The Moral Demands of Free Speech

If we say that these activists have some kind of obligation to debate, then we have an obligation to stand with them

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In my earlier post, I wrote:

And perhaps students, at the cutting edge of culture and knowledge, have a greater and particular duty than the rest of us? …No Platform is the political equivalent of fly-tipping.  Rather than dealing once and for all with the unpleasant rubbish, the policy causes the mess to be dumped elsewhere.

There is a coda to this which I think is important to acknowledge.

If we compare No Platform to fly-tipping, then it follows that that the task of debating reactionaries is an unpleasant experience.

If we ask trans* activists (or feminists, or members of a marginalised group) to debate those who have disparaged them, we should at least acknowledge the unpleasantness of the task.

White cis men never find themselves in situations where their basic humanity has been denied by the person they are arguing with.  And yet, by calling for an end to No Platform and for greater debate, we are effectively calling on trans* activists to put themselves in a position that is psychologically and morally uncomfortable.  That is a conclusion that free speech defenders need to understand, acknowledge and own.

If we say that these activists have some kind of obligation to debate, then we have an obligation to listen to their arguments, and (where we agree) to stand in solidarity with them.  If we do not, then we too are propagating ideas that demean others.

I often think of (and link to) Kenan Malik’s thoughts on the moral demands of free speech, which are relevant to this issue:

The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.

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