Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Right to Free Speech

One thing that really disturbs me about our society is the unpleasant habit we have collectively developed of closing down a debate because the subject matter is offensive to us.

For example, a debate to be held at Oxford University over the pros and cons of abortion was recently halted due to threats of interference from feminist students. They were upset that people could ever consider that there are disadvantages to abortion. On that particular point, I might ask them to enquire how the aborted foetuses feel about it, but that's for another time.

The point is that just because a viewpoint is offensive to some, does not mean it shouldn't be debated and scrutinised.

There is an increasing tendency for this postulation to be met with the response: 'the right to free speech doesn't mean the right to a platform!' In other words, you can say what you like, but you can't force others to publish your views or to even allow you to utter them on their property.

I'll admit, there's some logic in that argument. But I still have a few big problems with it.

Firstly, it seems to imply that giving a platform to unpalatable views, or indeed, sharing a platform with someone who expresses them, somehow condones those opinions. This logic is taken to absurd length when some people actually call for a BBC journalist to be sacked because he had a photo taken with a by-election candidate for Britain First. No, I'm sorry, that's complete nonsense. Sharing a platform with, or providing a platform to someone, does not mean that you condone their views at all. It simply means that you are allowing them to express their opinion, that's all.

But what if their views are so utterly repugnant that they can't even bear to tolerate them being expressed? I suppose that some people don't even want to take the risk of even being associated with such opinions, and therefore refuse to publish them.

People might not have an automatic right to a platform to express their views, but if they are denied any platform whatsoever, then de facto they are being denied freedom of speech. We must, therefore, as a society, have some platforms which are guaranteed - where no subject is taboo, where anything can be debated without fear or favour. Parliament is one such institution - MPs are traditionally protected by Parliamentary privilege - a device which allowed them to participate freely in debates of great import without having to fear persecution or prosecution on the grounds of treason or sedition. Even today, Parliamentary privilege is used to protect MPs from court proceedings during the discharge of their offices.

Universities should be another. Seats of learning and centres of education and debate which have formed one of the cornerstones of our culture for centuries. And yet, Oxford students felt compelled to close down a debate on abortion because they found it 'offensive', and they didn't want things being discussed at 'their' university.

Well, I'm sorry to say, folks, it's not just your university. You study there, but you are subsidised by the taxpayer to do so. The university itself, whilst it theoretically could become entirely private, is rooted in hundreds of years of British history. Kings have studied there and granted it Charters. It has produced knowledge which has benefited us all. Universities are for the public sharing of knowledge and learning for the greater good. They belong to us all, not merely the people who study there.

And finally, regardless of whether an opinion is regarded as toxic or not, regardless of whether it is regarded as offensive or not, that opinion must be heard. An attempt to close down or suppress opinion merely because it 'offends' is the worst example of groupthink - a desire for harmony and conformity which leads to irrational decision-making and ultimately, bad choices, by suppressing opinions that challenge assumptions, stereotyping of challengers as weak, evil or stupid and an irrational sense of moral supremacy against such challengers.

Sound familiar?

So to anyone who considers closing down a debate because they're 'offended', I'll say only this: have you considered the possibility that your opinion is wrong?