Freedom of speech is a very thorny issue at the moment, and the latest spike in this thorn-bush is the proposed visit of Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, to the UK. Here are two views on that proposed visit:
Now I never particularly liked Billy Graham; I’m generally suspicious of popular preachers and prefer dialogue to evangelism, but his son seems to take it to a whole new level, denouncing Islam as a religion and gays and lesbians for the usual tedious reasons. Apart from the fact that he seems to have a very short memory about the practices of Christianity (many of which are similar to fundamentalist Islam today) people naturally take offence and think that his views have no place in a multicultural society. And when I read about him in Wikipedia:
I tended to agree. I don’t want those views spread over here. No thanks.
But there’s the thing: people used to say, ‘I disagree profoundly with what you’re saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ People used to say that freedom of speech meant the freedom to say anything except to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded building. So here’s the question: does insulting Muslims in a multicultural society constitute shouting ‘fire!’ in a burning building?
Last weekend’s Observer contained an opinion piece entitled: ‘Even Those with the Vilest of Views Have a Right to be Heard.’ (I can’t link to it as the whole thing is behind a paywall.) But the premise of the article is that people like Martin Sellner of ‘Defend Europe’ who stop charities from rescuing drowning refugees, or Lauren Southern who thinks Hitler was just a Social Justice Warrior who got lucky, should not have been prevented from entering this country because their views, no matter how vile, have a right to be heard. I totally disagree. But here’s the thing: where do we draw the line? Where is the division between strong opinion and hate speech?
I’m quite uneasy about some current tendencies. I disagree profoundly with Germaine Greer’s comments on transgender women (although according to the article here she seems to have backtracked a little)
as they were not a helpful contribution to the debate. But I don’t think they constitute hate speech. They constitute strong, blunt, even rude opinion – but that is not something that should be shut down. Yet many universities have decided to ‘no-platform’ her.
We should think about this concept of ‘platforming’. There is a difference between somebody having a ‘platform’ – being allowed to express opinions unopposed – and being on a platform as part of a debate with other speakers. But surely, even if you have a platform, in a wider sense the debate goes on anyway? People respond on social media and in the press; often these things make the news and magazine programmes faster than the speed of light, triggering an even wider range of opinion. So maybe instead of ‘no-platforming’ people like Greer we should be saying, ‘come and have a go if you think you’re cogent enough.’ Robust debate is essential in any healthy society – and surely if universities are about anything they are about fostering this? If students cannot hear and rebut strong opinions, no matter how much they dislike them, then what kind of adults are we producing? There is already too much of a tendency for people to stay in their own little enclaves (especially on social media) where rarely a voice is heard from outside.
On the other side of the debate I hear stories of vulnerable young people struggling with identity and sexuality; I hear stories of attacks proliferating after certain people are allowed to speak; I hear of hatred on the rise.
So what do we do? A line must be drawn somewhere.
Personally I was pleased that Martin Sellner and Lauren Southern were turned away at the border. Their views are so extreme and their actions so horrid and harmful that I don’t want them here. Then again at the same time I would like, Louis Theroux-style, to have the opportunity to debate with them. After all, how else can we change their minds?
It concerns me greatly that nuanced debate is being shoved aside in favour of something resembling a gladiatorial conquest. Yes, it’s painful to have your deeply-held views challenged, but it can be beneficial. A debate can often (though not always) change people’s minds: it can also help to clarify your own views by setting them up against other people’s. How well do your arguments stand up? Do they have holes in them? Are you as well-informed as you imagine?
As I’ve said before with the trans agenda, only with debate can true acceptance (as opposed to putting up and shutting up) come. Only with open debate can understanding arise.
Yes, there is a line between free speech and hate speech. But where the hell is it?