Princeton University sends out the right message about free speech and critical enquiry

(Image credit: brett jordan via flickr)

I was surprised but encouraged to come across some advice issued by academics at Princeton University to students who are about to start university life. They say they have distilled their advice into three words:

Think for yourself

They rightly point out that it isn’t easy to do so, especially when you’re battling against the tide of popularity, groupthink, and a general consensus about what the ‘correct’ opinion is.

Its very easy to read or listen to an apparently well-educated person talk about something, and to take on board every sentiment they’ve just expressed, just because they claim to be or appear to be an authority. You then go and parrot the exact same opinion to your friends, and generally hope that they’ll agree too.

As the Princeton academics say, ‘In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink’.

Further, they point out that the best way to come to a position on something is to become well-informed on the topic yourself, to consider what you regard the strongest argument to be, even if it flies in the face of popular opinion.

‘The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.’

So, the central message is to step outside the echo chamber, think for yourself, and don’t take a position on something as part of an effort to be ‘popular’. Often, people who are honest and open about what they really think are also respected and praised by many of the people they thought they disagreed with. And occasionally, you might persuade a few people over to your position too!


The danger of self-censorship

George Orwell, in his fantastic essay, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, which was originally written as a preface to Animal Farm, wrote about the danger of self-censorship.

He argued that it wasn’t the spectre of an ‘official ban’ which ‘silenced’ unpopular ideas. Rather, it was societal orthodoxy which often stifled free speech.

‘At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.’

Though its unclear why, Orwell’s timeless musings were not actually published as the preface to his famous tome, and only appeared when they were released under the above title by Bernard Crick in a 1972 edition of the Times Literary Supplement. 

Orwell regarded it a ‘sinister’ fact that ‘literary censorship’ in Britain was largely voluntary, that people policed their own words for fear of public backlash.

Today, Orwell’s essay carries enormous relevance. There are a great variety of issues in which there is an orthodoxy, and to step outside it and pronounce an alternative view is to potentially invite opprobrium.

In the recent past, it was topics like immigration and multiculturalism which had an accepted narrative. For the former, the said narrative ran along the lines that mass immigration was economically and culturally beneficial to Britain, and anyone who said otherwise probably had racist motives.

The spiel of the latter was that various cultures could exist within a society harmoniously, and that all cultures had equal value. Therefore, criticising unfamiliar and questionable cultural practices was again an act which apparently bordered on the racist and unacceptable.

Despite the fact that this narrative has come under significant pressure in recent years, British Labour politician Sarah Champion, the Member of Parliament for Rotherham and the then shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, recently discovered to her disadvantage the extent to which a deviation from a generally accepted narrative can harm peoples’ careers.

Champion wrote a piece in the much-criticised The Sun newspaper, in which – under the headline ‘British Pakistani men are raping and exploiting white girls… and its time we faced up to it‘ – she made some challenging but truthful claims. Its worth noting to start of with that Champion probably didn’t write the headline, which was what caused much of the controversy.

British Labour politician Sarah Champion

In her actual piece, the Labour politician was measured in her words. She laid out the main, shocking facts, that more than 1,200 vulnerable white girls were abused by mainly British Pakistani men in the Rotherham area between 1997 and 2013. Further, she highlighted the horrific truth that many of the pleas of the victims failed to be acted on by local borough council.

None of these assertions should have been controversial, for they were all true, and have been repeated and republished as such by the likes of the BBC only recently.

Such unfathomable evidence of wrongdoing on the part of British citizens, and of negligence on the part of the council and the police, was all contained in Professor Alexis Jay’s report into the litany of crimes.

Yet, despite the watertight nature of the claims made by Champion, and her dogged insistence to lay out the facts regardless of the backlash, she was still forced to resign.

Her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, failed to support her, and instead trotted out the familiar and tired trope, that it was not fair to “blame” or “stigmatise any particular group”.

