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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

“A huge, stifling bubble”

How sad that the “huge, stifling bubble” being described is a university. I am not quite clear who wrote the following article for student magazine The Tab. The byline says Lucy Kehoe, a co-editor of Tab Liverpool, but the introduction suggests that she is quoting someone (a male) whose name is not given. Whoever wrote it, it is good to see someone fighting back:

Shutting down the ‘Pro-Life Society’ isn’t liberal — it’s the exact opposite

The way the campus majority reacted to the new ‘Pro-Life Society’ is symptomatic of a lot of what’s wrong with student politics right now. It was oppressive and deeply intolerant — ironically, exactly what opponents of the society claim they want to defeat.

Speaking as an atheist and staunch pro-choicer, the attempt to shut down the Liverpool University Pro-Life Society before they’ve even had a chance to go for an ice-breaker pint strikes me as a pretty a sinister development. Without trying to sound like a badly-damaged record, simply disagreeing with someone’s opinion does not warrant this person being banned from voicing this opinion, no matter how stark or severe the disagreement may be.

Let’s confront this together, fellow pro-choicers. The members of this society probably find your pro-choice views outrageous, too. Morally reprehensible. In some cases, your views are an insult to their deeply-held religious views.

So, if the Guild was to approve a future application from a pro-choice society, should that be kicked off campus, too? Clearly, the answer is no. Because their outrage doesn’t trump free speech — and neither does yours. When people (like myself) reflect on how wonderful university was, a word we are pretty much guaranteed to use is “diversity”. Diversity of race, religion and nationality. Of accents and hometowns. Of opinion and perspective.

Campuses are places where opinions should be held freely, exchanged in good will and perhaps even debated where necessary. This is the essence of a mature democracy. It’s the basics, really. But this is under attack. No longer is the university an open, tolerant, marketplace of ideas, but a huge, stifling bubble where any group united by a conservative point of view risks being delegitimised by the opinion police.

So far as I know the society has not been banned, but everybody took quite seriously the idea that its suppression should be discussed. The petition to ban it started by a student called Katriana Ciccotto read in part:

“As a female student, I feel completely betrayed, insulted and neglected by the Guild’s recent approval of the pro-life society.

As a female whose student days are long gone, I feel completely wearied by reading political statements that start with “As a female I feel completely [insert line of sad face emoticons here]”. Honestly, kids, feminism once meant something quite different to this. At least with mansplaining you might learn something; a headache is all you get from being in range of womemoting.

“This is a society that is founded on the sole basis that women should oblige to their beliefs. One that denies a woman the right to her own body. These are not religious ideas, they are misogynistic and hateful.

I do not know what “oblige to their beliefs” means nor why it is meant to be a bad thing. The statement “These are not religious ideas, they are misogynistic and hateful” is odd, too. Is it some sort of politically correct charm spell, recited to protect the speaker against accusations of Islamophobia? I am religious but would not claim for a microsecond that an idea being religious is logically incompatible with it being misogynistic and hateful. And while there certainly are those who oppose abortion on non-religious grounds, it is common knowledge that there are vast numbers, including many women of the sort modern feminists do not see, whose opposition to abortion is religious and they are proud to have it that way.

“Whilst I understand and the Guild’s policy towards freedom of speech, misogyny does not come under this category. Surely the Guild would undoubtedly disapprove of a society that promoted racism, homophobia or any other form of hate speech? Why is this different?

“If the Guild want to maintain the idea that they represent their students, they should have the moral obligation to ban this pro-life group.”

I, not Ms Ciccotto, put the phrase “misogyny does not come under this category” in bold type. It was unendearingly typical of the class of “I believe in free speech but” arguments that define free speech down to meaninglessness. There is a word called “whataboutery”, describing a style of argument by deflection pioneered in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in which people avoided facing up to the evil done by their own side by endlessly bringing up evil deeds (especially evil deeds of many years past) done by the other side. Whataboutery often is used dishonestly, but not always. A demand that all should be judged by the same rules is fair. But I really cannot see much to defend in the tactic of buttery.

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9 comments to “A huge, stifling bubble”

  • charliel

    Thank you for “whataboutery” and “butery” (“buttery?”). Never heard them before. Wonderfully descriptive. As for the rest, actually getting away with shutting down other opinions is getting to be way too common. The more it succeeds the more it’s attempted. It needs to always be fought vigorously.

  • “Womemoting ” is rather good too.

  • Alsadius

    It’s basically a charm, yes. They like “freedom of religion”, so in order to oppose the sorts of things religious people actually believe, they have to file them under “not religion”. It’s like “no free speech for hate speech” – it’s a way of saying “Well sure, that’s a nice principle, but in *this* case I can just do whatever I want”. As long as you’re the one who gets to decide which cases qualify, it’s a fun little racket.

