I’ve written quite a lot recently on the topic of No Platform and the wider issue of free speech at universities. And I am not done yet. If the reader feels as if I am repeating myself, that’s because I am: blogging is an iterative form of discourse where each evolution towards some kind of opinion is published for all to see.
And I have been thinking about iteration in the context of the campus free speech wars.
After reading Emey’s amusing-but-actually-serious Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters, my mind wanders back to the debate of the past few days. Consider, once more, the the Tatchell pile-on from last week: an internicine debate between left leaning social liberals.
- The issue began with people like Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer saying that trans women are not real women. Speech.
- This was met with outrage from trans-rights activists and their allies. Counter-speech.
- This outrage was perceived as a pattern that was anti-free speech, so Tatchell, Mary Beard and others signed an open letter bemoaning that fact. Counter-counter-speech.
- This ‘inherently problematic’ open letter was perceived as endorsing the opinions of Bindel and Greer. Tatchell, Beard et al were thus accused of endorsing transphobia. Counter-counter-counter-speech (or perhaps, Counter³ speech)
- When those allegations of transphobia were repeated by NUS officer Fran Cowling, this was perceived as No Platforming of Tatchell. Peter complained about this in public and a storm ensued in the mainstream media and on social media. Counter-counter-counter-counter-speech (Counter4 speech)
- People then accused Peter Tatchell of leveraging his prominent position and media contacts to bully Fran Cowling. Counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-speech, (Counter5 speech).
I am reminded of a few things. First, the pioneering audio artwork I Am Sitting In A Room or my own experimental homage, a Periscope Poem recorded over five days last year. Recordings of recordings of recordings.
At each iteration, the actual message at the heart of the piece becomes harsher and simplified, almost to imperceptibility. I think this is a good description of some of these debates about free speech— nuance is peeled away, and both sides become hardened to the notion that it the other who is the censor.
Next, I am reminded of an epistemological conundrum about knowing, best illustrated by the 1976 hit for the Kursaal Flyers ‘Little Does She Know‘.
Little does she know
that I know
that she knows
That I know
she’s two-timin me
But what happens when she does know that he knows that she knows that he knows she’s two-timin’ him? Will he know? Epistimologists and logicians get around this by defining certain pieces of information as Common Knowledge: everyone knows everything.
Perhaps we need to define the idea of the Common Knowledge of Free Speech? This would have an acceptance of the principles of freedom of expression, including the freedom to offend, at its core. But it would also accept that counter speech can propagate out forever from the initial controversial statement. To practice Common Knowledge of Free Speech is to start from the assumption that everyone else in the debate shares those principles too. The debate may continue, but it remains about the substance of the initial idea. The discourse is not derailed by accusations of attempted censorship.
Thus conceived, Common Knowledge Free Speech is not a rule that can be agreed or imposed in advance (unlike, say, the Chatham House Rule). Rather, it is a mantra or mental habit that one must practice with discipline.
Finally, I am reminded of that old apocryphal anecdote about the old lady who claims the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle.
“What is the turtle standing on?” asks the philosopher.
The woman scoffs. “It’s turtles all the way down!”
So it is with these frustrating free speech discussions. We all need to remember that free speech means no-one gets to have the last word. Its free speech turtles all the way down.