How times change. Cast yourselves back to 2014, my first year at university – a halcyon age when you could get a naggin in Maguire’s for a €5 and Wigwam was still the Twisted Pepper – and there was, in a little-known nightclub called Hangar, an event held called Keeping Up With Bruce Jenner. Masks of Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner were widely distributed and worn by revellers, and everyone laughed at the latest chapter in the ludicrous saga of the Kardashian clan. Vodka and (fake) Red Bulls were €2 (it was 2014, kids) and people unironically dressed like Jeremy Corbyn in that infamous tracksuit. As far as the eye could see in that sweaty cathedral of techno were mask-wearing partiers who got “white-girl wasted” in honour of Jenner, soon to be crowned Glamour’s Woman of the Year.
It wouldn’t happen now – that’s for sure.
I mention this because of a number of recent events that have converged to make me think about issues around censorship and freedom of expression and speech on university campuses. We have just passed a referendum on whether blasphemy ought to remain an offence under the Irish constitution. There has been a storm in a teacup over whether a society advocating for freedom of speech at Trinity, the proposed Classical Liberal society, ought to be recognised by the Central Societies Committee (CSC). Last year, the UK government threatened to fine universities it deemed as censorious to free speech. And that’s not to mind the seemingly inescapable slew of public figures in the US, on both the left and right, who seem constantly to bang on loudly and publicly about the fact that they are being silenced.
The first thing to say is that we all need to calm down. Take a chill pill – although maybe not the kind that was going around in Hangar in 2015. The furore around freedom of speech has been shrill and hysterical when the reality is that its inhibition has been grossly exaggerated. Just look at how the likes of Jordan Peterson and Barry Weiss and “social pariah” pro-life Irish “feminist” Larissa Nolan have loudly expressed their fear that their right to free speech is being threatened. They have done so via mainstream media outlets including Channel 4, the New York Times, the BBC and the Irish Times. That doesn’t look like an infringement on their freedom of speech from where I stand.
The furore around freedom of speech has been shrill and hysterical when the reality is that its inhibition has been grossly exaggerated
In the US, the Editor of Current Affairs magazine, Nathan J Robinson, pointed out that of an estimated 2,600 universities awarding honours degrees, freedom of speech doomsayers managed to find just 10 incidents where they claimed free speech had been inhibited in a year. Ten. Out of 2,600. A closer look at the no-platforming policy of the UK’s National Union of Students in UK universities reveals a policy that is, in practice, quite reasonable: I don’t think many Trinity students would quibble, say, with Birmingham University’s decision to ban speakers from the British National Party or the English Defence League. A headline in The Times on a piece by UK universities minister, Sam Gyimah, entitled “The Time I was Almost Censored on Campus”, is also telling. You were “almost” denied a platform, Sam, while the 15 per cent of Britons with poor literacy skills cannot even imagine reaching one in the first place? Truly, my heart bleeds.
I think the free speech situation in Trinity is similarly healthy. I have the freedom to express my opinion here in The University Times. We have had Nigel Farage speak here. Trinity is home to some of the world’s oldest and most venerable debating societies, and there is a long-standing culture of discourse and debate. The College has a huge range of societies, many of whom hold widely differing views and opinions. Things are never perfect – but they are not in crisis.
That’s not to say we need not engage with some of the issues around free speech. It’s a conversation that, in a political climate such as this one where everyone is quick to claim censorship, we really ought to have.
One concern with free speech is that it can act as a Trojan horse. We need to make sure that arguments over freedom of speech are not used as a vehicle to smuggle damaging ideas into the mainstream. This is not only an ideological issue but also a legal one. The law in Ireland, unlike that in the US, prohibits hate speech such as racism. As such, disallowing hate speech masquerading as freedom of expression is not the policy of the campus: It’s the policy of the constitution. If that’s something you take issue with, fine, but be clear: that’s not something for which universities alone can be responsible.
The next issue is platforming, and the message that providing certain speakers with a space to air their views sends out. We must consider why we invite someone with questionable views to speak in the Graduates Memorial Building (GMB), and the message that this might convey. Dr Peter Stone, an assistant professor of political science in Trinity, spoke very eloquently about this in the aftermath of students’ protest against the Israeli ambassador’s visit here in February: “It’s about asking”, he told the Irish Times, “why is this person getting an invitation? If this idiot wants to go out on a street corner and yell their racist nonsense, that’s one thing, but why are they getting an invitation? It’s entirely different to invite them”.
We do not want to force discourse outside the walls of the Arts Block and into the echo chambers of online far-right and far-left forums and Twitterspheres
A similar sentiment was expressed by Dr Yair Wallach, a lecturer in Israeli studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, about the decision to allow the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, to speak at the school. Dr Wallach asserted: “Our role as a university is not to restage the media’s soundbites, but to offer space for original, informed and critical reflection. Ambassador Regev is not a scholar or a public intellectual. He is a PR speaker.” Wallach pointed out that the invitation attracted attention and controversy rather than intellectual value. He went on to add that “universities should be the place for debate – not only for ambassadors but marginalised voices and alternative and challenging ideas. Ambassador Regev has wide access to the media and hardly requires our platform”. I agree: we need debate, not controversy for controversy’s sake.
But while we guard against the negatives, so too must we acknowledge the need for dialogue and debate. It is, of course, essential that damaging ideas and concepts do not go unchecked. We do not want to force discourse outside the walls of the Arts Block and into the echo chambers of online far-right and far-left forums and Twitterspheres. Debate is healthy, and it allows ideas and assertions to be interrogated and toppled. Cambridge University’s Rachael Padman, a trans academic whose appointment was opposed by Germaine Greer, called on the university’s union to allow Greer to speak there notwithstanding her outdated and frankly offensive views on trans rights, urging that students “robustly interrogate” Greer. Ideas and opinions may be unpalatable to us, but to deny their existence and allow them to go unchecked does everybody a disservice.
But what I would like us to consider too in these wars of words is what feminist scholar Bell Hooks calls a “lived reality”. Words hurt not just our ideals but also our very identities. That’s something that we should at the very least engage with before we go mouthing off on in a way that could hurt someone else. Comedian Deborah Frances-White navigated this admirably on a recent episode of the High Low podcast when she spoke of how she no longer addresses her audiences as “ladies and gentlemen”. Frances-White was not advocating banning that mode of address but rather calling on us to recognise that when we use it, we can and do hurt and alienate some people, deny their experience and exclude their reality. Seen thus, saying “hello everybody” rather than “hello ladies and gentlemen” seems a small price to pay for not hurting someone else’s sense of self.
So do I agree with the assertion, made by Larissa Nolan in an Irish Times article last year, that free speech is “under threat on our college campuses”? Absolutely not – although I recognise her freedom to say it. Freedom of speech, by its very nature, by virtue of its relation to speech, ought to form part of an ongoing conversation. But with more and more forums for debate, from traditional ones such as the GMB chamber and College media to online comments sections (hello, Facebook commenters of The University Times!), I would argue that the health of college free speech is almost as rude as the faces Germaine Greer made at Daniel O’Donnell after he disparaged his wife’s pancake-making skills on the Miriam O’Callaghan Show.