Corbyn’s failure to back one of his party’s leading female figures led Trevor Philips, the former chair of the Equality and Human rights Commission, to tell The Telegraph that, “I am absolutely gobsmacked, this is not the Labour party I know, even in the darkest days I don’t remember people being asked to stand down for trying to represent their constituents, which is what I think Sarah Champion was trying to do”.

Indeed, Phillips’ words should surely make us think twice before we condemn people for saying and writing ‘controversial’ things. If something truthful happens to be difficult to listen to, then it is likely that there is a significant problem which needs to be dealt with.

Similarly, topics like gender now appear to be subject to new, rising orthodoxy. The notion that gender is grounded in biological sex appears now to be a claim that, if repeated, can end up with someone being branded ‘transphobic’.

Instead of allowing a debate centred with facts and reason, seemingly sensible people give in to a narrow and aggressive view that gender is entirely socially constructed, and that someone’s opinion of what they ‘identify’ as is what really matters.

As a result, the likes of Germaine Greer are pilloried and branded ‘transphobic’, simply for asserting the above, that someone does not become a man or a woman simply because they say they feel that way.

Subjects in which societal opinion has shifted are a good way of demonstrating why we should always be keen to encourage and facilitate open and honest debate, no matter how difficult the topic may be or how obvious the right answer may seem.

Take the Iraq War as a final example. Amidst the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, political opinion – though not public opinion – was firmly on the pro-invasion side. Those brave voices who stood in opposition to this, such as the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, were pilloried and ridiculed by the Press and other politicians.

There existed a narrow political orthodoxy, which despite not being shared by the general public, was strong and assertive in the corridors of power.

Little did everyone know that Kennedy’s view would soon be vindicated, the Iraq invasion was indeed premised on flimsy intelligence and poor post-invasion planning, and his warnings should clearly have been heeded from the start.

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Jenni Murray and the liberal bigots

Yet another storm has been whipped up by supposed liberals over alleged ‘transphobic’ comments made by the broadcaster Jenni Murray in an article for the The Sunday Times.  

Murray, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, wrote in her piece – which was entitled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a real woman” – that transgender women who have previously lived as men “with all the privilege that entails”, have not experienced growing up female and are therefore not “real women”.

This piece isn’t about the ins and outs of what she wrote, nor does it intend to delve into transgender issues. However, the hysteria that has arisen is a little over the top. Murray’s lengthy article delved into the subject of transgenderism quite extensively, and she was at pains to denounce the likes of Germaine Greer for her abrasive comments on the same subject.

Yet, as is increasingly the case in this climate of illiberal intolerance, Murray’s view was seized on by other parts of the media, with India Willoughby, a news presenter and transgender woman, calling for Murray – who had referred to Willoughby in her piece – to be sacked from her role as the presenter of Women’s Hour.

Quoted in The Telegraph, Willoughby said, “honestly, I wouldn’t wish being trans on anyone, even Jenni. ‘Male privilege’ was never a privilege to me and is not something I benefited from.

“The fact that she’s still allowed to host Woman’s Hour while spouting this bile is ridiculous and she should finally be sacked”.

Indeed, the BBC has since said that it has reminded Murray of her responsibility to maintain an impartial view on controversial topics, despite the fact that Murray aired her views in an entirely separate publication and medium.

Further, students at Oxford, playing up to the now well-worn stereotype of intolerance that has become a common feature of student politics, have called for Murray to be uninvited from speaking about feminism and women’s history at the Oxford literary festival.

Their bizarre logic seems to be that Murray’s views on transgender issues invalidate her opinion on any other subject, and so she should be cast out into the imagined wilderness into which all deplorables who do not hold a certain set of opinions would ideally be sent.

Rachel Cohen, the executive director at Stonewall, went further, and said that Murray had no right to even question someone else’s identity.

“Whether you are trans or not, your identity is yours alone. I do not question your identity Jenni, and in return, I wouldn’t expect you to question mine – or anyone else’s. What right would you have to do so?”

