Last night I took part in the Edinburgh leg of Spiked’s ‘down with campus censorship’ tour. Although I was informed that Tom Slater, Assistant Editor of Spiked, would be participating, I wasn’t informed that the debate was part of this tour. I therefore took part in the debate and you can find my speech below. You can see coverage of the debate on the twitter hashtag #EdDebates.
Hi everyone and thanks for having me along to speak at this debate tonight. Usually I wouldn’t allow any kind of debate to happen in our union or for anyone who isn’t me to express an opinion really so this is a novelty. But I did accept this invitation to take part, mainly because I really care about free speech. In fact I’d say it informs almost all of what I believe in and why I do the work I do; at the centre of my politics and beliefs is the idea that everyone should be able to participate equally, to have their voices heard and to criticise and scrutinise power without a fear of repercussion.
That’s exactly what John Stuart Mill intended also, when he came up with the principle in the first place – contrary to popular belief free speech as it was intended is about enshrining the right of laypeople to criticise the establishment and not about reserving students’ rights to listen to Robin Thicke on a very particular music player as opposed to their own personal device or, you know, national radio. There are some things which freedom of speech is not, though. It is not, for example, the right to any platform of your choosing. It is not the freedom from responsibility over your words or the consequences of them. And it is absolutely not the right to limit the free speech of others, which is what oppressive and harmful language does – amplifying the loudest voices and blunting dissent instead of enriching debate with diverse and different voices and views.
Because here’s the point, as I see it – debate doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Others on this panel will argue that universities and unions exist to facilitate conversation and creativity, to give space to different perspectives and to contribute to bigger debates and issues in society. Others on this panel will argue that debate is about bringing as wide a range of opinions as possible to the table. I don’t disagree with them. I do, however, strongly believe that all debate takes place against a backdrop of a society that suffers from entrenched inequalities and wildly uneven power balances, where some voices are already far louder and more authoritative than others. And that’s exactly the power inequality we seek to redress through protest methods like no-platforming, or picketing certain speakers, or refusing the use of our resources to groups who are fundamentally against our values. Because that’s what these decisions are – protest methods, tactics.
I’m proud that student unions have a shared history with the principle of free speech, with roots embedded in challenging power, in upsetting the status quo, in creating platforms from which we can safely lobby. Because in a time when bloggers in Iran are being sentenced to death for criticising the government, and when peaceful protestors are being met with physical violence for dissenting, it makes me incredibly sad to see people duped by the great ‘free speech’ con that tells them the real threat to their freedom isn’t the establishment, the state or the government, but people like me picketing an event, or women asking men not to threaten to rape them online. The optimist in me says they’re buying into convincing rhetoric. The realist says that they’re clutching onto what privilege and power they have at the expense of other, more marginalised voices.
Now, debates over tactics and platforms are important, and there is absolutely a place for disagreement and discussion of these and I will always engage with students on that. The more sharp amongst you may not have missed the irony of this debate even happening when I’m apparently such a totalitarian dictator intent on censoring those who disagree with me. But this particular campaign, courtesy of spiked, also throws up some specific issues for me, and they are arguments that I have far less time for. I will not, for example, accept that recognising trans students basic right to express their gender is a threat to freedom of expression – in fact I would argue that exactly the opposite is true. I will not accept that holding students responsible for discriminatory and derogatory views is akin to limiting their freedom of speech, and I will certainly never accept that I should sit down and listen politely while men discuss how to rape me. These are all things which spiked has cited as being in opposition to freedom of speech. These are all things without which the voices and views of trans students, women, people of colour, disability and many more who are traditionally marginalised would be silenced and shut down.
And so I ask, then, is this really about freedom of speech? Are we really talking about everyone’s right to speak equally, to criticise power without repercussion, to voice dissent? Or is this about those who hold power maintaining it while they keep those challenging it at arm’s length? Because there are very real challenges to our freedom of speech, in this country and worldwide, but they are politicians ordering the death and imprisonment of activists and opposition leaders, police pepper spraying those who dare protest against the state, misogynists reasserting their dominance and authority over women by intimidating, harassing and assaulting them. So I put to you that free speech has been co-opted by exactly those it was intended to hold to account. I put to you that we could be so much more powerful in challenging that if we didn’t play into their hands by fighting amongst ourselves about pop music and access to poster boards. I put to you that John Stuart Mill, passionate about challenging power and holding the government to account, would be ashamed that we’ve fallen for it.