Monday, 16 November 2015

Freedom of speech..? (part 1)

(Writer's note, this is part one of a two ((maybe three)) part series, in which I tackle the thorny issue of freedom of speech, enjoy!)

Firstly, straight off the bat, I appreciate the irony of me, a white middle-class male, writing a blog (while sipping my herbal tea) on my nice expensive laptop, after a long hard day of being at a good uni, commenting on freedom of speech and how it's actually quite restrictive. I understand the irony, I do.

But I'd like to introduce a caveat. This is partly about freedom of speech on campus, and about how the popular Western concept of freedom of speech is so unreal and back-slapping. I am at Uni, and I witness this concept of freedom of speech every day.

And it's starting to get on my nerves.

There seems to be a wrong and naive attitude on many social media platforms about freedom of speech, and it centres on a quote by Voltaire's biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall. That is of course, the famous quote, "I may disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it".

In the last few weeks, Germaine Greer was supposed to attend my University and speak on her achievements and Women in the 20th Century in a lecture. Previously she has said some naive and wrong things regarding transgender people. In no way am I approving of what she said. But as a result of that, there was a petition passed around, and in no time at all, it was being mentioned by the Guardian. Germaine Greer cancelled her lecture, citing her age and an unwillingness to be subject to abuse throughout her lecture.

It sounds like an awful day-time TV show - a world-renowned thinker and feminist meets the students of a Russell Group University, a centre of learning and broadening minds; guess who comes off worse?


And then the shock of everyone comfy in their comfy blue sofa, popcorn suspended in their hand, mouth agape, when they realise that it's the students coming off worse. It's the students looking silly, because they're so delicate that they can't listen to an opinion from nasty Germaine Greer without feeling insulted by her views on something totally different.

It's become some form of horrible social policing. If someone has an opinion that differs from my own, or indeed the social norm, then they can't engage in dialogue with me without me getting offended.

Voltaire's misattributed quote reads more like "If your opinion fits into a particular category of opinion that somewhat mirrors my own, then I'll defend to the death your right to say it".

Don't get me wrong here, in this article, I am not supporting Germaine Greer's views on Transgender people. Personally I view them as wrong. But I am strongly supporting her (and indeed anyone's!) right to come to a great University, supposed sanctuary of open thought and fresh minds, and state views, no matter how radical, in what I once thought was the best medium for them.

Without exposure to views different to your own, it is very difficult to form your own opinion.

I thought the University campus was the best medium for different and radical views to be heard, and fresh and exciting opinions be made.

It seems clear that I was wrong.

 ( I was also going to do an article on the rise of the trigger warning at University, but decided against it, for the sake of my laptop screen, and my fist )


  1. we were talking about this today in our debating society. I think freedom of speech is so important and intellectual development is dependent on being open and able to hear a large range of different and even directly opposing views and allowing them to develop and better your understanding.

    University's should most definitely be places of debate above all, where radical "controversial" ideas are heard and challenged. I think in her views on transgender people Greer proves to be somewhat lacking in her ability to participate in "debate" she seems pretty set on her opinion and unwilling to accept the opinions of others and is quite blunt and just downright rude about it, blatantly ignoring facts and promoting quite toxic opinions that through her platform she has further marginalize an already alienated a community that face a lot of danger anyway and have been made quite vulnerable by "hate speech" and the discrimination such attitudes promote obviously with all these things there are no clear dichotomies it's not black and white so it's hard to make the distinction between "freedom of speech" and "hate speech".

    Generally freedom of speech is challenged on the basis of offending people but I think actually learning to be offended is something quite useful especially in an intellectual environment it's definitely something good. The difference with this situation though is not about the offence but her refusal to acknowledge the existence and identity of transgender people. Being offended is not necessarily a valid excuse to shoot down someones opinion but it is very different to having ones identity as a person what ever that may be, invalidated by another person publicly. So I think that's more the reason people were opposed to letting Greer have a platform to speak rather than being too oversensitive.

    And then I guess there's the whole issue of 2nd wave feminism there's no denying that Germaine Geer is a very influential voice of the 2nd wave feminist movement but ideas and society have evolved so much further since the 70s and there's definitely a tension between that and today's intersectional feminism which aims to be more inclusive and accepting.