Here, Cohen seems to forget that Murray and everyone else has a right to question whatever they like.

Similarly, Murray’s view wasn’t that people such as Willoughby do not have ‘the right’ to call themselves women, but that just because they say that they identify as a woman, or ‘feel like’ a woman, it doesn’t mean that they are a woman.

You could of course fire back that if you genuinely feel like a woman (or a man), then you are a woman, and you would be perfectly free to express that view, but it wouldn’t make you indisputably correct.

There is a distinct danger here that the sphere of tolerance, which I have written about in previous posts, will be further narrowed if people like Murray are silenced.

Bigotry is a disease suffered by all ideologies, but increasingly it is tsupposed liberals which suffer from it most acutely.

We need to re-discover tolerance in its genuine form, Murray has the right to say whatever she likes, and if people don’t like it, they should explain why with facts and reason, instead of resorting to shutting down the debate in order to be protected from offence.




The ‘Dealing with right wing attitudes’ poster at Sussex University

I’ve recently written an article for the Telegraph, detailing my experience of discovering a poster at Sussex Uni, which advertised an “informal discussion” organised by the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research. The discussion would be centred around, “dealing with right-wing attitudes and politics in the classroom”.

In my piece, I outline the “stunning willingness of those behind the poster to reveal – in a public space – a clear bias against anyone with right-wing opinions”.

I also talk about the fact that it might be – and in my opinion is – a worrying pointer to the lack of intellectual diversity within academia. One lecturer of mine told me that he was disappointed that I hadn’t nuanced my view of academics, and had painted them all with the same brush.

He’s right, not all of my lecturers are closed-minded, and all whom I spoke to (within the Politics department) were unhappy at the poster. However, they *are* all – bar one – on ‘the left’. It’s at least interesting to ask why.

Similarly, I think its interesting that, although people generally agree that the use of language in the poster (using ‘right wing’ to mean ‘bigoted’ views such as racism, sexism, and homophobia) was lazy and wrong, many still seem to think that it’s still okay to restrict speech in the university classroom.

They all agree, as do I, that ‘racism, sexism and homophobia’ are bad, but they think that the way to challenge it is by imposing restrictions on speech.

That leaves those rules open to abuse, and to the above pejorative labels being applied very liberally, as they have been to Trump and Brexit supporters.

Instead, people should be free to say what they like, and to leave their opinions open to intellectual challenge and debate. I’ll finish, though I hardly feel worthy, by quoting Orwell:

‘These people [who want to stop people from saying certain things] don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you. To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.’

Illiberal liberals and the narrowing sphere of acceptable values

Tolerance is a word that is often bandied about by liberals the world over. Being tolerant towards divergent viewpoints and ways of life is supposedly a cornerstone of liberal democracies like the United Kingdom. It is also a key tenet of free expression; respecting a person’s right to say – or not to say – what they think, even if you viscerally disagree with their point of view.

Yet, to what extent do we, as a society, really adhere to real tolerance? How often do we provide the space for those we disagree with to put forward their views? Further, has the state started mandating on matters of conscience, and if it has, what are the implications for free expression?

I would argue that in Britain and elsewhere, the value of tolerance is under threat. Lets take as an example the recent so-called ‘Gay cake’ case, where the Christian owners of a bakery in Northern Ireland were taken to court by a gay rights campaigner – Gareth Lee – over their refusal to produce a cake with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it.

As so often happens with cases like this, the facts were misrepresented, and there was little reporting about what was really at stake here.

Fundamentally, this case was about free expression, not about discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Ashers bakery were asked by a customer, Gareth Lee, to produce an iced cake with the message, ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it.

They refused to print the message, on the basis that doing so would be to essentially write something that contravened their deeply held beliefs about traditional marriage.

Lee took them to court, and won the case, despite the fact that Ashers were simply refusing to endorse an idea – gay marriage – and were not refusing to serve him because of  his sexuality.

