) that helped it rise

edmund said...

i was also dubious about "stupid theories" part of the whole paoint of academia is lectuers hsould have the right to propound theories others consider "stupid" it's that kind of academic freedom that allows knowledge to advance-once all non-Aristolean science was stupid- and hte determination to exclude such stupidty from the universties set back universities by centuries

Gracchi said...

Edmund yes I agree with you on the abuse point- sorry I was so keen to make the conceptual distinction I didn't make myself entirely clear- its speech intended to abuse so shouting fag at someone rather than an argument which offends that I object to. The boundaries are difficult here but in general my bias would be to saying things are arguments however I do think the conceptual restriction is important.

Ok on to your next points where we are in less agreement. Student unions I'm afraid will always be places that seek to regulate opinion but they don't stop students acquiring other opinions elsewhere or from other sources. Maybe I am talking out of my Oxbridge bubble, but even if I couldn't see someone speak I can read them on the internet, go and see them speak elsewhere etc. If I was a student at Soas and wanted to hear a Zionist point of view, I'm sure I could find one in London.

As to stupid theories, come on Edmund how else do you employ academics save for based on their intelligence, and how else do you decide on their intelligence save for rating their contributions to discours on the basis of intelligence or stupidity. I don't see any other criterion.

edmund said...

If your point is that studnent unions are not the most powerfull orgnaistion in the Uk even over students it's a truism. Burt they do have hte abitliy to effect speech particul on issues (of which isrela is a great example) most poel know very little about. So while it would not be very big-it would be more than say if visual pornogiaphy (rather than pornographic ideas) were banned in its implicaon for free speech. someting cna be a real problem wiout being a very big one and it's the bigger the more ar;uthi student uniosn hav e over sutdent self organisation.

I take your point on academics and it raises the very difficult issue of how one can be academiclay imparial once one has views! my feart is that intellual respel but unpopular acacemic can /do get fired under this logic. This is why i bleivei n tenure at elast for intellecual reasons. I suspecty ou do too and agree on the problem.

I'm glad we're on agrement on the abuse point-which I think is the core of the argun i agree it's hard to draw lines on the border.

Gracchi said...

The student union thing is difficult- but I take it that Student Unions can't prohibit students from organising they can just not allow them to use university venues and/or student union funds- that might be a different issue but I need someone to tell me exactly what their role is.

As to your second point on academics. I think there is an issue there obviously but tenure might not be the answer given say the number of Oxbridge academics who decline into drunken senility. Having said that I do beleive something like tenure but maybe ten year renewal- which is a purely confirmatory exercise- is useful for precisely the reasons you give. Having said that there are views like for example the idea that blacks shouldn't be taught that would make an academic unable to carry out his duties.

edmund said...

Studne unions at least in some unviies can stop socieites operating in their univeristy- which doen stop them oper4iang outside but is quite a big restio no the free speech of students!

I'm not sure even such a stupid view as you say should cause people to be rulled out of teaching0-what would be impornt is that it din' effect thier teaching-which i actualy think is possible if difficult