    Anyway i get where you're coming from and hope this doesn't sound too much of rant it's only a long reply because i'm currently putting off of a 3000word essay on Thomas Hardy & Alexander Pope so this procrastination ;) excuse the probable incoherence.

    1. Very valid words joy. Alexander pope was certainly challenging!!

    2. Very valid words joy. Alexander pope was certainly challenging!!

    3. Joy I agree with you on everything you have just said. I just think your premise is flawed, due to my poor writing in the blog. What I failed to make clear in my blog was that she was not talking about anything to do with Trans people. Her opinion on Transgender people wasn't going to be present at all. She was doing a talk on 20th century feminism and the problems facing women today. That was her talk.

      That was my point. (Badly made, I appreciate that!) She has a different view to the fixed majority of people. That is allowed. Whether it veers into hate speech and her reasons for saying what she is saying is an entirely different debate and one, firstly I don't have enough time and space here in this forum to talk about with you, and secondly it doesn't impact on her work with feminism. It does, to a certain degree, if she were talking about the community links between TG people and feminists, then it would be a different point entirely.

      Hope that makes sense, my brain is currently a whirlwind of opinion on so many things.

      I'd so so happily sit down with you at an event over the summer and talk politics/Germaine Greer/hate speech vs freedom of speech. Hope you're well.

  2. Your open mindedness is a tribute to your generation. It would be interesting to read some of your colleagues views also. Thanks joe

  3. Your open mindedness is a tribute to your generation. It would be interesting to read some of your colleagues views also. Thanks joe

  4. Perhaps it would have been better if she were invited to a debate rather than to deliver a speech. Not all people realise that just because someone is delivering a speech from a stage doesn't necessarily make it true. A debate however would allow everyone to take her opinions into account but also question them.

    Plus, there is a fine line between free speech and verbal harrassment, abuse and bullying, and the key is in the attitude and delivery. E.g.:

    "i personally don't like sue" vs. "sue is a horrible bitch and must die"

    "i don't agree with whichever faith but as long as they aren't harming people i don't mind" vs. "all of them are evil and the scum of the earth that should be deported"

    And "i don't personally understand or accept trans people as their selfidentified gender" vs. "trans people aren't real, theyre fakes and sick and mentally ill people that should be sectioned or beaten up and harrassed and not allowed a normal life in our society."

    1. I agree with you. The main point is that the speech that she was giving had very little (nothing) to do with the topic of Transgender people. If you agree or disagree with someone's opinions on point A, it shouldn't affect whether you hold bias on them about their position on point Z.

    2. I could argue the opposite; that a person that doesn't accept transwomen as women might not be the best person to give a feminist lecture of any kind.

      However I agree with your overall point.

    3. Plus, from a critical thinking point of view, you then need to assess how a person having certain beliefs affects their credibility and authority, because if they have a flawed logical reasoning process, it could well be that conclusions they reach using the same process in other areas will also be flawed. But i do think it should be evaluated as opposed to outright dismissed, which I think is what you're trying to say also.

  5. I've only just looked at this and the issues with Germaine Greer are now a few weeks back. At the time I thought pretty well exactly what you were saying here at the time. What a loss to your University that one of the great political thinkers and feminists of our time did not come and speak, saying something like "B*gger it. I'm too old to be screamed at and have things thrown at me" (she must be in her seventies now). I think the mainstream media is playing a game too. They didn't have to wade in at all but: let's keep the debate about transgenders to the forefront (and appear very liberal) at the expense of, oh er, tax credit cuts. As I understand Greer was expressing a personal view and not proposing changes in legislation or anything like that. I can't guess how many were offended by her remarks but presumably it was massively less than (according to Labour) the 3 million families who are going to be a £1,000 a year worse off

    1. Exactly this Mike (sorry, I've just seen your comment). In the end she did come and talk, and didn't really mention TG rights or concepts at all. Which was what she was going to avoid anyway.

      Really good to see you over Christmas, I'm really enjoying the version of the Clockwork Orange you gave to me, and I've just moved onto Dostoevsky and his short stories. It's a rather different genre, but fascinating non the less. Hope you are well, Hope to see you soon :-)