As I hurried up the steps of Toulouse’s central metro station one cold winter morning back in January, an advertising board caught my eye. Before me, the unmistakeable portrait of the French enlightenment writer Voltaire clunkily rolled up into view, accompanied by his most misquoted saying: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Although this was actually formulated as a summary of Voltaire’s attitude towards free speech by a 1906 biographer, it still reflects his view and the point is very much relevant today. As the issue of free speech, especially on University campuses, becomes an increasingly hot topic, there is a great deal we could learn from Voltaire’s example.
In the aftermath of the tragic Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7 2015, which was seen as a direct assault on France’s highly cherished values of liberty and freedom of speech, it is perhaps no surprise that, Voltaire, renowned advocate of tolerance and free speech, was taken up as a figurehead in response by the mourning French people. Voltaire’s face began appearing on ‘Je suis Charlie’ posters, and his Treatise on Tolerance started to fly off the shelves. It was wielded as a symbol of solidarity with the victims and a metaphorical two-fingered salute to the terrorists.
Being an all-round thorn in the side of the Establishment in 18th century Europe, Voltaire was no stranger to trouble and controversy. The NUS’s no-platforming of offensive speakers nowadays would pale in comparison to the extreme and often violent censorship of 18th Century France. Furthermore, Voltaire’s signature sign-off on much of his correspondence,“Écrasez l’infâme!” (Crush what is infamous), criticising contemporary clerical abuses, would serve just as accurately as an ironic jibe at the NUS’s policy of no-platforming today. Throughout his writing career, Voltaire was imprisoned, repeatedly exiled, almost all of his works were banned and three of them were burnt upon release.
One of the central ideas running through all of his works was that of tolerance, in particular religious tolerance. Given the brutal religious wars in France in the 16th century and the constant tension between the Catholics and Protestants (Hugenots), this was a pressing issue at the time. Perhaps then, instead of dropping bombs on Daesh, we should be dropping copies of Voltaire; it would doubtless do more good.
“Voltaire’s furious scorn would come down hard on the NUS’s no-platforming rampage”
However, Voltaire’s philosophy went further than simply tolerating the views of others: he encouraged people to think, be curious and formulate their own ideas. This is perfectly displayed in a quotation taken from his aforementioned Treatise on Tolerance: “Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.” There’s no doubt in my mind that, were he still alive and kicking, Voltaire’s furious scorn would come down hard on the NUS’s no-platforming rampage and the growing culture of censorship and thought policing on campuses.
Let’s now return to the famous quotation: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. What this means in practice is that, if you value freedom of expression as a right, then this means defending it for a whole host of misguided people: homophobes, racists, sexists etc.. What this doesn’t mean, as the quotation clearly highlights, is that you agree with their argument.
This is exactly the principle that the new breed of pseudo-progressive student ‘lefties’ so woefully fails to understand. The problem is that when you attempt to defend a person’s right to speak who has ‘problematic’ (to use their own cringe-worthy jargon) views, some are so trigger happy that they don’t even stop to attempt to understand what’s being said. They instantly shut down into generic lefty spiel defence mode, and presume that you too are supporting the offensive argument in question.
We need free speech for everyone, even white supremacist nut jobs and homophobic Bible bashers, because even though we may find their views offensive or hateful, by allowing them to speak freely, it provides a platform to engage them and challenge their views. If only people were as passionate in their desire to fight back against these bigoted opinions, as they are to decry them and call for them to be no platformed and banned.
With the NUS policy of no-platforming speakers with ‘offensive’ views, instead of fighting these opinions through well-reasoned argument and debate, we cower away from them and stick our heads in the sand. In the words of Charles Bukowski, “Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real.”
In another Cherwell article, ‘Censorship is not becoming the new normal‘, Oliver Hurcum claims that, by inviting a speaker with offensive views, the institution is ‘normalising’ this point of view. He even goes on to suggest, using the example of Germaine Greer speaking at the Oxford Union, that by inviting her to speak, the Union is either condoning or willing to accept her ‘transphobic’ views.
I strongly disagree with this. Simply recognising that a certain person has an alternative, probably unpopular, opinion on a topic of debate, and then inviting them to provide an alternative line of argument isn’t showing support for it. It is respecting the value of having a balanced two-sided debate, and also providing an opportunity to challenge these views instead of just brushing them under the carpet and pretending they don’t exist.
It is the duty of any educational institution, especially universities, to present students with contrasting views on a variety of topical, contentious and potentially offensive subjects in order to help them develop as individuals and as intellectuals. Any NUS attempt to no-platform a speaker is a blatant betrayal of the students whose best interests it is supposed to protect and uphold.
The problems surrounding no-platforming and censorship on UK campuses is epitomised well in a particularly amusing Private Eye cartoon from last month. Voltaire manages to get out the first few words of his famous “I may disagree” quotation, before an NUS student officer ‘no-platforms’ him.
So, although I may disagree with what Hurcum says, I will defend to the death his right to say it.