Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Free Speech and the Left.

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Peter Thatchell: “I defend free speech but also warn against UK govt bid to punish universities that don’t stop free speech violations”

 

Readers of Socialist Worker this week will see two articles on Free Speech.

The first begins, ”

The battle to defend the right to speak out for Palestine has returned to universities.

Some students in Oxford tried to stop left wing ­filmmaker Ken Loach from speaking at a university event last week.

Tory education secretary Gavin Williamson ­demands that all universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition and its examples to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel.

Universities fight to protect solidarity with Palestine

The second,

In the middle of a pandemic the Tories have decided to launch further attacks on the left and anti-racists, while also claiming they want to protect free speech.

Tory education secretary Gavin Williamson is demanding that universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. Effectively this will prevent criticism of Israel.

He is also pushing for legislation that would compensate speakers who are denied a platform at universities if they feel their free speech has been infringed.

This could include fascists.

But the Tories are not interested in giving people a voice, and you can guarantee they won’t be standing up for Palestine campaigners.

Instead they are trying to use arguments around free speech to push their agenda and to limit criticism of themselves.

…..

They are seeking to deflect anger in society away from class struggle.

That means we need anti-racist unity against Patel and the rest. The Stand Up To Racism demonstrations on 20 March are an important chance to build the movement.

We should oppose Williamson’s “free speech” charade.

‘Free speech’ campaign is designed to aid the right

The SWP wish to defend their right to speak out on ‘Zionism’, and could not care less about defending the right to express other controversial opinons. They do not look into the government’s claim that “There are some in our society who prioritise ‘emotional safety’ over free speech, or who equate speech with violence.” Nor do they discuss claims that whether there is a “free speech crisis” or not, allegations of Transphobia have also been at the forefront of  de-platforming, well beyond the confines of academia. One can only wonder at the reasons for the omission.

There is equally the issue of freedom of expression in the Labour Party, as this campaign indicates.

It is fair to say that for universities, and political parties and voluntary associations,  it up them to decide. As Ian Dunt argues (referring to academic bodies)  “It is not for government to make these decisions. It is for institutions and the people within them. That is where the fight for free speech operates. Not in the corridors of Whitehall.” But if we apply to this to the Labour Party there is no reason why the party’s rules on anti-Semitism and other forms of racism should not be applied to what is a voluntary body

In an effort to reconcile the contradictions in this approach Jewish Voice for Labour has just published an article from the left populist US journal Jacobin.

A socialist approach to Free Speech

Few writers in the USA would ever attack free speech as such. He talks of the liberal writer Timothy Garton Ash, Instead Faber offers a rambling discussion of how “social and economic inequality largely ignored by Garton Ash also play critical roles in limiting free speech. ”

But that is not exactly the point, since the view advanced is that certain speech is not acceptable.

One limit that crops up immediately is the right to offend, defended by Charlie Hebdo. To poke fun at Islam,  as they do, is not acceptable, the author judges, because he asserts that Islamophobia was rampant in France,

 

Garton Ash’s disregard for racism and discrimination is nowhere clearer than in his discussion of the vicious killings at the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo. In Free Speech, Garton Ash fails to mention France’s rampant Islamophobia as a factor in the attack. Indeed, at the time, he had no qualms about appealing for a “week of solidarity” in which newspapers would have simultaneously published a “carefully presented selection of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, with an explanation of why they were doing so.”

…..

What Garton Ash fails to recognize is that antisemitism or anti-Catholicism were marginal phenomena at the time of those publications, whereas Islamophobia was at its height during and following the Hebdo attacks. Supporting the right to offend as an element of free speech can still take into account whether the offended represent marginalized communities.

In a measured tone (which contrasts with most of the anti-Charlie speakers, from Tariq Ali to the above SWP)  he concludes,

This is not meant to suggest that censorship should be enacted to end Islamophobia. Rather, the government and civil society should work together to develop a political climate that strongly repudiates Islamophobia and supports the vigorous legal punishment of anti-Muslim discrimination.

In other words governments and ‘civil society’ should   create an atmosphere that repudiates Charlie Hebdo. There is no word on defending their right to satire, to caricature, religion.

Peter Thatchell expresses a contrary positon,

For the Jacobin writer, free speech should neverthless be defended with few qualification for critics of Zionism and for their activities in universities.

A Socialist Approach deplores the ,

broader campaign against critics and opponents of Zionism. PEN America’s 2016 study found that many Zionist individuals and institutions have attempted to bar the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign from campuses throughout the United States. For example, journalist Glenn Greenwald and others denounced a campaign by the Board of Regents of the University of California to ban anti-Israel criticism and activism in the name of combating antisemitism. Meanwhile, campuses nationwide have been pressured to fire pro-Palestinian professors and adopt reprisals against pro-Palestinian groups.

Farber concludes, after some reference to Rosa Luxemburg and the democratic advances of the labour movement, in these hard-to-make-sense-of sentences.

