Nearly 20 years ago I visited the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam for the first time. The museum highlighted for me both the best and the worst of humanity, and I was visibly moved. Though I have reflected back on many elements of that house and the visit, there was an exhibit at the end of the tour that has continued to emerge in my consciousness on a regular basis over the years….particularly in recent years. The exhibit was the interactive Free2Choose instillation. This instillation was in a small room and around the room film clips were displayed which contained images of conflicting rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. After each short film clip people around the room voted on whether they would allow such things or censor/ban/stop them, and the results were immediately displayed. I was amazed at the range of the diversity of opinion that was expressed. I would look around the room wondering who possibly could have voted differently from me, as I believed freedom of speech trumped almost everything else. I assumed that everyone would believe freedom of speech was an inalienable right, just like me. But, some of the film clips did challenge my “inalienable” stance. Clearly if someone was inciting violence against others, societies need to take a stand. If only life could be so black and white, but our world is made up of shades of grey, contradictions and ambiguities. Indeed, there are limitations to freedom of expression in the UN Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (see Article 10). The ECHR lists such limitations (e.g. national security, territorial integrity, public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals, the protection of the reputation or rights of others, prevention of disclosure of private or confidential information, impartiality of the judiciary). When looking at these acceptable limitations, it’s easy to see why there were such differences of opinion in the Ann Frank Free2Choose instillation. This list is full of competing rights and grey areas.
The reason this instillation has come into my mind so much in recent years is because I am becoming increasingly concerned about the number of areas that seem to be becoming off limits in universities, in academic discourse, or in public debate. So many things seem to cause offence or insult a person’s sense of self, and if this happens then there are calls for limiting freedom of expression, or worse yet, demonising the person who has dared to question or challenge or say something. There are ideas, values and beliefs that have become sacred cows – to question one of these is to cause offence and bring the wrath of an incensed mob. One of the confusing things for me is that often the incensed mob is made up of people who, like me, lean way to the liberal side of things.
The other confusing thing for me is that I am fully aware of the power of language to promote and support injustice and oppression. The words we use are important. And yet, I am concerned that the PC police have become overly zealous and punishing of people who are perceived to have used offensive language or express offensive ideas. Yet, I also don’t want to go back to the days when words like poof, queer, pervert were used in the press or to the days when homophobic rants were rife and acceptable (e.g., during Section 28 debates). At the same time, when words/ideas/beliefs that are offensive to me are expressed today, I don’t think the initial reaction should be a call to silence the person making such comments.
In the university sector we’ve seen things like no platforming, the demonising of academics who do research in or write about controversial issues or challenge current thinking, and the cancelling of controversial speakers – often out of a fear of causing offense. I think this diminishes the world and makes it less safe. It also diminishes the educational experience. Some academics I know have pulled back from researching and writing in certain areas because of the abuse they received by those who were offended by their work. This diminishes the world and makes our knowledge base less robust. I want to live in a society where citizens are not wrapped in cotton wool or shielded from controversial and uncomfortable ideas. Any of our ideas could be seen as offensive and off limits and any one of us could be silenced or punished because of our ideas and beliefs. In my lifetime advocating gay rights has been seen as offensive, dangerous and subversive. I’ve also been required to swear never to join the communist party in order to get a contract of employment. I thought things were getting better, but if we keep going down the road we seem to be on, we could end up back in some Orwellian, McCarthy-like world. That frightens me. Let’s be brave enough to be offended and engage, rather than enrage and shut down.