Sunday, 3 May 2015

I'm sorry sensitive types but hate speech *is* still free speech

There appears to be a worrying trend spreading through supposedly liberal circles: the notion that free speech should only be free when it doesn’t offend anyone. This quickly morphs into a notion that “hate speech” does not count as free speech and should therefore be censored at will. It’s nonsense and it’s dangerous.

There are certain places where one can and should be expected to be sheltered (as much as possible) from overtly offensive material, which constitutes harassment or bullying. These include workplaces and schools and are the reason behind equality and diversity laws. In essence, there are places that cannot (or should not) be avoided. A functional and free society does well to protect people in these places.

There are other places - the media, events, debates, private homes etc. - that can easily be avoided. In these places, anything goes when it comes to ideas that can be expressed. If you propagate hostile, bigoted or offensive ideas then you expose yourself as someone who is hostile, bigoted or offensive. However, those offended have no right to stop you and it is dangerous to give people the authority to do so.

Ironically, it is frequently a call to protect “oppressed minorities” that nominally lies behind calls for censorship. Just as secularism is the only true protection for religious freedom (even if it reduces religious privilege), freedom of expression is the only true protection for minority groups, even if it subjects them to occasional offence. Once there is precedent to censor due to offence, the door is open for the majority to silence the minority whenever they disagree.

Not only is it dangerous, it’s unworkable. After all, who gets to decide what’s sufficiently sensitive to be censored? Pretty much every idea is offensive to someone, including lots of really important stuff. Evolution, climate change, sexual equality, homeopathy: you name it, someone will be offended by your views on it. So what should we do? Never criticise any idea, no matter how bad you think it is? Unless you want to live under a dictatorship, this is no way for society to function.

I sometimes wonder if free speech suffers from the same thing as vaccination. In modern democracies, we’ve got pretty good at it and so the dangers of not having it are getting forgotten. Rather than look back at how crappy things were - or look to other countries where the poor and oppressed are far less fortunate - come people focus on the relatively rare times when things go horribly wrong and then brand the whole exercise as dangerous. Those who cry "hate speech" too quickly are the anti-vaxxers of free thinking.

Free Speech at Universities

The free speech versus hate speech issue is particularly tricky at universities, I think. This is because a university is a microcosm of the real world. There are parts of it which must be inclusive and “safe”, namely lectures (excluding lectures about certain ideologies), assessments and university policies. They should be places where everyone is welcome and no one is discriminated against. However, universities are also melting pots of cultures and ideas, and places for people to develop and challenge (and sometimes change) their thoughts and beliefs.

As long as their views are not being officially endorsed by the university, individual students (or staff) or groups should be free to declare and discuss any idea, however controversial or potentially offensive. This includes cartoons of Mohammad, or anything else that might really upset certain people.

If you are offended, it is your responsibility to remove yourself from the situation and/or grow a thicker skin; it is not the university (or society)'s responsibility to remove the situation from you. Only if you cannot (fairly) remove yourself from the situation, should the authorities step in: and this is precisely what equality and non-discrimination laws are for.

The way to combat bad/offensive idea is by expressing - and explaining - your opposition, not by trying to shut them up. Who knows, you might even convince them to self-censor or even change their mind altogether, which is surely a much better outcome all round.

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