Archive for September 18th, 2016

Timothy Garton Ash: “Universities should be safe spaces – safe spaces for free speech.”

Sunday, September 18th, 2016
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Contributor Tim Garton Ash of st Antony s college Oxford Pic Rob Judges

Man of the hour.

I had lunch on the Stanford campus with historian, author, and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash a week or so ago. We had passed each other in Kraków and at Stanford, so I thought it was high time we actually sat down together to talk.

He was having a short spell in Palo Alto before resuming the on-the-road lectures, readings, interviews connected with the promotion of his new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press) – and eventually he’ll return to Oxford, where he spends most of the year. Edmund Fawcett, writing in The New York Times Book Review called the book: “Admirably clear, . . . wise, up-to-the-minute and wide-ranging. . . . Free Speech encourages us to take a breath, look hard at the facts, and see how well-tried liberal principles can be applied and defended in daunting new circumstances.”

Naturally, our conversation revolved around issues about free speech and the social media –  for example, what exactly, are the obligations of Facebook or Twitter when it comes to tweets or posting that are violent? We also spoke about George Orwellbecause by curious coincidence I had been reading his renowned essay, “Orwell’s List,” in his previous book, Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from the Decade Without a Namethe day before.

His new book is winging its way to my house, but meanwhile, you can get a taste of the direction of his current lines of thought in this weekend article in The Guardian, “Safe Spaces Are Not the Only Threat to Free Speech. An excerpt about the cultural debate surrounding free speech today [British spelling retained]:

gartonashbookOne trouble with this debate is that the important and sometimes difficult balancing judgments that should be its focus are obscured by the silliness, hyperbole and hysteria that accompany it like the raucous camp followers of a medieval army. It also comes with a whole new jargon: trigger warnings, safe spaces, no-platformingmicroaggressions.

And it is highly politicised. At this year’s Republican convention in Ohio, speaker after speaker garnered a surefire round of applause by attacking “political correctness”. No one had to explain what they meant: just spit out the two words and trigger the Pavlovian response.

But what might loosely be called the other side is often its own worst enemy. The New York Times recently reported a presentation to new students by the chief diversity officer at Clark University. Among her examples of microaggressions to be avoided, she included saying “you guys”, since the phrase could be interpreted as excluding women. One female Hispanic student, who had repeatedly committed this heinous error, commented gratefully: “This helped me see that I’m a microaggressor too.” What a dreary, anxious, puritanical kindergarten a campus would become if students were constantly worrying whether this or that word might cause offence to someone or other.

Maybe what we need is a “safe space.”  Maybe the whole campus must be a “safe space.” He objects:

gartonash2subversiveHere, anyone who believes that free speech is vital to a university must draw the line. For what these student activists are claiming when they insist that, for example, Germaine Greer may not speak on a particular campus (because of her view that a woman is not “a man without a cock”), is that one group of students has the right to prevent another group of students hearing a speaker whom the second group actually wants to hear. Such no-platforming is, in effect, student-on-student censorship. It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be “unsafe” because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.

In fact, one underexamined question is precisely this: what kind of space is a university? And the answer, which also explains some of the confusion, must be: several different kinds of space, which should have different standards.

 Overall, Garton Ash isn’t staying awake at night, worrying about all this: “I think it’s fair to say that the erosion of free speech is still only at the margins in major western universities, and mainly concerns a few particular subjects. But we must always watch out for the thin end of the wedge, whether it is being pushed by student activists or government.”

Read the whole article here. Or come to his talk at at 7 p.m., Wednesday, October 5, in Cubberley Auditorium, here.