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'Free Speech', Is It? Give It a Rest, Pal

05/04/2016 17:36 | Updated 05 April 2016

The national press has recently been full of talk of an "epidemic of censorship" on university campuses, while "FREE SPEECH!" has become the rallying cry du jour for commentators and wannabe pundits the world over. It's fairly telling that much of the "so-left-it's-right" criticism seems to be emanating from an independent publication with its own clear agenda, Sp!ked - a magazine whose hard-line libertarian stance often makes its own headlines resemble the "yoof" equivalent of the Daily Mail. More recently, however, notable public figures such as Peter Tatchell, Maryam Namazie and Julie Bindel have also begun to beat the "creeping intolerance" drum.

Ironically, their actions bear all the hallmarks of those who the recipients of their ire are often caricatured as: professional outrage merchants. For the record, these apparent martyrs to free speech haven't actually been censored at all - indeed, no Students' Union has 'banned' a speaker in the last 12 months. Frankly, the only thing 'threatening' Namazie and Tatchell's right to gob off to their hearts' content was an administrative error and a refused invitation from a fellow panellist respectively. Though it's been lost in the ensuing media scrum, both kept their original speaking engagements - yet, by bearing the cross of "no platform", these 'victims' have managed to seize the public spotlight far more effectively than their original appearances ever would have. In the days following their alleged "silencing", Newsnight, the Telegraph and the Observer all came a-calling - as a result, both Bindel and Tatchell managed to bag themselves a double page spread in the Sunday Times, gaffer-tape firmly affixed to closed mouths, before heading to a protest at which Namazie ludicrously compared the National Union of Students to ISIS.

Hearing cries of censorship from public figures - many of whom are seen as icons of liberation - is a bitter pill to swallow, particularly when these established campaigners then use their platforms to criticise underrepresented groups struggling to make their own voices heard. Clearly, as the free-speech mafia's deafening silence on PREVENT affirms, they are only keen on a debate when it's run entirely on their terms; indeed, speech is only "free" when it leaves their own reputations - not to mention notions of hierarchy, privilege and power - intact. Whilst those who claim to be silenced generate more publicity through their claims of "oppression", however, those who are fighting to get their voices heard in the first instance are repeatedly vilified.

Unfortunately for Bindel, Namazie or Tatchell - and as much as all of us on the left would like to think otherwise - being a liberal, a feminist or a gay rights campaigner doesn't automatically exempt you from being ... well, a bit of a bastard, frankly. Claiming the label of progressive doesn't grant you immunity from criticism or challenge - nor is it an excuse to use your own politics as a shield. You can obfuscate around the issue six ways 'til Sunday, but racism, Islamophobia and transphobia are nasty opinions which deserve to be called out as such.

No-one in this discussion is honestly questioning anyone's "right" to hold such views - they are simply pointing out the ramifications of doing so. "No platform" calls - when actually made - are often taken by those who already feel marginalised and want to kick back against that which they consider to be a negative or oppressive force. While a refusal to debate may be problematic, in a free and democratic society this remains entirely their own right. Freedom of expression cuts both ways: when you articulate an opinion, anyone else should be perfectly free to ignore it. (They won't, of course, as I'm sure the comments section below will bear out.)

Indeed, just as many now berate such 'safe space' ideas as examples of cotton-wool illiberalism, free-speech absolutists should be reminded of the difference between someone's rights and their responsibilities. Frankly, I have the "right" to go up to someone in the street and tell them precisely what I think of them, but that doesn't automatically mean that I should. Equally, I don't then have the "right" to go marching into their house and lambast them with those same opinions (much less then deem their response a "mealy-mouthed reply").

Contemporary identity politics - particularly among liberation groups - is an area which is easy to stereotype, and thus often grossly miscontextualised. 'Safe spaces', boycotts, walk-outs, 'trigger warnings', no-platforming: these are all reactions to a status quo which proves resistant to change or stubbornly refuses to accommodate minority voices. Yes, such measures shouldn't escape scrutiny when they prove counter-productive. However, they are an attempt to carve out a place in which the marginalised can make their own arguments for a better collective future; a means of making sense of what is often a callous and indifferent world. With meaningful progress on issues such as race, sexuality and gender identity being so slow in materialising, is it any wonder that people feel this way?

All these episodes really represent is a group of students attempting - albeit clumsily - to balance these two values in public. Clearly, there is a difference between a 'ban' and a democratic vote taken by members which essentially states that they would rather not host that perspective in their own front room. The protagonists remain perfectly free to articulate their opinions elsewhere - and indeed often choose to do so, using the national press as a megaphone (a telling indication of the power dynamic at play, given that more marginalised voices often don't have this luxury).

Perhaps it's therefore time to change or reframe the debate to foster more of a sense of mutual respect: "don't be a dick". If you exercise your right to fart in a lift, don't be surprised when others express their discomfort or opposition - and particularly don't have the temerity to pretend that you're then the victim.

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