2015 has been a significant year for the ‘Freedom of Speech’ debate. Opposite views clashed over the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in Paris, the debate over Germaine Greer’s views on transgender issues, and Oxford students picketing a speech from far-right French leader Marine Le Pen. Never before have the lines between what is considered to be offensive and hate-inciting been so fine, nor so controversial.
The issue of freedom of speech within universities has been a major point of discussion in 2015, especially in relation to the idea of ideological ‘safe spaces’. At first glance the concept of safe spaces – that people of all identities, religions and political beliefs are entitled to a tolerant environment to express who they are – seems an admirable policy. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the implication of campuses being ‘safe spaces’, and the accompanying paranoia of breaching this policy and causing offense, is detrimental to open and free discussion.
Last term, I attended a talk by the acclaimed human rights campaigner and political activist Maryam Namazie. Born in Tehran and raised a Muslim, Namazie, a self-proclaimed atheist, gave a lecture entitled ‘Human Rights, Apostasy and Islamism in the age of ISIS’. Namazie spoke freely and passionately – a measured, highly informed and an engaging speaker. She highlighted the important distinction between being a Muslim and conforming to extreme ‘Islamist’ ideology, and pointed to the “tsunami of atheism” taking place across the Middle East.
At no point during the talk would I, nor I think anyone in the audience, have described Namazie as “highly inflammatory” or “inciting hatred”. Yet, this is exactly how she was labelled when she was recently banned from speaking at Warwick University by the Student Union. Since then she has been in the news for expressing her “bigoted” and “Islamaphobic” views at Goldsmiths University in London, where she was heckled by the university’s Islamic Society and security had to intervene as she attempted to deliver the same lecture.
Those who label Namazie as an inciter of hatred pick out certain quotes to support their argument. Her provocative statement about niqabs being little more than “bin bags” has seen much media coverage, for example. However, what these critics ironically fail to recognise was the key message I took away from Namazie’s lecture – the importance of the right to criticise. Namazie’s overarching argument was that if we are too scared to openly criticise Islamism for fear of being ‘offensive’, we are “limit(ing) free expression… to the Islamists”.
freedom of speech allows you to be entitled to your opinion, just as others are entitled to argue against it.
People will always have different and conflicting opinions. Feminism, same-sex marriage, abortion, capital punishment – think of the Ethics GCSE syllabus and then some. You don’t have to come to an agreement or compromise with everyone – Parliament would be very dull and ineffective if you did. Whether it’s criticizing Islam, making homophobic or racist comments, as long as you are not actively discriminating, actively inciting hatred or violence, for me, freedom of speech allows you to be entitled to your opinion, just as others are entitled to argue against it. Such opinions might be deemed offensive, ignorant and narrow-minded. But that’s freedom of speech for you.
It is this very idea of freedom of speech however, which universities and student groups within universities are attempting to curtail. As the Goldsmiths Islamic Society stated in response to the incident over Namazie’s lecture, “A university should be a safe environment/space for all students including Muslims in this sensitive time”. The idea of universities as a whole being a ‘safe space’ is, however, intrinsically flawed. Of course, safe spaces within university are important; whether it be within religious societies, mental health forums or feminist groups. But in general universities are not safe spaces. They’re diverse, sprawling communities with multitudes of different beliefs, political ideologies and religious attitudes that cannot possibly all be censored to save from ‘offence’. Nor should they be.
leaving ‘inflammatory’ opinions unchallenged will only allow them to fester.
Germaine Greer speaking out on trans issues was not inciting hatred; as a respected feminist, she was stating her opinion on a very current and, for many, a very confusing topic. Neither was Namazie, who, speaking with far more knowledge and experience than most of her left-wing critics, was condemning the acceptance of extreme Islamism. On both of these issues, the more discussion the better. Ideas progress through discussion, whereas leaving ‘inflammatory’ opinions unchallenged will only allow them to fester.
University is a perfect opportunity for such discussion, for attending lectures from guest speakers or joining societies, for listening to others’ opinions and forming your own. What some might consider to be harmful or prejudiced ideas should also be given equal platform for discussion, where both the right to speak and the right to criticise are maintained. This is the time when we should be challenging the norm; challenging our families and our backgrounds, challenging the status quo and learning to think for ourselves… not just in our studies, but in our lives in general.