Gamebook store

Sunday 24 March 2024

Speak up

It's that time of year again, when I end up poking a stick into a hornets' nest of controversy. By tradition it should involve a professor, but as far as I know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not currently teaching at a university because those who can, do. Here's her Reith Lecture on the subject of "Freedom of Speech". I recommend listening to the podcast, but if you're pressed for time you could just skim-read the transcript.

For advocating free speech I've been called a fascist, and all I did was retweet Philip Pullman, so goodness knows how much flak Ms Adichie gets for her stance. But if I'm a free speech "fascist", I'm a lazy one, so I'll let her speak for me and just say (as David Baddiel does in the Q&A after the talk) that I agree with almost everything she says here. It was refreshing to hear a grown-up talking, not something we get much of now that we seem to have drifted into Bizarro World.


  1. Actually I was being a bit facile with that remark about being labelled a free speech fascist. What I was actually taken to task over, and in good conscience too I have no doubt, was for "making publicly available statements of belief which amount to trivialisation of queer people's experiences."

    I would certainly never seek to trivialize anybody's experiences, but what the person was referring to was that I support free speech and that some unpleasant people use free speech to insult others on the basis of their sexual preferences. Well, we have hate speech laws and other restrictions such as not being allowed to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. Supporting freedom of speech means supporting somebody's right to make a case for their point of view, however offensive that might be to others. In recent years Prof Roland Fryer and Dr Kathleen Stock have both run into trouble for expressing reasoned arguments that some people didn't like. I support their right to make those arguments because they are speaking in good faith; they're not just ranting like Hitler in an attempt to get others to commit violence. Of course, a minority nowadays regard speech itself to be a form of violence. That's where we'll have to agree to differ, with the notable distinction being that I think they should be allowed to say so.

  2. I really value the Reith Lectures - and this was a particularly good one, so thanks for sharing, Dave!

    It's a weird time to be working in a University. We've had two decades of the government saying "Stop letting extremists having a platform on your campus!", then in the last couple of years the government has swung to "You have an obligation to protect free speech! Stop banning people!", and then post October 7th, to "You are allowing the wrong people to have a platform! Ban them!". Of course, I suspect this is more about playing to an audience than what people are actually allowed to say.

    And it is worth noting there are real sensitivities here, and we do need to be careful that we don't stamp out legitimate dissent, but equally don't allow people to use their free speech as a way to chill others by making them feel threatened (even if that isn't the intention). It's a fine balance.

    One thing I do find strange is that now, taking offence seems to be taken as a limit on free speech, as it saying "that offends me" or "that upsets me" is part of the "Woke Mob" coming to cancel something. Surely, if you *really* believe in free speech, you'd believe in the right to offend and for people to express when they are offended? Of course, if I offend someone, I'd rather they tell me - either I intended to, in which case I'll be glad it worked, or I didn't intend to, in which case I'd like avoid repeating the offence in the future.

    I guess part of the problem is now social media algorithms, that amplify hot and controversial takes and bury more nuanced ones. All speech is not competing on a level playing field! But how you resolve that without giving dangerous levels of control to companies, governments or individuals I have no idea.

    1. I've been browsing through all the Reith lectures available online, Ray. They've got Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, Steve Jones, Hilary Mantel... This could keep me busy for a while.

      I think you're right that social media, by providing echo chambers for frankly crazy and once-marginalized views (flat Earth twits, anti-vaxxers, racists, fundamentalists of all stamps, etc) has exacerbated the problem. I don't think we can start fretting over offence, though. Once you start censoring (even self-censoring) your arguments on the grounds of politeness, that's it for intellectual enquiry and progress. People can say something offends them, but they have no right to shut down the person saying offensive things (or drawing offensive cartoons). They don't have to listen.

      That's not to say we need to tolerate hate speech, though. To exhort others to violence or oppression is not reasonable argument, any more than inciting a mob to forcibly overthrow a democratic vote is a legitimate political stance. Trouble is, because of that amplification effect of social media, huge numbers of people don't seem to be able to tell the difference between, say, Charles Murray and Hitler. (And because of that I also have to add that I don't personally share Dr Murray's political views!)