The below is Maryam Namazie’s opening remarks at Spiked Conference: The New Intolerance on Campus on “No Platform: should hate speech be free speech?”
Freedom of speech in British universities is under heavier assault than ever before in large part due to the proclaimed desire by the National Union of Students (NUS) to maintain student safety by turning university campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where students are apparently shielded from anything they might find offensive or hateful.
With the increasing numbers of people being no-platformed at universities, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that offence and hate are highly contested – which is why even legal codes dealing with them are so varied in different countries.
All too often, too, limits on speech are set by those with the loudest voices or the most political influence, like religious bodies or student unions or the state. Once limits are set, it’s a slippery slope with no end in sight.
In the name of tolerance of all, we end up with intolerance of all.
I know, of course, that hateful speech exists. My 10 year old son asked me recently if his Muslim grandparents (who have worked and lived in NY for over 30 years) will have to leave America if Trump becomes president. As an apostate from Islam and a migrant, I know that hateful speech – whether from Islamists or far-Right groups like Pegida – can be dehumanising and intimidating.
But banning speech deemed hateful doesn’t stop discrimination and of course anyone can be accused of it – even human rights activist Peter Tatchell. Also, it’s those with power that determine what constitutes hate – not to stop discrimination – but very often to regulate socially unacceptable speech and stifle “deviance” and dissent.
Per the NUS, for example, Islamic Societies can invite speakers who promote the death penalty for apostates from Islam yet my progressive counter-narrative is considered “hate” speech. Also, despite a context where apostates from Islam – a minority within a minority – are threatened with death for what is deemed blasphemy/ apostasy, criticism of Islam is seen to be the same as violence against believers even though there is a huge distinction between speech and action.
Moreover, even if we agree that certain speech is hateful – which we don’t – is banning it the best way to challenge it? If that were the case, there would have been no social movements against racial apartheid, for civil rights, for women’s, gay or refugee rights if you could defend people who are the target of hate speech by merely banning speech. Banning speech it is in fact dangerous as it lulls us into a false security and prevents us from doing the more important and difficult work of addressing and challenging hate head on.
It’s a false assumption that one can combat hate by censorship. Also when one considers that it is those in power who can most censor and also normalise discrimination and “hate,” the absurdity of banning hate speech becomes all the more apparent.
By their very nature, universities in particular should be places where orthodoxies are challenged and opinions questioned. Why go to university at all if you feel you have to be ‘protected’ from views you dislike?
Fundamentally, though, the NUS’ “concern” for “student safety” and sensibilities gives “progressive” cover to what is fundamentally a corporate approach to risk management in light of tuition fees. As does multiculturalism, not as a wonderful lived experience but as a social policy, where criticism of Islam and Islamism are erroneously conflated with an attack on Muslims.
Clearly, free expression is vital for any university and society at large. And it is not free unless it is free for everyone, including those whose views are deemed distasteful, “deviant” and even “hateful,” as long as they are not inciting violence.
What we need is not more restrictions on free speech, but the opposite. What we need is a change in NUS policies that stifle expression and dissent on campus.
“Limiting free expression is not just censorship,” as Salman Rushdie says, “but an assault on human nature.”
“Human beings,” he says, “shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.”