Free Speech Warriors Need to Sit Down

Michael Coleman challenges the idea that free speech is being squashed on university campuses.


There is, allegedly, a spectre haunting university campuses: the spectre of political correctness. And old white political commentators the world over have entered into an alliance to exorcise this spectre in all its supposed manifestations. Trigger warnings, safe spaces and no platform policies towards racists and transphobes have all come under fire in recent months. Take any kind of activity that could possibly occur on a university campus that doesn’t entail a complete free for all where anybody can say whatever they want and I guarantee you that somebody has written a preachy think-piece about it in which they claim that it represents a fundamental threat to freedom everywhere. This piece will have been published to great acclaim, and many will have lauded the ‘bravery’ of ‘standing up to the enemies of free speech in a post-Charlie Hebdo world’. Many of your Facebook friends, typically ‘edgy’ young professionals who have just left college, will share the article, perhaps arguing at the very least it ‘makes you think’.  A cursory google reveals dozens and dozens of articles of this kind, all of them published by very prominent media organisations. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to find defences of political correctness; Laurie Penny’s excellent article being a notable exception. The defence of political correctness has become, paradoxically, the much more ‘brave’ and maverick stance. It is now more than ever necessary to attack the logic of those who scoff at measures designed to allow the vulnerable and the oppressed to truly participate in discourse without feeling unsafe; it is necessary to point out that it is a bizarre conflation to suggest that asking for a trigger warning is to somehow disrespect those who died in the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is necessary to rail at the inconsistency of an ideology that demands that everything must be up for discussion in every situation, but howls in outrage and disgust at the very thought of questioning the principle of absolute free speech itself.

It is important that we understand what we’re actually defending here; a large problem with ‘political correctness’ discourse is that the term is sufficiently vague and empty to be completely meaningless and is deployed in an array of seemingly unrelated situations. Given that there is no clear definition of political correctness, self-styled defenders of free speech have been able to attack things that seem obviously ridiculous and/or pointlessly trivial to many people and then draw conflations between that and completely different things. Because political correctness is associated with something like ‘the War on Christmas’ in America, or banning the lyrics of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, it has become a weapon to discredit any measure designed to enable the vulnerable to participate in discourse. Saying something is politically correct has become an obfuscatory foghorn, pouring water on any sparks of actual debate with horrified cries of ‘They’re trying to make it illegal to say you’re English!!!’ before anything remotely resembling a reasoned discussion can happen. It has essentially become a short-hand for implying that anybody who is in favour of any restrictions of free speech is terrified of offence and thinks everybody should be wrapped up in cotton wool. Where critiques of political correctness gain massive traction it is through this kind of conflation- they take something that seems ridiculous but harmless in one situation and frame it as part of an attack on the sanctity of free speech and then apply it to every position surrounding free speech that they don’t like.

University campuses have become one of the primary battlegrounds of the political correctness wars and one of the most fiercely contested arguments is that over the usefulness of trigger warnings and safe spaces. Trigger warnings are simple textual or oral warnings issued before content that could potentially trigger trauma in those suffering from PTSD, survivors of sexual assault, and so on. To me anyway, trigger warnings seem like a pretty innocuous thing to request, and providing them really does not take very much effort. That, however, has not stopped Trigger Warnings meeting the ire of free speech warriors. Faced with such a seemingly harmless idea as putting ‘Trigger Warning: Rape Discussion’ on a lecture slide before a class starts discussing rape, they resort the old trope of wilfully misunderstanding what they’re attempting to criticise and screaming ‘PC POLICE!!!’. Trigger Warnings, they argue, are terrible because all psychological research shows that in order to overcome trauma PTSD sufferers have to revisit in some ways and consciously work through it. Therefore, trigger warnings are just another example of barmy PC lefties putting their ’feelings’ above science and logic in a way that’s actually harming those they want to protect. Check Mate, Liberals!

