The U.K. Government is worried about free speech in universities, and announced yesterday (Boxing Day, 2017) that universities could face penalities. Speaking on the BBC, Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, said:
@2:33: “… because we are seeing some erosion of this core principle. Now, overwhelmingly at the moment, there is free speech in our system, but there are… There is a proliferation of so-called “safe spaces” and there’s a rise of no-platforming and also other manifestations of this erosion in the form of the removal of certain books from libraries and the drawing up of extensive lists of trigger words that are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.”
@2.35: “We are talking about freedom of speech within the law. It’s that which must prevail, and that means allowing only the narrowest necessary restrictions on it, and these have to be set out by Parliament and justified, as you said, by specific countervailing public policies, such as our laws to prohibit expressions of racial hatred, religious hatred, or hatred on the ground of sexual orientation.”
@2:36: “Well, I think it’s important that students going through our Higher Education system do learn to be resilient and to deal with controversial opinions, to deal with views that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs, or views that simply, you know, make them feel uncomfortable. Because if we fail to do that, we will soon be on a slippery slope that ends up with a society that is less able to make scientific breakthroughs, less able to be innovative and frankly less able also to resist injustice. We need people to be able to deal with the uncomfortable.”
@2.37: “But, you know, I think it is important, we look at the cases you mentioned [Greer, Tatchell], these are speakers who have potentially been banned, or harried, under the no-platforming or safe spaces [… who by] all reasonable definition are advocates of openness and liberal values and should be welcomed on our campuses.”
There is a lot of sense in this, but it feels sensationalised and disingenuous. There’s a huge difference between expressing controversial opinions and expressing intolerant opinions. There’s also a distinction between academic freedom to explore and publish controversial research, and a society’s freedom to invite – or not invite – speakers. Just as research is subject to ethical considerations, so are public speakers subject to ethical interpretation.
To attack safe spaces is bizarre, as if students aren’t entitled to safety, and avoiding trigger words contributes to safe spaces. Are some people over-sensitive? Perhaps. Too quick to jump to conclusions and go on the attack? Absolutely. Should all books, etc., have content warnings? Depends. Should they be withdrawn, or even banned? Well… Clearly there is a discussion to be had on these points, but it can’t be encompassed in a soundbite.
The cases quoted by the BBC’s Nick Robinson were hardly worthy of mention (see, e.g., Boris, Tatchell, Greer: were they actually no-platformed?), but Jo Johnson’s response is interesting: “by all reasonable definition are advocates of openness and liberal values”. Well, that’s hugely debatable, especially in the case of Germaine Greer.
Germaine Greer has earned great respect as a second-wave feminist, but her outspoken views on trans women are transphobic in the extreme. Her opinions are welcomed by TERFs who love to paint trans women as predatory males. Whether she deserves to be no-platformed, I don’t know, but I understand the sense of betrayal. Here is a vocal proponent of women’s rights, and yet she absolutely denies that identity to a minority who fight every day to keep it. (An interesting article on the subtleties here: What the row over banning Germaine Greer is really about.)
The Mail Online reported the horrors recounted by Jo Johnson with the headline: Now ‘snowflake’ students are drawing up lists of ‘trigger words’ and demanding books containing them are stripped from university libraries, says higher education minister, i.e., Panic! Panic! Panic! Right-wing politicians and media love to deploy the ‘snowflake’ insult, as also in The Times: ‘Snowflake generation want to exclude those who disagree’. And today, Tory MP Nadine Dorries Thinks ‘Left-Wing Snowflakes’ Are ‘Dumbing Down Panto’ And People Are Done.
It’s the ultimate way of saying, “These people and their concerns are ephemeral and irrelevant.” The word has an intersting history as an insult:
But as 2016 dawned, snowflake made its way to the mainstream and, in the process, evolved into something more vicious. The insult expanded to encompass not just the young but liberals of all ages; it became the epithet of choice for right-wingers to fling at anyone who could be accused of being too easily offended, too in need of “safe spaces,” too fragile.
In The Narrative On University Safe Spaces And No-Platform Policies Couldn’t Be Further From The Truth, Malia Bouattia, President of the National Union of Students, explains how non-controversial safe spaces and no-platforming are:
Those who seek to portray us as delicate flowers do so because they wish to preserve the freedom of expression for some, but not others. They believe that liberty should exist for the privileged, even if it’s at the expense of the rest of us. …
It’s time we recognised this narrative for what it is: a systematic attempt to undermine and trivialise practices developed through years of hard work and campaigning to defend the rights of marginalised and oppressed groups.