So, how did the judges justify their verdict ? Well, they ruled that Ashers had acted in contravention of the Equality Act, which mandates that: ‘A person (A) discriminates against another person (B) if – on grounds of sexual orientation – A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons’.

As explained above, the owners of the bakery did not discriminate on the basis of sexuality, and nor did they treat the customer less favorably than any other: they would have turned away a heterosexual customer asking for the same message.

Peter Tatchell, the prominent gay-rights campaigner, was one of the few people to speak out against this judgement. Writing in The Independent, he said, ‘Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful.’

‘But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with. I am saddened that the court did not reach the same conclusion.’

The worrying implication of this ruling is that it sets a precedent. The state has mandated that the owner of a business must print a message asked for by a customer, even if they disagree with that message.

On this point, Tatchell writes, ‘This verdict is a defeat for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers can be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage against their wishes, it also implies that gay bakers could be forced by law to decorate cakes with homophobic slogans.’

Indeed, what if someone asked a  bakery run by a Muslim family for a cake adorned with a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (depictions of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam)? Could they be plausibly punished for refusing to produce the cake? This case says they could be.

Or what if a Jewish-run commercial printers were approached by neo-Nazis who wanted to knock-up 500 propaganda leaflets? Its the same principle.

Somehow, I don’t think either of the last two examples – deployed to illustrate a point – would ever result in a court judgement.

That’s because the collective ideology of the State wouldn’t allow it, no-one likes neo-Nazis, and everyone agrees that it would be wrong to punish Muslims for refusing to depict the Prophet Muhammad in print.

Yet on the flip side, the judges in this case adhered to a very strange and unjustifiable reading of the Equality Act, and one can’t help wondering if it was because they themselves agreed with gay marriage, which should of course have been irrelevant.

Further, there are plenty of heterosexuals who agree with gay marriage, and some homosexuals who disagree with it, and this again illustrates the point that so few commentators failed to make: the sexuality of the customer was irrelevant.

The fundamental issue here is that we are failing to uphold our own values; toleration isn’t about agreeing with an expressed viewpoint, it is instead about allowing said view to be aired.

Instead, tolerance seems to be being disregarded when views, values and beliefs do not fall within an acceptable sphere that appears to be getting narrower.

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Intellectual diversity and free speech

News emerged last week that students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) want to have the majority of ‘white philosophers’ removed from courses run by the university, in order to ‘decolonise’ the institution.

Further, they argued that ‘if white philosophers are required’ then they should be taught from a ‘critical standpoint’.

Just a little note on the latter point; shouldn’t all philosophers be taught from a critical standpoint? Are they implying by their assertion that the work of black philosophers should be accepted unquestioningly rather than critically analysed?

Getting to the point of this post, what, you might ask, does this news have to do with free speech?

First of all, as I alluded to in my first post, the right of free speech which is so important to our society can only be recognised as such if its origins are properly understood. That means learning about the writings of the likes of John Stuart Mill and others, most of whom happen to be white men.

So by relegating the importance of the likes of Mill, simply because of the colour of their skin, these students are asking to be deprived of some of humanity’s greatest works, and in the process will be ignorant about why the right to free expression is important.

They are, in fact, demanding to have a deciding influence in the content of their course, before they’ve even learnt about those figures they want to exclude. To me, that seems more than wrongheaded, and instead verges on authoritarian.

Sir Roger Scruton, an eminent philosopher and white man, put it well to the Telegraph when he said, in response to the news,  “You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy.”

“If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.”

Indeed, Scruton touches on an extremely important point. It is that the works of many of these now-pigeonholed “white philosophers” have universal appeal to all human beings everywhere.

Nothing speaks more to the human spirit than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s brilliant assessment of the modern state, that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”; or indeed John Locke’s somewhat apt pronouncement that “The mind is furnished with ideas by experience alone”. It certainly is.

