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The geopolitics of speech at the University

[CW: Transphobia]

In the wake of the controversy around Kathleen Stock’s invitation to speak at the Oxford Union, as a geographer, I found it necessary to critically reflect on how society delineates what is, and is not, considered free speech. As an American, I’ve been instilled with the concept of free speech; why it should be a human right, why it’s necessary for democracy, and why it must be protected. It’s my First Amendment right. 

As Evelyn Hall (commonly attributed to Voltaire) noted: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” It’s a useful byword for how the state should interact with civil society, the press, and those associated with protest; in a democracy, even the government is not beyond criticism and condemnation. Yet, we tend to forget the significant roles that many Western democracies play in regulating permissible speech, as speech that is threatening, fraudulent, obscene, or disturbs public safety can lead to an arrest or a civil suit against the speaker. 

Commenting on the allowance of Kathleen Stock’s invitation to speak at the Union, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared that debate is the “hallmark of a tolerant society”. A letter, signed by 44 Oxford University academics from all sides of the political spectrum, asserts that universities are spaces that promote “free inquiry,” and the fact that the Union has invited a controversial speaker is a part of the university’s “pursuit of truth by means of a reasoned argument.” By blockading controversial speakers like Kathleen Stock, there is a worry that the University will become a ‘propaganda machine’ for particular political views. 

Yet, the university is not the state; and therefore, has a different duty to speech. As an academic institution, correctly or incorrectly so, the University of Oxford is considered one of the world’s leading knowledge generators. People look to the University to see the greatest debates unfold and answer the world’s unanswerable philosophical, moral, and ethical questions. Within the School of Geography and Environment at the University of Oxford, where my work is housed, there isn’t room for ‘experts’ who dabble in climate denier rhetoric to be invited on faculty, or even to participate in department-hosted debates and lectures. As the University’s policy on free speech reminds us: “Not all theories deserve equal respect. A university values expertise and intellectual achievement as well as openness.” The School of Geography and Environment is precisely that first – a school – where academic inquiry is pursued. It would clearly be a waste of university resources to host climate denialism and it would validate an argument that not only is unfounded, but unacademic. 

I’ve experienced hate speech and witnessed the pathologising of vulnerable communities under the auspices of free speech. Using a geographical lens, it becomes ever more apparent that a person’s positionality plays a significant role in their ability to speak freely. Speech is not simply something that everyone has innate equal access to; it is both a right and a resource that can be controlled and bordered. Those who hold identities outside of the ‘universalized man’ (male, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able, and of means) can experience impaired ability to speak freely, especially in the presence of hateful rhetorical devices that undermines their personhood. It often then becomes the burdening responsibility of the person who holds identities outside of the universalized man to defend their right to exist. 

The LGBTQ+ Society at Oxford called for the dis-invitation of Kathleen Stock because her thoughts contribute to physical and psychological harm to the transgender community. While some may consider a debate on transgender people’s rights an intellectual exercise, others, especially those belonging to the trans community, find the debate on whether their existence is valid not only harmful but dehumanising. 

When the Oxford Union platforms misinformation by inviting those who distort statistics and engage in rhetoric and pathologies, society can interpret this action as inherently validating what they have to say. Kathleen Stock is no longer famous on the dark corners of Twitter for being ousted (Stock claims she left of her own volition) from her last teaching position for her “gender-critical views,” but she is validated as a subject-matter expert in her field by the Oxford Union. We must be careful who we grant this privilege to. We aren’t self-selecting what is beyond discussion, but we are mindful to not validate blatant misinformation. Just as there is no question whether or not to invite people who engage in blatant climate denialism, why do we draw the line at transgender people’s existence? A controversial view becomes hateful when it advocates for the de-existence of other people through the removal of rights, resources, or otherwise. Then, activism is forced to emerge, often by people who hold the identities that the rhetoric harms the most, putting the most vulnerable communities in mental, emotional, and physical danger. By platforming anti-trans rhetoric, we strip transgender people of not only their right to free speech, but their right to simply be.

Here, philosopher Karl Popper’s thoughts on the tolerance paradox resonate: “Unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance.” This in no way advocates for the dismissal of debate nor the canceling/de-platforming of controversial views. Tolerance demands discomfort, as it allows our society to critically reflect on the values we wish to adhere to and those we wish to transform. As we enter into contentious debates, it’s essential for us to reflect on why we are arguing in the first place, approach the other side with humility and a willingness to learn, and perhaps even remain flexible to having our minds changed. I’m reminded of an old adage that folks in my community would say when starting a debate: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” When we permit hateful speech to fester, it undermines the rights of others to exist safely.

Image Credit: Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors/CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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