Free speech ‘discussion’ aWASH with agreement

An event about free speech and censorship within universities hosted by the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists society left a disappointing taste in the mouth of anyone looking for discussion.

Free speech ‘discussion’ aWASH with agreement

The speakers Anthony Grayling, Maryam Namazie, and Benjamin David roundly agreed with the principals of free speech, opposed censorship, and favoured a Hunger Games-esque vision for universities, in which all ideas should be debated and challenged, until only the most credible survive. The panel also happened to agree on no-platforming, safe spaces, profiling, the hijab, and — well — everything else that was mentioned in the hour long ‘discussion’.

You might notice some irony about a situation in which proponents of debate spend an hour agreeing with each other to an audience of people who all probably already hold their opinions, in opposition to a group of people not given an ability to discuss their view.

What’s worse is the panel’s depiction of their ideological opponents was without any depth or understanding for why they hold their position. You can make fun of the idea of safe space rooms with teddy bears by pretending to suck your thumb, but you can’t expect anybody who favours safe spaces to be challenged by that or compelled change their mind. It’s far more effective to explain why the proponents want such a room and what the associated problems are. It’s frustrating enough listening to people you agree with for a long time and not learning anything, but it’s more frustrating still, when they’re not even doing a good job of supporting your position.

I spend more time than I would like to admit listening to people arguing on the internet about social issues, and I can say that those who argue in favour of safe spaces and no-platforming all do so with good intentions to protect people they feel have societal difficulties, often whilst also favouring free speech. They state that no-platforming doesn’t oppose free speech because that only protects you from the government, not from universities who they believe should not want to advertise views that could cause harm, since some people will agree even if most students prefer the counter arguments.

Although I think a strong case can be made against the way no-platforming and safe spaces are being used, trying to argue against the proponents views without actually debating one of them will often result in straw-men and mischaracterisation (which I sincerely hope I didn’t just do). The result made me and my fellow liberals look foolish in front of any audience members who might have disagreed.

It should be noted that there were a couple attempts at some cool refreshing devil’s advocate during the drought of disagreement and there was one attempt to find somebody in the audience looking to defend the presidency of Malia Bouattia, however the chosen audience member wanted her to be president for the same reason they wanted Trump to be president: so that there would never be someone like her again. There were a couple other hands in favour, but the chair did not call on them to speak.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with having a speaker for one side of an argument so long as there is a Q&A session in which to properly scrutinise them. Q&A sounds great, however the session at this event was far from adequate.

The penultimate questioner stated that they had “heard a mischaracterisation of [their] views”. They repeated Maryam Namazie’s statement: “If you’re going to go somewhere where everyone agrees with you, what’s the point?” They called upon the audience to ask why they were here. They asked why it wasn’t a debate and why they were not on the panel as an opposition.

No response was given, and the chair found another question, causing members of the audience to turn their heads to our ignored questioner in confusion over the lack of response. Maryam, after answering the replacement question, stated that she didn’t understand what the previous questioner was getting at and said that someone else should address it. But Benjamin declared that time was up, and the event ended.

I couldn’t applaud after what felt like such a blatant dismissal.

Regardless of how many in the audience shared my disappointment, regardless of how many in the audience take the time to listen to other points of view in depth, what transpired made the room look like fools — hypocrites in our own echo chamber.


Addendum

In the interest of balance I’d like to state the following:

  • Another speaker, Douglas Murray, was supposed to attend, who would have found reason to disagree with the panel on some issues, but on the headline issue about free speech in universities there would still have been agreement.
  • It is also possible our penultimate audience member was mistaken for giving a statement as they initially said they had a question for the audience (“why are you here?”), before adding the questions to the panel about why it wasn’t a debate.