Freedom of speech is an interesting problem. We all outwardly express our passion for it, yet we all to a certain extent also believe in censorship. By censorship, I do not necessarily mean North Korea-style suppression of free press and criticism of the government. I also mean the unwritten rules of self-censorship that every day we apply to ourselves – and sometimes attempt to enforce upon others.
For example, many of us will have taboos against certain words, find them offensive and inappropriate to voice out loud – various racial epithets spring to mind as the most obvious examples. We will not say them ourselves, and will attempt to suppress their utterance in others, believing them to be inappropriate for our vision of society.
Linked to this, I believe, is the refusal – often subconscious – to interact with ideas and opinions we do not agree with. This may seem like a rather long leap, but bear with me.
When we refuse to utter certain terms, we are refusing to engage with them to a certain extent. Often, this is with good reason – we do not want to utter racial insults because we do not want to support the line of reasoning that suggests the insult is a valid utterance to make. We are internally refusing to follow that thought process to its (flawed) conclusion.
However, I think this can lead to lack of empathy and understanding on many issues. Let us take a look at our relationship with the media. Looking at statistics collected in the U.S and the U.K, it appears that the majority of people only receive their news from a few authorities, or at least only look in-depth at one or two sources. Based on my experiences of talking to people, this does not surprise me. Making a sweeping generalisation – but not, I think, an unfair one – I would say the majority of people in the U.K get most of the news from the BBC and probably one or two other sources – The Daily Mail, The Evening Post, The Guardian, etc. This is not surprising – people live busy lives and have limited time (and interest) with which to ingest the news, and so receive it from a limited number of sources they feel comfortable with. However, I meet a lot of people who refuse to look at certain sources, ‘censoring’ their perspectives, because of their political beliefs. This, I feel, is the wrong attitude to take.
When most people consider this issue, I think it is commonplace to assume the majority of these self-censors are less-educated people who eagerly lap up the messages given by conservative media outlets such as The Daily Mail and Fox News. However, I have met many highly-educated Guardian readers who refuse to read The Telegraph because it irritates or disgusts them, despite both papers being seen as generally serious and trustworthy in the grand scheme of things, albeit having very different political leanings. I’m sure the opposite is true of many Telegraph readers as well. This is unfortunate, and I believe can lead to dangerous polarisations.
Polarisation in the media worries me somewhat, but not as much as the polarisation of popular opinion connected to it. Reading only The Guardian, you might start coming round to the opinion that all who vote Conservative are nasty ‘Tory Scum’ and all Republicans want to ban abortion; a Telegraph loyalist might be un-swayable in their scepticism of drugs liberalisation and in their contempt of the Labour Party; a Mail reader might truly believe that Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn are unpatriotic closet-Communists. I exaggerate somewhat, but look at the recent U.S election. On the ‘Left’ we had a candidate who demonised her opponents as “deplorables”, seemingly showing a complete lack of empathy with their situation. On the ‘Right’, we had people calling for that same candidate to be locked up, even assassinated. The divide could not be more stark, and I cannot help but feel that this is partly due to the polarisation of the media in the States. Brexit proved that the British media, and the response of people to it, was little better. Both events were characterised by bitter insults, lies and hate, with few people on either side seeming to consider for long whether their opponents had valid arguments or not. They refused to engage, self-censoring and cutting themselves off from various chains of reasoning. I feel that our culture is weakened and cheapened as a result.
‘Refusal of engagement’, if we want to call it that, is a hot topic now in Universities, as many of you know. The battles over no-platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings continue to be fought with ever-greater fervour. These conflicts raise a lot of interesting questions on safety, knowledge and the promotion of unsavoury ideas.
Let us look at safe spaces and trigger warnings first. One side of the argument suggests that it is important to protect the vulnerable from emotional and mental harm; the other side states that it is mollycoddling, infantilising and leads to censorship. I can easily see both sides of the argument. After the terrible events of the Orlando nightclub shooting, I could not help but sympathise with those of the LGBT community who might want a safe space. The same with trigger warnings – nobody wants rape victims to have to suddenly relive their awful experiences, for instance. I am fortunate enough to not have experienced anything so traumatic and cannot imagine what it might be like. However, I do in general believe that safe spaces and trigger warnings do not really solve anything. You do not find the solution to problems by hiding from them, but from confronting them. That does not mean you should be thrown into the deep end and that you shouldn’t tackle it at your own pace, but I feel that safe spaces and trigger warnings merely delay and prevaricate. Moreover, I have heard very good arguments that the concept is patronising and reinforces notions of certain elements of society being weak, vulnerable and unable to stand on their own two feet. Trigger warnings can also make the highlighted negative topic the focus of, say, a lecture or speech. Everybody perversely is focused on the issue flagged at the start and the tone of the lecture indirectly follow this – it becomes memorable not because of its main content matter, but because of a reference to suicide or sex abuse, for instance.
No-platforming is a related issue, and I have a similar line of thought upon it. On one hand, allowing controversial speakers a platform to speak upon does give them a certain legitimacy, which can be unfortunate if they hold particularly unpleasant views. Even giving them a platform and then aggressively and abusively debating with them can make them seem like a victim, furthering their support. However, there are a multitude of arguments against no-platforming as far as I see it.
Firstly, who decides what is too unpleasant to be brought into public light? Just because you disagree with it does not necessarily mean it is abhorrent. Secondly, often the best way to crush an argument is to bring it out into the open and demolish it with reasoned debate. No-platforming can increase the ‘ignored victim’ mentality of many unpleasant groups and increase anti-establishment sentiment – I do not believe I need to elaborate further on where that has led us recently. Thirdly, it creates a poor image of universities in the media, further eroding public support for yet another establishment of our society.
Finally, it perpetuates the widening gap between different groups in society and their ability to empathise with each other. So, this speaker does not agree with gay marriage, for example. Why don’t they? What reasons might they have for doing so? Sure, it may be because they are rather nasty and blatantly homophobic, as you suspected at the start. But perhaps they are not, and have a different reason for doing so. Maybe they have many LGBT friends, and are fully supportive of gay rights in every respect except marriage, because of deep religious views? Perhaps you might come away realising that you were too quick to judge, and perhaps not everyone who disagrees with your opinion then also has many other opinions that you abhor. Maybe, just maybe, their opinions and yours align more than they diverge. I speculate in this random example, but my point still stands.
We need understanding and empathy for an open, agreeable society, and the best way to do that is to engage with as many people, views and outlooks as possible. Don’t demonise – persuade instead. Don’t attack – debate. Don’t hide – engage.