What I find distressing is that our society has made significant progress towards judging people by the content of their arguments, rather than the colour of their skin, or any other physical characteristic. Yet this move by SOAS’ students’ union is another example of what seems to be a regression to where colour is again taking centre stage.

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What is the ‘Harm Principle’ and why is it important?

The importance of J.S. Mill’s arguments in favour of free expression

So, I’ve decided to jump straight into the deep end by writing about John Stuart Mill and his so-called ‘harm principle’. I’ve done this because I think it’s really important to lay out some basic principles straight off; free speech really is absolutely foundational to a free society, and therefore it’s crucial to go back to first principles in order to understand why it is so important.

Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and politician, and his writings form much of the basis of Liberalism as an ideology.  His most famous work was On Liberty, published in 1859, and it is where his argument in favour of free expression can be found.

The full passage that concerns us can be found very early on in the book:

‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ (page 13)

As mentioned in the ‘About’ page, controversy over the years has arisen over what Mill intended harm to mean. The problem is that Mill himself wasn’t particularly clear about what he meant by harm, and he re-visited his concept on a number of occasions both within On Liberty and in other works.

Part of the issue is that One’s conception of harm will vary depending on their cultural and moral outlook. Take, for example, the furore provoked by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication a few years ago.

These cartoons were deemed by many Muslims to be extremely harmful, and they did in fact lead to a number of protests and violent demonstrations. Western commentators argued that they were nothing more than offensive, and that to not publish them elsewhere – for fear of reprisals – would constitute self-censorship. You can see here the competing notion of harm, and it is a potential problem for policymakers.

It would take a number of blog posts to go further into the issues around Mill’s principle, but the one I’ve highlighted above is perhaps the most pressing. However, we can still continue and look at Mill’s specific reference to free expression.

In Chapter III of On Liberty, in specific reference to opinions, Mill writes that, ‘…On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.

To illustrate his point, Mill uses the example of a corn dealer. He says that the opinion that corn dealers are ‘starvers of the poor’ ought to be ‘unmolested’ when simply circulated in the press, but if it were delivered to an ‘excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer’, it may rightfully be curtailed’.

This passage is crucial for us, for it directly concerns the incitement to violence, and in my opinion it is the only justifiable limitation on free expression.

So, Mill gives a privileged position to free expression with regards to actions. Why does he do this? He argues that, even if a potential assertion is known to be true, it is important for said opinion to be allowed to be expressed in open debate.

He explains his reasoning in this absolutely fundamental passage:

‘But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.

‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

‘It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.’

This is, indeed, why I wish to adhere so strongly to the single limitation on free expression that I have already mentioned. If we are confident in our opinions and beliefs, then we should be equally confident in defeating opposing points of view, including those which upset or offend us.

By stifling opinion, even the most abhorrent, what are we saying about our own deeply held values? Surely we are undermining truth and reason in the very act of coercive suppression?

Further, as Mill says, we can’t ever be sure that the stifled opinion is a false one, nor can we be sure that our own beliefs don’t contain falsehood. Surely the only way to come to solid, confident conclusions about the most pressing issues is through free discourse, and that is why all of us should hold the right to free expression very close to our hearts.

Jonathan Wolff, author of An Introduction to Political Philosophy, refers in his chapter on Mill to a very telling story. A group of politics students, in the repressive atmosphere of Franco-era Spain, were given only a ‘few minutes’ on Mill and his arguments, whilst the theories of Karl Marx were explained in far greater detail.

Wolff writes that the regime had chosen to censor Mill rather than Marx because whilst Marx’s arguments were unlikely to ‘turn the heads’ of ‘affluent’ students, Mill’s writing on free speech and liberty was ‘quite another thing’. The regime were well aware that the right to free expression would have been normatively compelling, and hence they were fearful of the students learning too much about it.

Everyone – even those who seek to undermine it via subterfuge –  now pays homage to free speech, even as we argue over its implications, and that is surely an indication of its enduring value to our society. That is why it should be defended at all costs.