Free Speech

Here’s our Education Minister’s recent proposal to police free speech in universities: Its target, of course, is the ‘no-platforming’ of certain invited speakers, usually those identified as right-wing, homophobic, sexist or racist, by the intolerant Left.

I’m not entirely against this, as a liberal in this area too (unless ‘incitement’ is involved: that would catch out Trump); and I might be more sympathetic to the idea, if it weren’t for two things. The first is that the extent of the ‘no-platforming’ evil has been greatly exaggerated, and so hardly requires the heavy hand – or secret police – of the Education Department to put it down. It’s also usually counter-productive, with the targeted speakers and arguments getting more publicity than otherwise from the controversy that any no-platform attempt always arouses. Such incidents are food and drink for the Daily Mail

The second reason for my reluctance to take this policy seriously is our Conservative government’s own efforts to ban free speech at the other end of the political spectrum. Apparently schools and colleges are now to be prevented from using or recommending books that advocate the abolition of capitalism: Anti-capitalism is to be regarded as an ‘extreme’ doctrine, on the same level as anti-semitism. 

If I were still teaching modern British or European history, that would make things very difficult for me. Out would go William Morris, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, Karl Marx (of course), histories of the Co-operative movement and trade unionism, and large chunks of Labour Party history (as it used to be). My students would get a grossly distorted and one-sided view of their country’s (and the world’s) history, which would hardly be worth the breath I would have expended to deliver it. 

If that isn’t an infringement of ‘free speech’, I don’t know what is. It’s clearly a first step – one of a  number that we’re seeing today – towards what is being characterised as a new ‘Fascism’ in British policy. That the same government that proposes this is also claiming to defend ‘free speech’ with its more recent ‘landmark proposals’ almost beggars belief. George Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Lastly: is modern ‘late-stage’ capitalism really so vulnerable as to require this kind of protection? – Perhaps one can only hope so.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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