‘Free speech’ and ‘political correctness’ by Peter Scott

Once it was the Left that argued for the freest possible speech on campus, and the Right that argued there must be limits and restraint.

It was Berkeley radicals who ignited New Left passions with their ‘Free Speech’ movement in the 1960s (Savio 2002).

It is their children, and grandchildren, who campaign for colleges and universities to be purged of talk that can be labelled racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic and who may also insist there should be ‘no platform’ for right-wing speakers.

And it is the traditional right, which once argued academic freedom did not extend to protect radical politicking and mass campaigning, who now lament the fact that censorship of expressions of unpopular (often their own) opinions is now justified to protect damaged feelings and threatened identities – and that the discretion (as in -is-the-better-part-of-valour), on the part of university leaders, has now become routine. In their critical eyes universities have been infected by a plague of ‘political correctness’ (Downs 2005).

This flip-over demonstrates that there are no fixed positions, and therefore easy answers when issues of free speech, academic freedom, tolerance of different viewpoints, protection against threatening behaviour and the like arise in higher education. However, despite what should be a cautionary note, debates on these issues have become fiercer and shriller. Students at Yale and Princeton have campaigned for buildings to be renamed (one of their targets being the author of the ‘Fourteen Points’, the impeccably liberal principles which ended the First World War, and

enthusiast for the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson) (Svrluga 2015). On the other side of the Atlantic students at Oxford have attempted, so far without success, to replicate the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign in Cape Town which saw the removal of an imposing statue of that grand late-Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes (the offending Oxford statue is a more modest affair high on the walls of Oriel College) (Srinivasan 2016, Chaudhuri  2016).

Some Governments of the Right, for example in the United Kingdom, have responded by legislating to require university leaders to guarantee ‘free speech’ for unpopular (right-wing?) speakers and resist ‘ no platform’ campaigns that seek to exclude them. However, in a further demonstration of the fluidity of political positions on these difficult issues, the same Governments have also taken even more robust action to insist that the same university leaders ban the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists to ‘radicalise’ students, even inventing new categories previously unknown in democratic thought like ‘non-violent extremism’ (HM Government 2011). A confused picture indeed.

The truth is that ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’ are best seen not as opposing principles, but as part of a spectrum. A good starting position would be find more objective language; after all, ‘free speech’ is the language of the US Constitution and its myriad successors, of the French Revolution and its Declaration of Human Rights, while ‘political correctness’ is an accusatory and pejorative label. No sensible person argues that free speech is absolute – first, because no one has the right to call ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre (or use racist language on a multi-cultural campus?); and secondly, because free speech has always been exercised within a regime of laws (indeed some of its most avid advocates argue that it is precisely the ‘rule of law’ that guarantees free speech). Conversely, few of those who are labelled as supporters of ‘political correctness’ advocate academic censorship or wish to discourage ‘thinking the unthinkable’ in the case of science; indeed they often point out, with some justification, that it is their right-wing opponents who wish to privilege the teaching of ‘creative design’ at the expense of Darwinian evolution or seek to ban stem-cell research.

Read the full essay at European Journal of Higher Education.

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