Op-Ed — Unboxing Freedom of Speech

By Eve Gleeson

29 November 2018

Joanna Williams spoke at the launch of the Endangered Speeches series on 13 November 2018. (Image Credit: Eve Gleeson)

 

Editor’s note: This is an opinion-editorial piece written in response to the Endangered Speeches event review published on 27 November 2018. The views expressed in this post are the views of the author and are not the views of Strife.

 

On 13 November 2018, Joanna Williams, an author, commentator, and head of education and culture at the think tank Policy Exchange, was the first guest speaker of the Endangered Speeches talk series hosted by King’s College London’s Department of War Studies and mediated by department head Professor Michael Rainsborough.The event incited uproar on King’s campus; several campus groups called for Williams’ no platforming due to some of her rhetoric.

I had the opportunity to attend the event and interview Williams. Here, I share my reactions to some of her statements. The points in this piece correspond with those in the event review but include my opinion rather than an objective summary.

 

  1. There is a difference between harsh words and physical violence. 

What do we do when we prohibit speech? Many liberal democracies are seeing the condemnation of ‘socially unacceptable’ or ‘radical’ positions on critical issues.‘Darkness allows these bad ideas to fester and germinate,’ Williams said. She argued that when these perspectives are out in the open, we have the opportunity to address them.  I do not worry about the free expression of these ‘radical’ ideas, but I do worry about the moment when these ideas become so widely expressed that they are also widely adopted.

 

  1. Universities are censorious and protective liberal havens.

As an American master’s student at King’s College London, I’ve only experienced two months of the British education system. I can attest that there are many American professors that fully welcome different perspectives and encourage students to look beyond their initial assumptions. Surely, there have been problems across America and the UK regarding universities inviting contentious speakers to campus, with an outpour of dissatisfaction from a variety of student groups.

That being said, I have found that in the US the ‘censorship’ on university campuses is not practiced by the university itself but by students and groups who see themselves as representative of the university’s values. In the administration, there is less outspoken partisanship, if any at all.

 

  1. If you disagree with someone who has a platform, go to the event and criticize them. Don’t stay at home.

I could not agree more with Williams on this point. It was disappointing to hear so much backlash the day of the event, and then to see that very few of these opponents attended when the time for questions rolled around. In reaction to Williams’ writing that have allegedly dismissed entire demographics, The Student Union framed their dissent around being active proponents and protectors of vulnerable students. The event, however, was objectively civil and discussion was highly encouraged. It would have been nice to hear the views of the dissidents who had made their voice so audible earlier in the day.

 

  1. Universities are insulated and politically homogeneous.

Williams argued that universities are left-leaning because of self-selection bias, perception of students as vulnerable, and perception of students as a customer who must be satisfied. In her defence, according to a 2012 study by the American Association of University Professors, right-of-center papers do tend to be subject to higher scrutiny; however, there are likely multiple other trends at play here.

A study done by the Pew Research Center showed that left-leaning individuals tend to be more educated than right-leaning and independent voters. This goes for the UK as well, as noted in an article published by The Conversation, which also noted that academics who have chosen the field do so partially because it ‘involves teaching the next generation, plenty of bureaucracy, and different risk and reward structures from other industries graduates may gravitate towards’.

A 2017 study by the Adam Smith Institute found that ‘the left-liberal skew may be partly explained by openness to experience; individuals who score highly on that personality trait tend to pursue intellectually stimulating careers like academia. And within the top five percent of IQ, openness to experience predicts support for left-wing parties’. The previously mentioned AAUP study also had a similar finding: ‘students’ underlying preferences appear to lead more liberals into advanced degrees, thus creating a fairly large ideological gap’.

Most studies I reviewed admitted that partisanship depends on the field, with humanities, social sciences, and arts academics swaying left and a partisan balance remaining in mathematics, sciences, and engineering. The studies also discussed the consequences of this imbalance, some of which Williams stressed as well, such as discrimination against conservative people and ideas, biased research and publications, and double standards.

 

  1. There is a harmful connection between language and identity, in that words can dismiss entire demographics.

Maybe this isn’t the case for Williams or Rainsborough, that their identity is easily dismissed. In agreement with the two, I do think that many people have a vulnerable sense of identity. Yes, sense of identity is vulnerable for many groups who have been oppressed and whose legitimacy as society members is often questioned. This language is threatening not because it offends us, but because it demonstrates how people in our own society think about fellow citizens. Language reflects ideas. Those ideas can threaten someone’s livelihood.

 

  1. Politics is no longer a question of opinion, but a question of morality. Those who can more readily demonstrate their suffering have more clout.

I do think some minorities will have a more accurate perspective on what it is like to be a minority and the problems they are facing. Because it is a matter of their livelihood, they have a right to be understood on behalf of morality.

It is like players on a baseball team discussing problems the sport is facing. The baseball players will be taken seriously because they play the game every day. If a hockey player, on the other hand, were given a platform to discuss these same baseball issues, the hockey player would not be taken as seriously. The hockey player is by no means barred from discussing baseball, and they may have meaningful things to say about baseball, but the players on the baseball team do have more weight, and for good reason — it concerns their entire career.

 

* * *

I found Williams’ claims to be well-formulated and intelligible, yet sometimes more based on personal conviction than objectivity. She was welcoming of alternative perspectives, though I wish more had been offered. Though I disagree with an array of things she proposed, she spoke with carefully chosen words and phrases and was well-received by the audience.

My interview with her really pushed at where freedom of speech stops and hate speech begins. According to Williams, there is no difference.

I think labeling some speech as ‘hate speech’ is more often used as a way to identify speech that is not conducive to a cohesive culture with common values. Such a culture is necessary, especially in diverse societies, because it creates a way for a country to cater to the largest amount of people in their society, not only a select group.

For me, the problem is not about the words themselves. It is about spreading toxic ideas, like that climate change is not real. These ideas can have real consequences on society. For example, anti-Semitism has existed for centuries, long before the Nazi movement was born. If this rhetoric towards Jews had been prevented from circulating and escalating, and if Nazis had been prevented from actively spreading horrible things about Jews — if they were denied a platform — perhaps those ideas wouldn’t have been so widely adopted.

When opinions become so toxic that they can change normative expectations in a society and go so far as to endorse attacks on other people, then a line should be drawn to prevent those convictions from becoming more than just speech.

Plenty of American alt-right groups have been banned from social media platforms. This is not just because their speech is considered hateful, but because they have used social media as a tool to turn their hateful speech into hateful action, as was the case for the Charlottesville Massacre in the summer of 2017.

The issues entailed in the phrase ‘culture wars’ are not ubiquitous. It has been my experience that productive bipartisan discussion can and does happen often in academia. I have changed my mind in both directions, toward and away from left-wing thought, many times since beginning university. My professors welcome alternative perspectives, and they push students to fully develop convictions before making sweeping claims.

That being said, issues still remain. Student have a lot of work to do to truly open our minds beyond what is put in front of us. That was my main takeaway from Williams’ discussion. As envoys of knowledge, professors, students, and researchers have both the opportunity and responsibility to draw from a variety of ideas in order to produce work that truly has merit. We have the obligation to criticize ideas with which we do not agree, not to back into a corner for fear of being wounded. Being closed minded just does not cut it anymore.


Eve Gleeson is a master’s student in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, as well as the Communications Manager of Strife. Her courses focus on security challenges in the evolving global context, including cyber threats, nuclear and biological programs, and security in new states. Eve holds a BA in International Studies with a focus on conflict and security from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. You can find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter @evegleeson_.

 

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