free speech

Listen Carefully

Written by Stephen Rainey, and Jason Walsh

Rhetoric about free speech as under attack is an enduring point of discussion across the media. It appears on the political agenda, in various degrees of concreteness and abstraction. By some definitions, free speech amounts to an unrestrained liberty to say whatever one pleases. On others, it’s carefully framed to exclude types of speech centrally intended to cause harm.

At the same time, more than ever the physical environment is a focus of both public and political attention. Following the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet Two’ documentary series, for instance, a huge impetus gathered around the risk of micro-plastics to our water supply, and, indeed, how plastics in general damage the environment. As with many such issues people have been happy to act. Following, belatedly, Ireland’s example, plastic bag use has plummeted in the UK, helped along by the introduction of a tax.

There are always those few who just don’t care but, when it comes to our shared natural spaces, we’re generally pretty good at reacting. Be it taxing plastic bags, switching to paper straws, or supporting pedestrianisation of polluted areas, there is the chance for open conversations about the spaces we must share. Environmental awareness and anti-pollution attitudes are as close to shared politics as we might get, at least in terms of what’s at stake. Can the same be said for the informational environment that we share? Continue reading

Cross Post: In Defense of Offense

Written by Michael Robillard

*  Please note that this essay was originally published at Quillette Magazine

 

In Defense of Offense

“The urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched…”

–Chief Judge Alex Kozinski

In September of last year, conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro, spoke at the UC Berkeley campus for approximately 90 minutes. The cost of security for the physical protection of Mr. Shapiro, an American citizen, and Harvard-educated lawyer came to approximately $600,000. Prior to Mr. Shapiro’s visit at the Berkeley campus, right-wing British speaker and internet provocateur, Milo Yiannopolis, was prevented from speaking on campus due to security worries caused by approximately 150 masked agitators who committed various acts of vandalism, arson, and violence, resulting in the harm of several innocent Berkeley students and local citizens and totaling around $100,000 in property damage. In May of last year, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, biology professor, Bret Weinstein, refused to participate in the “Day of Absence” in which “white students, staff, and faculty,” were, “invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities.” Weinstein’s refusal resulted in him being surrounded by an angry mob of 50 students who called him a racist and insisted that he resign. He was later advised by campus police to remain off campus indefinitely for his own physical safety. Weinstein and his wife, also a professor, did so, and eventually resigned from their positions at Evergreen in September. In March of 2017, at Middlebury College, demonstrators physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair and giving her whiplash, sending her to the ER.

Berkeley. Evergreen. Middlebury. Missou. Yale. Brown. McMasters. Wilfred Laurier. The list goes on. One must wonder where this trend will ultimately take us. There have been several justifications given for this increasing rash of no-platforming, shaming, and at times, physical violence on North American campuses. In essence, these justifications can be distilled into a triad of well-meaning but ultimately flawed theses, namely, 1.) that all discourse is  about power and that any speech that renders a listener physiologically uncomfortable therefore rises to the level of a physical attack upon that individual, thereby justifying actual physical violence in response, 2.) that for the sake of historically marginalized voices, persons who are members of historically privileged groups should forfeit their right to free speech or ought to remain silent, 3.) that certain assertions, even if possibly true, are nonetheless morally impermissible to make since to do so will likely create conditions whereby bad-intentioned persons will inevitably and successfully advance their morally heinous projects.

This first thesis—that all discourse is fundamentally about power—finds its philosophical origins in the likes of post-modernists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. To quote Foucault, “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations.” Thus, on Foucalt’s view, if all discourse is, at heart, really just veiled force relations between competing groups; if language isn’t fundamentally capable of being about objective truth or about the world in any meaningful sense, then the ink symbols written on the page and the shaped air admitted from one’s mouth in the forms of ‘rationality’, ‘facts’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘truth’ are just another set of weapons in a person’s overall arsenal to seize and maintain power, no different in kind from weapons of a physical sort. To speak then, on Foucault’s view, is to wield a weapon, albeit a subtler and refined one. The uncomfortable physiological feeling of hearing offensive speech, it would then seem, vindicates this view that one is being attacked. One might thus conclude, “Why not attack back with heavier, more effective, and more expedient weapons?”

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Should Hitler have been able to speak at the Oxford Union?


@JimACEverett

 www.jimaceverett.com

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) recently voted to “condemn” the invitation of Marine LePen to speak at the Oxford Union (which is an entirely separate organization, for those outside of Oxford). In addition to condemning LePen and the Union for inviting her, the OUSU President was mandated to send an emergency letter (i.e. a letter that comes outside the normal weekly bulletins, and usually happens when a person is missing or there is an emergency). I was informed that as a student union, “we” had voted to condemn LePen and the Union for giving her a platform and were encouraged to protest. To what extent is this true? Had the Union, in inviting her, legitimised her politics?

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Facebook Crime and Punishment

Two recent court cases in America highlight the difficulties we face in making ethical sense of social media and individual identity. The cases are quite different – one involves the denial of access to social media, while the others requires its use – but each raises seemingly unresolvable questions about the relation between our internet presences and ourselves.

In Portland, 26-year-old nursing assistant Nai Mai Chao has been convicted of invasion of privacy, for posting to Facebook photographs of patients at the nursing home where she worked. The patients were photographed, without their knowledge, on bedpans and in other embarrassing postures. Chao and her friends evidently wrote mocking comments on the Facebook post. One patient reportedly felt “humiliated” when told about the photograph’s public circulation; he died three months later. As a result of the case, Chao lost her nursing license, has been barred from similar employment, and spent eight days in prison. And she is prohibited from accessing Facebook.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Mark Byron was found in contempt of a Domestic Violence Civil Protection Order, after posting to his Facebook wall that his estranged wife was an “evil, vindictive woman” and allowing his friends to write abusive and threatening comments about her. Although Elizabeth Byron could not directly access Mark Byron’s wall (they are not Facebook ‘friends’), mutual contacts alerted her to the posts. The court then ruled that Mark Bryon’s comments were “clearly intended to be mentally abusive”, found him in contempt, and gave him a choice. He could accept jail time, or post an apology – one written for him by the magistrate – on his Facebook wall every single day for one month. Byron chose the latter.

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