Trigger warnings, though, are not about insulating survivors from trauma forever. They’re about allowing those survivors to choose when they have to interact with trauma and ensuring it’s not forced upon them without their consent. It’s true that research says that the interaction with trauma has to happen at some point, but when it does it should be of the person’s choosing, and trigger warnings allow that. It seems counter-productive, not to mention inhumane, to force somebody to endure trauma when they have in no way mentally prepared themselves. Critics of trigger warnings and safe spaces assume that they prevent survivors from ever confronting their trauma or discussing it at all, but this is not the reality. Quite often, the discussion in safe spaces will deal with the kind of triggering topics that critics think the PC police want to keep off limits for ever. The point is that the confrontation with trauma takes place on the terms of survivors – whether that be survivors of rape, members of a minority ethnicity dissecting the effects of racism, trans people attempting to come to terms with transphobia, and many more similar examples. Safe spaces allow these people to explore topics in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, safe in the knowledge that those around them will not victimise, intentionally or otherwise, in the process. Contrary to popular belief, nobody is trying to turn the entire world, or even the entire college campus into the safe space – but marginalised groups and abuse victims should be allowed to have at least one space where they can speak with complete impunity about their experiences. The reason straight white men have so much trouble clocking this is that this is the norm for most of us and we have difficulty conceptualising not being able to do so.

None of these things represent a violation of free speech in the truest sense of the word; none of the scenarios talked about by free speech warriors involve any actual government censoring anybody or banning any particular speech. Rather, they involve organisations being put under pressure by private citizens not to offer particular kinds of speech a platform, or in some cases, strong criticism being levelled towards people for saying things that many find offensive. Really, this kind of criticism is instrumental to free speech rather than an attack on it, but many seem to have interpreted the right to free speech to mean that they should be able to say whatever they want, whenever they want and with no consequences. Leaving this aside though, the more salient point that all the critics of political correctness, and all those who say that things like trigger warnings and safe spaces are symptoms of a student-lead assault on free speech, is that these things exist precisely to allow as many people as possible to participate in speech. The reasoning behind the importance of free speech is that open debate, with as many ideas as possible being bounced off eachother, is necessary for our continuing evolution as a society. For this to work properly, we need a full range of human thought and lived experience to be represented where possible. The problem is that in a complete free for all, privileged voices gradually become entrenched and gain the ability to drown out other perspectives. This is especially true when we recognise that the starting point is not equal for all; that is to say that not everybody has the same capacity to make their voice heard. Political Correctness, safe spaces and trigger warnings are all measures that to some extent go toward correcting for this imbalance and to limit the extent to which privileged voices can hold sway without being challenged. What this means is that there has to be a trade-off; it might be true that the existence of safe spaces and trigger warnings mean that some people are less likely to come into contact with ‘dangerous’ and ‘challenging’ ideas, but they do mean that abuse survivors are able to actually participate in campus intellectual life without fear of trauma, and enables them to explore their own unique perspective which they can then use to enhance understanding of any given topic. I think a lack of the latter would be a far bigger loss to free speech than the former would be. Similarly, political correctness acts as a moderating force that allows marginalised groups more scope to participate in speech. Some ideas may be lost from this, but ultimately the perspective of the marginalised is so much more important.

Attempting to articulate this exposes the doublethink in the approach of many free speech warriors. Any time anybody anywhere tries to suggest that maybe in certain situations sometimes free speech should be slightly curbed, you can guarantee that they will be attacked from all quarters and accused of betraying the great tradition of free speech. Amusingly, it seems that the ‘everything goes’ mantra cannot apply to the sanctity of free speech itself. I think this illustrates perfectly that none of this has ever actually been about defending free speech; it has always been about controlling speech. Political correctness represents a challenge to privileged voices – a challenge that they give up some of their privilege in order to let others speak. And the problem is that that not many of us want to even consider the idea that we occupy a privileged space, let alone give it up. I don’t mean to suggest that everybody who attacks political correctness consciously invokes free speech as a ploy to keep the door shut to the marginalised, twirling their moustaches and cackling all the while. I do think that people do genuinely care about free speech. The problem occurs because we don’t recognise our own privilege and as a result we conflate free speech with a situation where we hold onto that privilege, because it’s the way things always have been. This means we end up thinking that free speech means that I should be able to say whatever I want, not understanding that this often denies other less privileged people the chance to ever say what they want.

Free speech needs to be defined by a plurality of diverse voices, not by giving a privileged minority free reign to say whatever they want. An assault on ‘free speech’ is necessary if it means the latter. If there is an ‘assault’ on free speech occurring on university campuses then it is a sign that we are moving toward more freedom, not less.