President of Freedom Society and online columnist Liam Taylor provdies three reasons why universities need to stop trying to ban free speech.
Censorship. The friend of autocrats and defender of bad ideas across the world and throughout history. Our country has had a long and proud history as a champion of the principal of free speech, which begs the question of why this most favourite tool of corrupt 3rd world dictators has suddenly become a new fad amongst universities here on our shores. Universities UK, the umbrella body that represents vice-chancellors (and the same ridiculous outfit that also recently rubber-stamped gender segregation), has declared that free speech should no longer be an absolute but must be restricted, as speakers may express ‘contentious’ or even ‘offensive’ views. Now the perceptive among you may notice that if free speech is to exist, by definition it can only do so without these restrictions. To ‘balance’ free speech with restrictions about not causing offence is in effect to abolish one of the foundations of our society. Clearly there are many crazy groups out there across the political spectrum with lots of crazy ideas, but here are a few reasons why even they deserve to have their views heard.
1) It’s their job
Universities of all places should be bastions of free speech. If there is one place where you should be free to explore, debate and discuss ideas, without fear of being coerced or controlled, then it should be at a university. That is the whole point of them after all. But all too often this is not the case. Either universities take it upon themselves to ban speakers or even harass groups they consider ‘offensive’, or particularly intolerant students shout down or even threaten speakers they failed to get banned, simply because they disagree with their point of view. Luckily here at Exeter we’ve been free of this kind of nonsense, with student groups being given the freedom to invite who they want and being relatively tolerant of one another. Whenever there have been cack-handed attempts at censorship and proposals to ban national newspapers, our fellow students have had the good sense to reject them. However more and more Exeter seems to be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to free speech. And that is particularly worrying as…
2) It’s the only defence against bad ideas
It’s an old saying that you cannot kill an idea; they will live on long after the person who thought of it has been forgotten by history. However the only way to defeat a bad idea is with a better one. You cannot defeat ideas you disagree with by burying them in the dark. It is only in the light of day and the oxygen of publicity that we will be able to tell the good ideas, which will flourish, from the bad which will decay. In fact, clumsy attempts at censorship will only reinforce them. Just like the way the BNP imploded after being exposed on Question Time, the only way to prevent bad ideas taking root is to debate them openly and publicly.
Similarly it’s the only way to get rid of a bad consensus. It doesn’t take a lot for a bad idea to become entrenched and become orthodoxy. Which is why it’s important to keep questioning it, even if the new idea isn’t better (and often it won’t be) it is important to keep questioning the orthodoxy in case it’s wrong or we find something better. And for various reasons our political and media elites often get it wrong. In fact the more they agree the more wrong they tend to be. Free speech is the only way to prevent a destructive idea becoming consensus. Don’t forget it wasn’t all that long ago that a terrible idea such as eugenics was a fashionable opinion for intellectual and political elites to hold in ‘respectable’ circles throughout the West. That champion of progressivism, Keynes, was Director of the British Eugenics Society whilst opposition was limited to an ‘extremist’ fringe. Censorship and slander are the last gasp of failed dogmas like these as they cower in their ivory towers from challengers.
3) It’s the only way humanity will progress
Only when ideas can be discussed and debated freely can we ever discover the new ideas that allow for human progress. But that won’t happen if people are unable to express new ideas or challenge old ones without fear of being shouted down or ostracised for it. Which is exactly why those who cling most desperately to failed ideas both old and new are those most likely to try to silence dissenting voices, because they know their ideas will not stand up to the scrutiny of being challenged. How can we expect to progress in an environment where obvious truths cannot be said and very real problems cannot be diagnosed because they challenge the conventional wisdom of the day?
It was Voltaire who said that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” So perhaps instead of trying to crush ideas we dislike, or that challenge our own, we would do better to heed those words.
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