Saturday, February 21, 2015

Not censorship, but...

By progressive standards, I'm a first amendment purist. There is a personal, unrelated to censorship, reason for this. I always felt I've had to go through gatekeepers to speak. Either I'm not educated enough, or educated in the proper way to hold a correct opinion. This has little to do with free speech and everything to do with class, but the seed was planted early, and it would be hypocritical of me to deny others a platform in which to speak, no matter how repugnant I find their views. But what critics like Jon Chait and Nick Cohen call censorship on the left isn't, at least in the legal sense, but it's something I'm not comfortable with either. I'm trying to think of a proper label, and unfortunately censorship is the closest, the most understandable, but also most easily dismissed. (Here is a more clear-cut example of censorship, or an attempt at censorship for comparison.) What they, and I too,  disagree with is certain tactics --shaming and shunning -- binaric thinking that assigns labels of "good" and "bad," and once you've been labeled one of the bad ones it's hard, nay, impossible, to ever be good again. Those things make otherwise compassionate people afraid of dissent.

 In a blog post about a recent controversy at Cambridge, Professor Mary Beard says:
This is not a simple argument about free speech, which is much too fuzzy a concept to be much use honestly. No one really believes that we have a right to totally free speech, except some idiots on the web who use the phrase to justify anything from death threats down. And everyone reckons there are some difficult cases (and the subject of this letter may have been one of those). But what I would stand by, forever, would be the centrality of free debate in universities and elsewhere. As one e-mailer put it, in reference to questions of Germaine Greer's views on trans politics, "of course she can find another platform if she is disinvited from Cambridge, but we need her to DEBATE here". We should be in the business of subjecting all views, both those with which we agree and those with which we disagree, to public scrutiny. Free speech only means anything it is refers to views with which you disagree as well as agree -- else it's no more than a cabal.
The Independent provides a bit more background on the story, but what she and LGBT activist Peter Tatchell claim they are being accused of is guilt by association. It's hard to grok the true motivations behind the petition, but  if I were an academic, I'd probably sign a petition like the one they signed in good faith without vetting fellow signatories. For a while now, I've tried to come to some sort of resolution between the two -- the protection of speech and the rights of people oppressed by it -- and I can't because ultimately, free speech is tantamount to the advancement of those rights. Pushing speech you don't like under a rug makes it grow and fester, and makes folk heroes out of bigots.