Monday, March 23, 2015

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Freedom of speech is the best friend marginalised groups could ever have

Brendan O'Neill with a piece that sears through the defences frequently offered by those student bodies determined to protect people from offence. It is a timely piece given the treatment of Maryam Namazie by the Society For International Affairs at Trinity College Dublin. It was published in Blueprint. Brendan O'Neill is editor at Spiked Online. 

There are many grating things about the army of students who have taken it upon themselves to protect their peers - especially their poorer, oppressed peers - from offensive words and ideas.

There’s the paternalism of it all. With their hastily constructed “safe spaces”, and their No Platforming of anyone remotely off-message, these censorious students really believe they have a duty to protect the dainty eyes and ears of the student body from allegedly harmful things.

They reduce students to the level of wide-eyed babes needing mother to switch the TV channel when something saucy comes on.

There’s the killjoyism, too, the treatment of perfectly normal, fun stuff - like the Sun’s Page 3 or a rugby society’s daft, offensive posters - as wicked materials liable to warp minds and destroy self-esteem.

These students’ hiding of the “sexist” Sun is an especially fun-free and prudish act, bringing to mind a sad sight I once saw in the shops of Dubai airport: lads’ mags that had been defaced with black gaffer tape by religious censors who didn’t want anyone to glimpse cleavage lest it drive them wild with rapacious desire.

And then there’s the mind-dulling effect, the way these platform-pullers and prejudice-policers deprive students of the chance to confront ideas for themselves.

This is really bad, for as was recognised by every enlightened thinker in history, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill (WHITE MEN, I know), people’s intellectual and moral muscles are exercised only through being used.

When people are denied the chance to see and hear and read everything, including offensive, ugly things, they are robbed of the right to think for themselves, to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, to sharpen their minds and hone their morality through working things through.

To live in a safe space, in a bubble through which no bad thought or offensive image may ever pass, is to infantilise yourself, and to deny yourself that potentially life-changing experience of having your mind rocked or your prejudices pricked and challenged by people who think differently.

But worst of all, even more irritating than all that, is the way this pseudo-radical safe-thinking brigade has defamed freedom of speech as, in essence, a white, male, middle-class, “cis” conspiracy that benefits only… you guessed it, White Men.

This is an argument you hear all the time from the self-elected guardians of moral decency on campus.

Desperate to distinguish themselves from the censors of history - most of whom were controversy-allergic bores and/or tyrants - the No Platform nuts try to doll themselves up as radical.

So they present free speech as oppressive - allowing White Men to assert their power over minority groups - and they present their acts of petty censorship and intolerant shutting down of debates as great strikes for equality and respect.

"Orwellian" doesn’t begin to cover this doublespeak depiction of free speech as a tool of authoritarianism and censorship as a weapon of progress. "Freedom is slavery… Censorship is equality."

The worst thing about this branding of free speech as something that only benefits the privileged, white and middle class - an argument which is most vociferously made by the privileged, white and middle class students who stink up the student-union bureaucracy - is that it tells us freedom is not really important for minority groups, especially ethnic-minority groups.

Apparently, students who come from poorer or blacker or more foreign backgrounds than the students who run unions don’t need freedom, because it will only end up harming them through exposing them to wicked words.

No, they need protection; they need a moral forcefield guarding them from offence; they need saviours - step forward the brave new officials of the NUS, gallantly come to protect minority students in particular from nasty ideas.

This idea that free speech benefits the white and well-off and harms the ethnic and less well-off is foul. Throughout history, many black and Asian activists fought tooth-and-catapult for freedom of speech, because they recognised that they needed freedom of speech in order to stand up for themselves, express themselves, to confront their oppressors.

For them, free speech wasn’t a white middle-class conspiracy - it was the core freedom, the freedom that makes all other freedoms possible, the freedom upon which all of our political rights are built. Remove free speech and you destroy even the possibility of liberty.

Consider Frederick Douglass, (a man, yes, but not a white one). Douglass was an African-American slave. After escaping slavery he became a tireless social reformer, fighting and arguing for the abolition of slavery and the expansion of freedom to all in America. And what did he consider to be the sharpest, most essential weapon in the armoury of blacks who longed for liberty? Freedom of speech.

In his “Plea for Free Speech”, published in 1860, he said:

"Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South."

Here, in these words that echo down the decades and touch us still, we see one of the great arguments for free speech: that it empowers us, and it especially empowers the weak and oppressed.

It allows us to speak against, and potentially to destroy, tyranny. As Douglass said, slavery itself was fortified with censorship, for those slave-owners knew very well that freedom of thought and speech would “break every chain in the South”.

Freedom of speech - for all, as its name suggests - gives us the power to spread ideas, challenge ideas, put forward political ideals, wrestle with other political ideals, and to project ourselves into the public sphere.

Today’s paternalistic student censors, with their desire to protect gay, female and ethnic-minority students in particular from “white men’s freedom of speech”, would have horrified Douglass. He would have seen their censoriousness for what it is: yet another attempt by the privileged to protect their ways of thinking from any kind of challenge or ridicule. Grotesquely, they do this, not by honestly saying that they want to privilege their way of thinking over other ways of thinking, but by infantilising less well-off and ethnic students and using them as a Trojan horse to secure the censorship of what the mostly white middle-class student bureaucracy considers to be unacceptable.

Students, fight back. Heed Douglass and make today’s perverse and illiberal principality of student bureaucracy tremble before your free, unfettered, off-message speech.


Niall said...

Je suis Charlie Hebdo.....but only when the State says so.....

AM said...

This is such a brilliant piece that frames what is happening to Maryram Namazie in Trinity perfectly. Not only that, it also is fitting commentary on much of what the Left have being doing in respect of theocratic fascism.

DaithiD said...

I will try and memorise this article,I love stuff that destroys the counterview completely. In terms of the left/student axis, It completely tallies with my university experience too, essentially around the Iraq war build up, the Student SWP and general SWP allied with some Muslim organisation, so with joint organising meetings we had gender segregated seating (imagine at a Nick Griffin talk him requesting Black people sit to one side!) and everyone who attended the Hyde Park demo was treated to a compere screaming "Allah hu Akbar" in between every speaker to a bewildered crowd. The Stop The War committee squandered the public goodwill from an unprecedented high point for anti-state feeling.

Wolfsbane said...

Great article!

AM said...

He just cuts thru all the guff and exposes Students Against Studying very neatly

DaithiD said...

AM, you may appreciate this guy, his latest video is about this type of thing, he has a way with words like yourself too:

Pat Condell Video

AM said...


saw him before - love his stuff. Thanks

AM said...


Great stuff - cuts to the quick and said what needs said. He must be a frontrunner for the presidency of the United Front Against Bullshit

DaithiD said...

I know its such a skill to make it funny and informative, it kills me what he says about Catholicism too. I saw your 1916 Societies/TC talk online and the "ballot box in one hand,white stick in the other" comment and thought you two shared a certain lyricism.

AM said...

it might kill you but you are not going to kill him for it. That is the crucial difference between you and the theocratic fascists.