freedom of speech

I had an interesting experience today over at Why Evolution is True. I should say that I don’t know much about the site, apart from reading a handful posts that express furious disapproval at actions designed to take the experiences of individuals from minority groups into consideration (or actions of the ‘regressive left’ as they call it).

The post I was directed to by my blogging acquaintance, Tildeb, discussed a controversial incident at a university when an ex-Muslim was invited to share her thoughts on Islam. The speaker in question has gained some notoriety as an alleged Islamophobe, and concerned groups in the university succeeded in securing 5000 signatures for a petition that convinced the university to revoke her invitation to speak. [Edit: error, petition was to allow her to speak.]

This action caused a furor of indignant responses about free speech, about protecting religions from criticism and about the predictability of special interest pressure groups counter-intuitively supporting each other e.g. feminists supporting Muslims.

For the readers of Evolution is True, it was another example of the ‘these free-speech opposers and professional “I’m offended-ites,”’ killing off liberalism.

I just can’t agree. For all I’d like to see the population of the world conclude that religions are fabricated, and for all having now read some of Maryam Namazie, I think she is doing great work, I also understand that the people who follow religions need to be respected and need to be listened to. No-one is ‘right’ in this world, and the only way we can protect our own freedom of expression, is to ensure that we protect the freedom of expression of everyone else.

CONTRADICTION, you scream. Not at all. Freedom of expression doesn’t end at allowing everyone to talk, it also involves actually listening to the opinions of other people, especially those who experience discrimination and oppression.

CONTRADICTION, you scream. Indeed. There are many individuals who experience discrimination and oppression, and at some point an analysis of the good/harm caused by actions needs to be undertaken – for each individual situation.

Removing a speaking invitation from someone who could encourage a demonised group within a society to be further discriminated against is common sense consideration. Muslims in British society are already subject to unacceptable levels of discrimination – it’s in the workplace and from the police: I think it’s safe to assume it’s endemic. In London, where the university is based, hate crimes against Muslims are soaring.

Freedom of expression is not lost to the ex-Muslim wanting to convey her understanding of how Islam has harmed her or society. She has many other options to choose from. But losing one speaking engagement because individuals in that area judged her opinion to be potentially harmful in one place, at that point in time, is not an attack on freedom of speech. It was in all likelihood an attempt to stop the flames of hatred being further fanned. An attempt that clearly failed.