Freedom of Speech – Between Propaganda and Political Correctness

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Photograph: Alan Cleaver

The idea of freedom of speech is almost as old as democracy itself, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece, however interpretations of what free speech actually means are changing as we speak. Contemporary political and sociocultural movements demonstrate an obsession with the terms political correctness and cultural appropriation. This sheds new light on what used to be the paradigm of modern democratic societies. With the growth of multiculturalist societies, ongoing historical reappraisal and the threat of terrorism the concept of free speech has been turning into an overly complex issue over the past few decades. In Western societies it is no longer just a matter of speaking the truth; no iron curtain separating the free from the suppressed. Instead, censorship is used like an invisible filter, put in place to protect societies from the potential negative impact of the imaginary thought pollution feared by authorities. If you can’t kill an idea, ban it, shun it, censor it. Declare it politically incorrect if you will. Call it propaganda. Do it in the name of human dignity, because extraordinary measures have to be taken in extraordinary times. Just making sure no one gets hurt, or worse, discriminated against.

Controlling people’s language means controlling people. It also means protecting them from their own feelings, their revelations, their intellectual development.
Historically, the fight for free speech has never been about the freedom to say all the right things at the right time. It’s about the freedom to provoke, to challenge preexisting ideas, to share one’s views with like-minded individuals in spite of how radical may seem in the spirit of time. It’s about the freedom to offend. The freedom to say scandalous things. Or as Chomsky once put it: “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise.”

As opposed to other institutions, academic ones have always held a certain reputation of enforcing civil rights in the name of social and intellectual progress at all times. In the 60s, free speech fights and protests led by American students paved the way to powerful Freedom of Speech Movements all over the country. However, recent debates suggest that these standards have fallen dramatically. Freedom of speech is being sacrificed for the sole purpose of enabling students to pursue their education in safe, sheltered, bubble-wrapped, sugar-coated environments. What used to be a platform for debate and progress has turned into a comfort zone for the overly sensitive and easily offended. A comfort zone for the helpless generation of millennials, the protected offspring of helicopter parents, the anxious bunch of individuals that cannot be trusted to deal with confrontation. With the pressure of complying with legal regulations and constitutional principles as well as remaining true to their origins universities are being asked to draw a line between human dignity and human rights. Set up to fail. Last year the UK Counter-Terrorism and Security Act complicated the situation even further. The law states it is a university’s duty to ban extremist speakers and to prevent radicalisation on campus. But should universities be in the business of suppressing radical opinions? According to the law they have to.

Student unions however fall under a different category since they are independent of university authorities – legal constraints don’t apply to them in the same way. Yet, surprisingly enough student unions all over the UK are continuing to make life difficult – our own at Lancaster being no exception.

Even though student unions are supposed to represent their students’ opinions, they give the impression that not all opinions should be represented at all times, which is why censorship and language policing have become routine measures. Earlier this year a political online magazine called “Spiked” published free speech rankings of all British universities including Lancaster. It is safe to say that these rankings caused reputational damage to say the least.
Among other student unions LUSU was said to “create a hostile environment for free speech” due to factors such as the No Platform policy, the ban of racists and fascists, the restrictions on sexist and homophobic speech, the ban of initiation ceremonies, and so on. However, it is not the constitutional regulation of these factors that poses a threat to freedom of speech, it’s the fallacy of applying these overly broad definitions to anything that’s at least borderline uncalled for.

By leaving enough room for interpretation, the power of censoring or prohibiting content that is labeled anything from harmful to offensive, sexist, xenophobic, racist, homophobic – or if everything else fails politically incorrect- can easily be abused to control unpopular opinions and therefore to oppress minority views. The broader the definition, the easier it is to take actions that would otherwise be difficult to justify. If they can’t kill an idea, they censor it. Same old story. Let’s just silence the ones representing it – because they could burst your bubble any moment – because they may or may not hurt someone’s feelings. Unfortunately censorship will only get you this far.
The fact that you can no longer see something does not mean it’s not there.