  • pete

    Being pro-choice often doesn’t mean being in favour of women or anyone else making the choice to oppose abortion.

    It is a silly tag. Anti-choice would be a better one for the people who use it to describe themselves. Like many bigots they demand obedience and silence from their opponents.

  • Fraser Orr

    I don’t really know what “the guild” means in this context. In a sense if “the guild” offers something to the group in exchange for their approval that the free speech argument is less compelling — its value comes from the necessity for students to hear a range of views rather than from the right of speakers to speak. After all, you have the right to free speech (allegedly anyway) but you do not have the right to my megaphone, or the right to exercise your views in my living room. So if “the guild” offers money or access to facilities then the argument is really rather different.

    I think it is important to distinguish between these two. Ultimately the right to free speech is the right to express your views without being in danger of prosecution by the state. It does not entitle you to other people’s resources neither does it entitle you to be heard, or even listened to. In fact further, it does no immunize you from mockery or criticism, in fact, the right to free speech demands that you may be subject to that for expressing your views.

    The situation on a college campus is a little different. Here, in a sense, the college authorities do have a right to control what goes on on their property with their resources, it is just that, for the benefit of their students and for the fulfillment of their educational role they shouldn’t do so. And in a sense, since they often receive squads of government money, some of the restrictions we place on the government, with regards to speech, come along with that money.

    Nonetheless, if we thought of the right to free speech to be “the right of your worst enemy to saw whatever the hell he wants” we’d all have a better understanding. Free speech is not free for just me.

  • The problem is not “pro” or “anti” it is laws.

    One size does not fit all.

    A Thermodynamic Explanation Of Politics
    https://www.hotgas.net/2016/11/thermodynamic-explanation-politics/

  • Paul Marks

    I see so saying that killing babies is wrong is “not covered by free speech”. I am not sure that even the Roman Empire would have gone along with that – they might have laughed at someone who said “it is wrong for us to keep throwing babies we do not like on the town rubbish heap for the rats to eat” (the standard Roman practice), but someone who said this would not be banned for saying it.

    Of course the Romans did find other reasons to hit Jews and then Christians (it would be Jews and later Christians who had this view – the EXTREME “fundamentalist” Jews even held that there should be a seven year limit on labour and that no one could be born a slave).

    By the way the student activist is correct – there is a common principle of Free Speech that covers “racism”, “homophobia” “hatred of the capitalist rich” (the activist missed out the last example) and so on.

    The activist (like all such totalitarians) wants to ban any form of speech that she does not agree with.

    And this (the University of Liverpool) is one of the “centres of learning” that the government is so happy that young people are going to.

    We have very many universities in Britain – but nearly all of them teach the same belief system.

    They might as well smell of sulphur.

  • Václav Havel’s famous essay “The Power of the Powerless”, describes how an oppressive system tends to expand into the way of people who were not intending to oppose it – teenagers just wanting to enjoy modern music, for example.

    When the late Apple founder, Steve Jobs, said (in a biographical interview), “I wanted to meet [my birthmom] mostly to see if she was okay, and to thank her, because I’m glad I didn’t end up as an abortion.”, I doubt he was focussed on making a political point. When the first woman saved by Reagan’s law (that if the abortee is not dead but viable, she must not be terminated) made her YouTube video to express her gratitude for life, she probably was. But I wonder if Ms Ciccotto would object to either of these exercises in free speech being quoted.

  • bobby b

    In American law, we have a fairly straightforward annunciation of our right to free speech, in our Constitutional amendment #1:

    “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . ”

    It lists no exceptions. And yet, we’ve carved out, judicially and legislatively, defamation, “fighting words”, and a few other categories as allowed exceptions.

    The “fighting words” doctrine holds that there is no freedom to utter words that are reasonably MEANT to incite a violent counter-reaction.

    This exception, developed in the 40’s, has been steadily narrowed by the courts since then, as it was read more and more to apply, not to the intent of the speaker, but to the reaction of the listener. The “fighting words” exception became the “heckler’s veto.”

    From its beginning as “don’t utter words that you know will cause such offense as to surely begin a fight”, it mutated to “if you say THAT, I will become violent, and so you cannot say that.”

    The courts between the fifties and the present have been reading this exception more and more narrowly, in a desire to unempower the heckler’s veto.

    But this new era of safe spaces, microaggressions, and “hate speech” has merely been a resurgence of this doctrine. Now, if you say anything that causes anger or disagreement, the listener lays out her own subjective reaction to your speech, claims it causes in her a fighting reaction, and calls for your speech to be halted.

    The “fighting words” doctrine is really the essence of what’s going on. It needs to be quashed once and for all, or at least once again linked to the speaker’s intent instead of the listener’s reaction.