By Eve Gleeson
27 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 13 November event became the center of controversy as several campus groups called on the Department of War Studies to cancel the event. Williams, however, would argue that the multiplicity of King’s student groups who called for her no platforming were exactly the individuals trying to wish away ideas they didn’t agree with — the kind of individuals she strongly disagrees with.
Williams is infamous for her free speech platform. In other words, she is highly critical of the attempt to transform public spaces, such as university campuses and social media platforms, into safe spaces. Here are a few takeaways from the event:
- The differentiation between harsh words and physical violence.
Words aren’t violent, she argued, making the case that we often perceive language in its capacity to wound, to offend. She stressed the important differentiation between acts of violence and speech that may be considered hateful, and noted that the ‘mental health epidemic’ (which she argued is wildly overstated) is a symptom resulting from the bizarre confounding of the two. She also argued that children and college-age students are thought to be vulnerable, easily affected by words, and in need of emotional protection.
- Universities today are censorious.
Both Williams and Rainsborough argued that when you try to say something controversial on a university campus, you receive backlash because the university is inundated with homogenous liberal thought. In an effort to protect their students and serve them as a customer to whom they provide a service, universities have adapted into one-laned thought havens rather than centres of intellectual risk-taking. Williams also endorsed the idea of a professor being able to say ‘white people are the best’ in a classroom setting, without consequence, given that fellow academics and students may respond with a counterargument.
- If you disagree with someone who has a platform, go to the event and criticize them. Don’t stay at home.
In response to statements issued by the King’s College London Student Union and the Intersectional Feminist Society calling for her no platforming, Williams emphasized that ‘making the argument of no platforming becomes an end in itself … It implies that giving someone a platform endows them with a particular power, status and influence to brainwash … [That’s] actually saying something really terrible about your audience’.
- Universities are insulated and politically homogeneous.
Williams provided a series of claims for why she believes universities in the 21st century are left-leaning. First, she argued that university staff recruit in their own image and praise work they agree with. Second, she emphasised the increasing perception of students as more vulnerable and emotionally fragile than the rest of the population. Rainsborough argued that this comes from questionable parenting techniques. Next, Williams postulated the student as a consumer whom the university, which is then providing a service, must satisfy. For this reason, universities stop serving as a beacon of intellectual risk-taking.
- There is a harmful connection between language and identity.
Williams argued that the idea that language constructs identity implies a very vulnerable sense of identity if it can be so readily dismissed through language. She finds the idea that words can dismiss entire demographics to be ‘slightly odd’.
- Politics is no longer a question of opinion but a question of morality.
Williams posited that we no longer focus on which policy works better. Instead, we deem one policy moral and the other amoral. Any debate and challenge, then, is perceived as more dangerous. Williams also argued that ‘people who can demonstrate their suffering are those who morally appear to be the most pure and deserving of a platform, a voice — that their words carry more weight’.
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Undergraduates, master’s and PhD students, as well as many professors and professionals who work in journalism or research, attended the event. The audience was active in posing questions for Williams; the question and answer session lasted just as long as the talk, clocking in at an hour each. Despite backlash from student groups earlier in the day, the discussion between Williams and the audience was civil and productive. She remained after the event to speak with those who had questions and even autographed one student’s book.
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_.