On the evening of 24th October Dr Yaron Brook, the American-Israeli entrepreneur and director of the Ayn Rand Institute, was scheduled to deliver a talk entitled ‘Free Speech and the Survival of Western Culture’ in the Peter Chalk Centre. Before Dr Brook even had a chance to speak students supporting Palestine took turns to stage protests and disrupt the event. How naïve of me to have thought the event would run smoothly.
As is often the case, the disrupters were high on the ad-hominem and low on the reason. ‘When we reflect on the behaviour of men,’ said the philosopher Rudolf Carnap, ‘we see that they are dominated more by their passion than by their reason.’ This protest is a case in point.
The great irony, of course, was that this was a talk about free speech
The protesters called Dr Brook a ‘racist’, an ‘Islamophobe’ and claimed he supported ‘genocide’. I and others were called ‘white supremacists’ for daring to suggest that Dr Brook had a right to speak at Exeter (I’m still trying to work that one out). Security had to be called and the event had to be relocated. Minor disruptions continued. The chants of ‘Free Palestine!’ and ‘Shame on You!’ were as incongruous as they were monotonous. What the protesters did not even seem to understand was that the scheduled talk had nothing to do with Palestine; it was about that which the protesters obviously feel chief contempt for – free speech.
The proteters, chanting away and speaking over all others who dared to ask them to leave, had no intention to engage in civilized debate. Discourse was not their objective. Truth was not their motive. Their goal was clear for all to see: to shut down debate.
The great irony, of course, was that this was a talk about free speech; the protesters attempting to shut down the event (they failed) only testified to the crux of Dr Brook’s argument – freedom of speech is under threat in the West.
The obvious question here, of course, is this: Does Exeter value free speech? Indeed, are academics even safe to voice their opinions and engage in dialogue at Exeter? The University of Exeter claims to be an open and diverse campus – why then did security need to be called in order to allow an academic to speak at their scheduled event? One hears all too often of disruptions such as this occurring across the Atlantic at US campuses; it is seriously unfortunate that this culture of illiberalism seems now to have spread to these islands.
Does Exeter value free speech?
The protesters clearly have strong beliefs but their protest – their attempt to disallow others to speak – did nothing to articulate their beliefs. If people are aware that an event hosted by someone they despise is scheduled to occur they can always stay at home or withdraw to a ‘safe space’, to use the contemporary newspeak. They can write articles, publish books or organize their own events in order to get their message across. The fact that these protesters failed to do any of these things – but merely attempt to disallow others to do them – strongly suggests to me that they lack the capacity to articulate their ideas and engage in mature debate.
Despite the obvious annoyance of the protest, I can say from experience that it was terribly counter-productive; the person sitting next to me expressed a desire to sign up to the Friends of Israel Society, based purely on what they had just witnessed. Speaking for myself, I got the impression that the protesters were not interested in debate and dialogue, much less free speech.
The protest only compelled me to appreciate just how precious freedom of expression is: no one has the right to claim that theirs is the true doctrine, and to claim that all those who disagree are ‘racists’ or ‘white supremacists’. We do have the right – I would say the obligation – to voice our opinions provided we do not incite to violence. As Dr Brook eventually managed to say, that is the central pillar of a free and civilized society.
Given the events of 24th October I think it apt to end with a quote from that great liberal advocate for free speech, John Stuart Mill:
‘The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.’
I don’t think that what these students did was the most effective way of protesting or making their point, however, Dr Yaron Brook does incite and call for violence and that is the one condition of free speech.