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Thursday, 26 October 2017

WHAT PRICE FREE SPEECH?



I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Voltaire, 1758

We were honoured to have a guest from the University of Oxford with us at college this week. Charlotte Hamilton is the Student Recruitment Officer (UK & Far East) and she met with our junior students in the Great Hall. She gave a very interesting and enlightening presentation on applying to Oxford - something that more and more of our students are doing.

Before the talk, we met in my office and I was able to ask her some questions of my own. There has been something of a furore in Oxford recently concerning a statue of Cecil Rhodes.  Rhodes was a typical 19th century explorer, colonialist and, some might say, exploiter of people and resources. Many enlightened people today are resentful of the continued presence of his statue, although he endowed the university with generations of Rhodes' Scholars, one of whom was President Bill Clinton. There have been many calls for the statue to be taken down because of its association with racialism, colonialism and the acceptance of slavery. It makes me wonder how old (or how long dead) you have to be for this to happen. I know of all kinds of statues in London, for example, of people who lived less than exemplary lives: Roman emperors, Richard the Lion-heart, Oliver Cromwell, to name just a few. It seems to me that the issue surrounding the Rhodes statue is part of a growing attack on freedom of speech, or perhaps that should read freedom of belief, that is becoming depressingly common in certain universities. As Charlotte was keen to point out, the statue has not been removed in Oxford, while the debate itself is being vigorously pursued. That, to me, seems an entirely healthy way to behave.

However, last week I was reading of another university which was considering imposing some kind of "health warning" for Literature students who would be shortly studying Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." To me this was patently absurd. Titus is an early play and frankly, not one of the bard's better efforts. It is also very violent and has some distressing scenes. Many years ago, I saw a graphic production of it at Stratford-Upon-Avon which showed some pretty violent and bloody actions. It was considered so outrageous at the time, that I suspect many people went to see it for the gore fest, rather than any literary merit. However, having just watched the first episode of "Gunpowder," a BBC re-enactment of the 1605 Gunpowder plot, that production of Titus seems pretty tame. In fact, many episodes of the popular TV show "Game of Thrones" are similarly far more graphic, but  without the redeeming feature of Shakespearean language. I couldn't help wondering if the people who were worried about students being traumatised by a play script were taking things a bit far.

The whole business of freedom of expression and the acknowledgment of views which are contrary to one's own seems to be hotly contested in UK universities just now. I personally hold hard to the sentiments of Voltaire, quoted above. How far this should extend, is perhaps debatable. Whether we should give a platform to extreme right wingers such as white supremacists or neo-Nazis is more moot. I, personally, would suggest not, but the line of acceptability is becoming increasingly blurred. I hope and believe that KYUEM graduates headed for university next year will be among the forefront of those who practise reasoned and rational debate.





4 comments:

  1. Dear Dr Rogers. Your blog What Price Free Speech, led me to come across a Wikipedia article about the paradox of tolerance which was described by Karl Popper, a famous philosopher and a name I recall coming across very many years ago, probably at university. The Wiki article goes on to say that “… if a society is tolerant without limit, their ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Popper came to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance”. I guess in other words, it’s the Yin and the Yang thing!

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    1. It's an interesting paradox, indeed. When do stereotypes used in humour, for example, cross the good taste border and cause offence or even racism? I am also worried that many countries that espouse the cause of free speech are these days denying it to people who don't conform to what is considered acceptable. I was at university when South Africa was a white supremacist state that practised apartheid. A member of their embassy took part in a debate we held on the subject. He spoke arrant, racist nonsense and lost the debate overwhelmingly. Somehow I doubt he would have been invited to speak at a university today. Are we wrong to deny a platform to such people? I think most undergrads are quite capable of forming intelligent opinions about such things and don't need "protecting" from controversy or voices that many people find unacceptable. As a lover of History, I recall only too well that Puritans in 17th Century England or revolutionaries in Robespierre's France were sure they had possession of the moral high ground. Look what happened in both those situations.

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  2. Dr Paul Rogers
    Not to mention Aung San Suu Kyi in a similar vein.

    Azimah Rahim

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    1. Indeed. She is proving an immense disappointment in this regard.

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