31 December
2017

Error Has No Rights

Earlier this week the Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson, ‘confirmed plans to allow the newly created Office for Students (OfS) to fine or suspend institutions that fail to protect freedom of speech on campuses’. This announcement came in response to concerns over University guest speakers being wrongly ‘no-platformed’ due to student protests and safe space policies.

The government’s move has readily been criticised for failing to articulate clear parameters that avoids free speech being used as a defence of ‘hate speech’ and for seeking to punish Universities for the curtailment of free speech when ‘student groups, rather than universities, engage in no-platforming’.

Both criticisms highlight young peoples’ thirst for rules and moral order in the wake of an earlier liberalism’s attempt to do away with both in a blind attempt to deconstruct the past. Today’s generation of students are intellectual orphans and, so, it is no surprise that, left to their own devices, they will try their best to parent one another but will lack the resources to do so effectively. This is demonstrated by the fact that it is so often left up to overarching student bodies to override their subsidiary student groups without support or guidance from their alma maters, which was notably absent when the President of Christ Church’s Junior Common Room cancelled Oxford Students For Life’s abortion debate due to ‘heavy criticism from student activists’ and when the Reproductive and Sexual Health Society at King’s College London invitation to Heather Brunskell-Evans was rescinded after it was found that her comments on transgenderism ‘violate the student union’s ‘Safe Space’ policy’.

Such cases are, of course, widely derided across the political spectrum for stifling debate, but that does not necessarily mean we should endorse an open-ended ‘right’ to free speech. Most would agree that the National Union of Students are not wrong to implement a no-platform policy against al-Muhajiroun, the British National party, the English Defence League, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and National Action. The question, then, to those of us who agree with some attempts to no-platform participants but who disagree with the no-platforming of others, is what precisely are our criteria for curbing so-called ‘free speech’?

Jo Johnson recites the classic liberal answer that we should curb ‘illiberal’ views that are ‘completely in opposition to the liberal tradition’, but this sophistry fails to offer any positive criteria for how one should exercise their free speech and its sole limitation to this right, like Karl Popper’s claim that we have ‘the right not to tolerate the intolerant’, is self-refuting because by failing to tolerate the intolerant one necessarily acts intolerantly and thereby does not oneself deserve to be treated with toleration.

Robert P. George offered an alternative liberal account in his defence of the right to free speech of his colleague and fellow ethicist Peter Singer, whose views on the right to kill infants and the severely mentally disabled have long been met with public protest. For Professor George, we must make space on our campuses for even these most controversial views provided that they are put forward with ‘reasons and arguments’ and do ‘not deploy abusive language or techniques of manipulation’. This, he argues, is necessary to ‘serve the pursuit of knowledge of truth’.

The first problem with Professor George’s defence of Singer is that he fast resorts to irrelevant psychological inferences, such as that Peter Singer is not a ‘hater’. As Elizabeth Anscombe (who was well-known as a student for her reasoned protest to Harry Truman’s honorary doctorate at Oxford) noted, there is a necessary distinction between an ‘intentional’ action and the ‘intention the thing was done’ with. In this case, it is quite irrelevant if Peter Singer makes his arguments without animus towards infants and the disabled or if he is instead a ‘demagogue’ who intends to bring about the deaths of these vulnerable groups; the only significance for accountability on this point is the fact that Peter Singer did intend to make arguments that critique the right to life of such groups. The second issue, then, is that Professor George claims that Peter Singer reaches such conclusions with strictly ‘rational arguments’. But, as David Oderberg notes at length, Peter Singer’s conclusions are not only deplorable, but they are reached quite arbitrarily. Given that opportunities to speak at leading Universities are a privilege granted to a few, not a natural right given to all, it is therefore perfectly reasonable for a truth-seeking institution to exclude those who promote such false views, particularly when they bring into question the dignity of those vulnerable persons unable to offer a reply in their defence.

This, however, does not mean the pursuit of truth can ever be reduced to the dissemination of propaganda. Learning cannot be reduced to assenting uncritically to widely held beliefs, even if those beliefs are correct, because we only come to know the truth by first questioning it. As Francesca Aran Murphy points out, to think ‘discursively’ is very much the hallmark of the Western intellectual tradition and so it is critical that we ‘discern when an author is expressing his opinion and when the author is projecting a hypothesis’. This means that the reasonable questions of those who nevertheless hold fast to unreasonable conclusions can and should be integrated into rational discourse but it does not mean we must privilege such persons with a platform to speak their mind without reflecting on what is contained therein.

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