Consistent with this approach, we must defend free speech on its own terms, not merely because it helps to organize and fight for a new society. In this, free speech does not differ from the economic advances the working class and its allies have won. They are valuable both in their own right and because they strengthen the working class and its allies in their struggle for their emancipation.

By contrast most discussion of free speech focuses on why it is valuable in its “own right”. 

It is not Voltaire but the liberal, feminist and supporter of greater economic democracy.  John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) who advanced some of the strongest arguments for free speech in the celebrated On Liberty 1859.. He was concerned with the claims of authority, the ability of governments and institutions, to repudiate and prevent differing opinons. Truth he believed would emerge in the open expression of views and debate. Socialists may wish to eliminate the inequalities of power and money that give make some voices louder than others. But is not because we consider that out definition of an emancipatory end is right that we would wish to advance the free exchange of different standpoints. We have to accept the possibility not only that truth will emerge from debate but that between different claims the “nonconforming” opinion corrects a one-sided assertion.

These are not arguments about the ‘market place of ideas’ abstracted from history. A thread owes something to Milton’s call for unlicensed printing, which sees truth emerging from darkness by expose to the light Areopagitica; (1644). But it is largely about politics in the broadest sense. From the density of controversy we can see the uncertainty of democratic political life, from the challenge to centres of authority, we can see the indeterminacy of power, the absence of a permanent office holder, of the democratic ‘absent place’, the refusal to fix society in one shape run from the centre (ideas outlined in the writings of Claude Lefort on the ‘democratic revolution’).  In short, for pluralism and a belief in the power of persuasion.

Standing for this possibility may run against claims that the ruling ideas of society, and the bodies that support them hold sway. But if the left does not have the ability to convince others of our beliefs how can we ‘make socialists’ who can counter them? ,

Like the great French defender of tolerance the British political philosopher was concerned primarily with clashes between different religious beliefs, the “rags and remnants” of past persecutions. Mill equally was out to defend amongst the  “diversity of opinion” the right to scepticism about religion. Liberty of thought, of speaking and writing should be part of the political morality of free institutions, and the rule in countries which practice religious toleration. He was, in this context and using more modern language, concerned with asserting the right to speak out against those in power (‘authority’), whether in the state or in the Church.

Here are some of his central arguments in favour of freedom of expression.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

There was, for Mill, one limit (known retrospectively as the ‘harm principle’).

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

It does not take a leap to see how this can be extended to a distinction between what Farber calls “racist persuaders and violent racist intimidators.” Property is not the issue here. The original tactic of “no platforming” which was a street demonstration strategy of combatting violent far-right groups, like the National Front and the British Movement in 1970s Britain who set our faces against a “mob” of King and Country racists parading through towns and cities.

This, to say the least, was not about being hurt by the expression of views during talks they they are not obliged to listen to, books they do not have to read, or media which they do not have to look at.

It is hard to deny that right of groups of students or workers at universities to invite/host who they want to come and speak (with the above limitations in mind) is an important foundation for  a lively campus civil society and to students’ and university workers’  ability to organise and campaign on political and social issues.

Written by Andrew Coates

February 19, 2021 at 11:21 am

5 Responses

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  1. And what of the right of “Zionists” to free speech?

    Rebecca Lesses

    February 19, 2021 at 2:43 pm

  2. Coatesy (and myself) have a record of vigorously defending the right of “zionists” (however defined) to free speech, so long as there is no incitement to violence.

    Jim Denham

    February 19, 2021 at 2:58 pm

    • “In the 1970s and 1980s some Students’ Unions took the United Nations-approved idea that Zionism is a form of racism, combined it with the National Union of Students’ policy of ‘No Platform’ for racists, and used it to ban Jewish Societies or restrict their activities on British campuses. ”

      https://www.pearsinstitute.bbk.ac.uk/event/when-jewish-societies-were-banned-zionists-anti-zionists-and-the-politics-of-anti-racism/

      Andrew Coates

      February 19, 2021 at 3:40 pm

    • This lot are still around:

      Malia Bouattia

      “During her campaign attention was drawn to past comments she had made, that were criticised as antisemitic. In a co-written 2011 University of Birmingham Friends of Palestine blog post, she described the University as “something of a Zionist outpost in British Higher Education” which has “the largest JSoc [Jewish student society] in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists”.[24][25] For this she has been condemned by over 300 Jewish student leaders, the Union of Jewish Students and Oxford University Student Union.”

      “The following month, an internal NUS inquiry concluded that Bouattia had made an antisemitic statement, although four other such claims were rejected. As she had expressed regret, the investigator said that Bouattia should not face any action so long as she apologised.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malia_Bouattia

      Andrew Coates

      February 19, 2021 at 4:58 pm

  3. And then there is the silencing of unwelcome voices on another issue altogether. https://www.gcacademianetwork.org/
    In this case, the main culprits are people who identify as being on the left – as are the main victims of the silencing.

    Francis

    February 20, 2021 at 3:30 pm


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