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!

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.




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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