Interview: Timothy Garton Ash

John Maier talks to Professor Timothy Garton Ash about Free Speech at Universities, No-platforming, and the threat to liberal values today

Timothy Garton Ash has a stern, unaffected look about him. I meet him in his office at St Anthony’s. He is possessed of a rather subdued elegance, his answers arrive in sincere and vigorous phrases, he suggests that we stand as we talk. Of the armful of books he has written, the latest is Free Speech, a defense of his own line of anti-authoritarian liberalism.

I wonder whether it isn’t part of the liberal disposition to be always defensive, continually on guard against perceived threats to essential freedoms. Of course the set of freedoms are a thing constantly under negotiation, Garton Ash acknowledges. But now we really are “in a period where illiberalism is on the rise” and not just illiberalism, but “anti-liberalism”. The history of freedoms is one of troughs and peaks: if the days of Gladstone and Mill were a renaissance of liberal thought, and the post-Cold-War era a time of “liberal triumphalism”, then now we are in a period of bitter contestation: its “liberal modernity versus illiberal modernity”, and the real danger is the silent “salami-slicing” of liberal values.

“At British universities freedom of speech is under threat from two sides”, caught “in a kind of pincers”. On one side is the government, whose counter terrorism legislation “in its original version, was truly insidious”. The bill, which proposed the policing of forms of non-violent extremism, led Garton Ash to make well-publicised comments earlier this year that even Jesus Christ would be banned from addressing campuses under such an ill-conceived policy.

While governing powers can be relied upon to accept essential freedoms only begrudgingly, what might be harder to explain is the pressure on free speech “from below”: the increasing disregard for free speech amongst today’s most activist students. He tells me he wants to be careful though: “I’m very suspicious of middle-aged people explaining the young”; at the same time, he finds illiberalism amongst the young “very concerning”. Perhaps today’s studentry are simply overindulged and hostile to challenge; important too is the “echo-chamber” effect of the internet, that plays a role in buttressing an intolerance of opposition; or, Garton Ash smiles, perhaps it is simply that “liberalism has been the hegemonic ideology for a long period of time. To be young is to kick against the pricks: the pricks are liberals!”

He is reluctant to despair wholesale with today’s youth. “There’s a kind of Colonel- Blimp-like rejection” of much student activism “as being anti-free-speech…I think it’s important not to damn the lot.” The Rhodes Must Fall movement of last year, for instance “was not an infringement of free speech”, he argues, although it may have pushed free speech issues to the fore in certain oblique ways. Trigger warnings too he finds he can accommodate. Of course there are “ludicrous examples”: students at Columbia trying to impose warnings on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Give us a break,” he exclaims. But in principle they seem no different to the warnings given before distressing news reports, for example. “The one that I really do think is a problem”, he continues, “is no-platforming… This is not a group of students saying ‘we don’t want to hear Germaine Greer or Julie Bindel’. It’s one group of students saying that another group of students should not be allowed to hear someone they want to hear, and that is a clear violation of free speech [that] I don’t think we should accept.”

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Would he ever consider no-platforming? “There are many, many speakers I wouldn’t want personally to invite!” But aside from speech which is strictly unlawful, the proper response to outrageous speakers is the challenge of “robust debate—what the Americans call counter-speech.” Students who advocate no-platforming sometimes claim it as their form of free expression, but “I don’t buy that. It doesn’t seem to me to be persuasive.” Garton Ash seems to think that such arguments stem not from a rejection, but a distortion of liberalism. “Partly by taking part of the logic of egalitarian liberalism to an extreme,” we arrive at “a logic of no offence” with a radical edge, whose attraction is its “primary colour, simple solutions.” Liberalism, he adds, is deeply suspicious of all radicalism.

I ask if ideological hostility ever moves him to question whether freedom of speech is really such a universal value; is it something people accept unthinkingly, rather than feel the moral force of? The question of universalism is one that concerns him deeply. It’s no good to simply confront the world proclaiming that “there was a bunch of white men who between 1600 and 2000 worked the whole thing out”. Rather, he aims to present the arguments, “stripped away of their cultural integuments”. He is deeply opposed, though, to a brand of cultural determinism that holds some societies to be fundamentally hostile to free discourse; after all, “free speech…is the freedom that enables and secures most other freedoms”. The cruel irony is the catch-22 of free speech: “you can’t really know what you think about the subject until you’ve heard all the arguments for and against”. Yet despite this, perhaps because of it, what he has discovered in a life spent traveling through and writing about dictatorships is that people there “are a hell of a lot more interested in free speech than many people in free countries are.”

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Another aspect of the contemporary retaliation against free speech comes in the form of an intricate “identity politics of free speech”. This increasingly prevalent position holds that the only tolerable form of expression is self-referential, that legitimate speech is limited fundamentally by the identity of the speaker. Garton Ash is keen to point out that “if we’re talking about the experience of African women, then I would want to listen particularly closely to African women” in that instance. “That’s common sense, logic and actually a sort of human decency. But it’s a big, and I think illegitimate, leap from that to say only African women can talk about the experience of African women, because in that case only white middle-aged professors at Oxford would be entitled to speak about the experience of white middle-aged professors at Oxford and then all wider debate logically becomes impossible.” It is vital that we avoid “absolute rules enforcing civility by law”. Instead we ought to “try to achieve what I call robust civility, which has a certain cultural, intellectual sensitivity to these things, but allows all voices to be heard.”

Bertrand Russell had a line that a writer’s most cherished ideals are rarely those he states overtly. During our conversation my impression of Garton Ash is of an owner of a deeply-felt humanism and a borderless sympathy with political struggle, giving foundation to his liberal ideals. He recently wrote of his devastation at the result of the EU referendum, calling it the “biggest defeat” of his political life. He talks of the increasing ruthlessness of anti-liberalism in China, of the iniquities of the coercive, self-interested tabloid press, and the horror at the “assassin’s veto”, played in attacks such as those on the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo. Clear above all things is his desire to spread the conversation wide, and to resolve human differences through argument and reason. “I hope that’s what we do at this university” he tells me; after all, “there’s an art to talking about these things.”