Saturday, March 28, 2015

Free Speech Can Be Scary


It's difficult for those of us saturated in social and print and online media to keep up with anti-free speech demands. British laws, as conservative critic Charles C.W. Cooke tells the New York Times, apply capriciously: "A Briton was arrested for telling a police officer his horse was gay. A singer in a seaside bar was arrested for singing 'Kung Fu Fighting' in the presence of a couple of Chinese people." Although I have since writing this been informed that Cooke fails (at least in the edited version of an admittedly short space) to clarify that the “hate speech” legislation since the “horse” episode has been amended eight years ago, and that said offender was not prosecuted, this explanation shows the lengths to which such legal interference and incompetence have extended.

I cite the end of Judith Shulevitz' article, worth reading in full, for its applicability to the situation Maryam Namazie has chronicled the past week on her blog, and which The Pensive Quill excerpted. Namazie planned to speak at Trinity College Dublin. But, security asked for a moderator, to shield her talk from any threat of "antagonising" its "Muslim students." TCD seems to have clumsily tried to tip a "balance" away from "one-sided" views, but winds up censoring one who knows Islamist tactics well. "It is crucial that I be able to speak against Islamist fascism and honour our dissenters deemed apostates, blasphemers, heretics…whether ex-Muslims, Muslims or non-Muslims," she insists. 

Shulevitz, after documenting the increasing levels of administration on college campuses to protect supposedly vulnerable young adults from harsh opinions or dissenting ideas, raises the overlooked "possibility that insulating students could also make them, well, insular. A few weeks ago, Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has traveled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to the newspaper’s apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase 'I am Charlie.'”

Judith Shulevitz goes on to narrate the situation, and I quote her at length. “Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, 'Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,' and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.

A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure 'that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.' Ms. El Rhazoui’s 'relative position of power,'  the writer continued, had granted her a 'free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.' In a letter to the editor, the president and the vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had sponsored the talk, shot back, saying, 'El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.'

You’d be hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that the student and her defender had burrowed so deep inside their cocoons, were so overcome by their own fragility, that they couldn’t see that it was Ms. El Rhazoui who was in need of a safer space." So concludes Shulevitz, in wise words to ponder.

Megan Murphy, a Vancouver feminist, has since added her view on the dubious protection afforded "safe spaces" in the Globe and Mail. She tells how she has been added to a list of "dissidents" on the Black Box, "an online incarnation of safe space." She joins a list of prominent freethinkers who have lately found themselves the targets of opprobrium for daring to speak out and not to give in to cant.

She reminds us of the cost that capitulation carries. "Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn’t support critical thinking."

She continues: "It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line. This is ironic, because many of those under threat of being silenced are people who are speaking out against abuse, harassment and violence. While some may hold 'controversial' opinions about how best to do it, they are just that – controversial. Throughout history, our heroes and radicals have held controversial opinions. How often do tepid opinions and fearfulness change the world for the better?"

Those at The Pensive Quill and as we see above, certain journalists and activists in the media, continue to fight for the right to freely express opinions and to promote facts that challenge pieties.
The reaction to Shulevitz' article in the following week of the New York Times, as these letters prove, was mixed. Professors and students tended to insist on safe spaces, at least from the correspondents selected, more than I would have predicted, but this appears to illustrate how deeply the principles of right-thinking by purportedly left-leaning individuals have permeated many in higher education.

(P.S. My blog piece has been updated for TPQ. I cannot find the original source of this image credit)


Keri said...

What has British law to do with what goes on in Dublin? For that matter do you really think that American conservatives are capable of a truthful account of British law? Eight years ago a drunken Oxford student supposedly said to a mounted police officer: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?" The student was not prosecuted and the British law that made his arrest possible has subsequently been changed so as not to infringe free speech.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

I never said there was a direct connection between British law and Dublin in this piece, merely that in America, Ireland, and England, free speech in various situations I linked to is in danger; that's my common thread. I appreciate you offering here the Cooke context; in the current NYT interview I read and cite, he does not explain when those incidents he mentions took place, nor that the law as you claim had been updated 8 years ago.

Keri said...

I've continued thinking about this and it seems to me that "free speech" is not really the issue with either the British or the Irish example. The British case, like the more recent "Plebgate", is the British class system in operation. I can well understand a policeman so irritated by the supercilous Oxford undergaduate that he arrests the student on a trumped-up charge of "offensive speech". The Irish case is more more to do with unwillingness to challenge religious authority. The Muslim scholar is, in reality, a Salafist loon, but he has been pronouncing on Islamic doctrine unchallenged in Ireland for some time. (Similarly, no one ever comments on the theological ignorance of the average Irish cardinal.)