In conversation with Timothy Garton Ash: A blueprint for freer speech

free speechTimothy Garton Ash is no stranger to censorship. On the toilet wall of his Oxford home, there is a Polish censor’s verdict from early 1989 which cut a great chunk of text from an article of his on the bankruptcy of Soviet socialism.

Six months later socialism was indeed bankrupt, although the formative experiences of travelling behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s — seeing friends such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn interrogated and locked up for what they published — never left him.

Now, in Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, the professor of European Studies at Oxford University provides an argument for “why we need more and better free speech” and a blueprint for how we should go about it.

“The future of free speech is a decisive question for how we live together in a mixed up world where conventionally — because of mass migration and the internet — we are all becoming neighbours,” Garton Ash explains to Index on Censorship. “The book reflects a lot of the debates we’ve already been having on the Free Speech Debate website [the precursor to the book] as well as physically in places like India China, Egypt, Burma, Thailand, where I’ve personally gone to take forward these debates.”

Garton Ash began writing the book 10 years ago, shortly after the murder of Theo van Gough and the publication of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. In the second of the 10 principles of free speech — ranked in order of importance — he writes: “We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.” What he calls the “assassin’s veto” — violence or the threat of violence as a response to expression — is, he tells Index, “one of the greatest threats to free speech in our time because it undoubtedly has a very wide chilling effect”.

While the veto may bring to mind the January 2015 killings at Charlie Hebdo, Garton Ash is quick to point out that “while a lot of these threats do come from violent Islamists, they also come from the Italian mafia, Hindu nationalists in India and many other groups”.

Europe, in particular, has “had far too much yielding, or often pre-emptively, to the threat of violence and intimidation”, explains Garton Ash, including the 2014 shutting down of Exhibit B, an art exhibition which featured black performers in chains, after protesters deemed it racist. “My view is that this is extremely worrying and we really have to hold the line,” he adds.

Similarly, in the sixth principle from the book — “one of the most controversial” — Garton Ash states: “We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.”

This principle makes the same point the philosopher Stephen Darwall made between “recognition respect” and “appraisal respect”. “Recognition respect is ‘I unconditionally respect your full dignity, equal human dignity and rights as an individual, as a believer including your right to hold that belief’,” explains Garton Ash. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean I have to give ‘appraisal respect’ to the content of your belief, which I may find to be, with some reason, incoherent nonsense.”

The best and many times only weapon we have against “incoherent nonsense” is knowledge (principle three: We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge). In Garton Ash’s view, there are two worrying developments in the field of knowledge in which taboos result in free speech being edged away.

“On the one hand, the government, with its extremely problematic counter-terror legislation, is trying to impose a prevent duty to disallow even non-violent extremism,” he says. “Non-violent extremists, in my view, include Karl Marx and Jesus Christ; some of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind were non-violent extremists.”

“On the other hand, you have student-led demands of no platforming, safe spaces, trigger warnings and so on,” Garton Ash adds, referring to the rising trend on campuses of shutting down speech deemed offensive. “Universities should be places of maximum free speech because one of the core arguments for free speech is it helps you to seek out the truth.”

The title of the books mentions the “connected world”, or what is also referred to in the text as “cosmopolis”, a global space that is both geographic and virtual. In the ninth principle, “We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers”, Garton Ash aims to protect free expression in this online realm.

“We’ve never been in a world like this before, where if something dreadful happens in Iceland it ends up causing harm in Singapore, or vice-versa,” he says. “With regards to the internet, you have to distinguish online governance from regulation and keep the basic architecture of the internet free, and that means — where possible — net neutrality.”

A book authored by a westerner in an “increasingly post-western” world clearly has its work cut out for it to convince people in non-western or partially-western countries, Garton Ash admits. “What we can’t do and shouldn’t do is what the West tended to do in the 1990s, and say ‘hey world, we’ve worked it out — we have all the answers’ and simply get out the kit of liberal democracy and free speech like something from Ikea,” he says. “If you go in there just preaching and lecturing, immediately the barriers go up and out comes postcolonial resistance.”

“But what we can do — and I try to do in the book — is to move forward a conversation about how it should be, and having looked at their own traditions, you will find people are quite keen to have the conversation because they’re trying to work it out themselves.”

University: A safe place for safe ideas

Students defy the protest ban imposed by the University of London to speak out against the privatisation of university support services. (Photo: Peter Marshall/Demotix)

In February, students defied a protest ban imposed by the University of London to speak out against the privatisation of university support services. (Photo: Peter Marshall/Demotix)

There is a strong attitude across university campuses that censorship is a good tool for the benefit of a multicultural and inclusive society, that respects the values of all its members, freeing them from being exposed to anything they may find “harmful”.

Many students now sign up to policies that promote “safe space” throughout the university campus from the clubs and bars, to the seminar room and lecture theatres. Most of the time these policies go unnoticed and unchallenged as the bureaucrats strengthen their grip over the university and its members, and political activity wains under prevailing conformity and debateophobia.

These policies exist in antithesis to the true purpose of institutions of higher learning – to debate every idea and challenge every prejudice.

The promotion of safe spaces has been the preserve of National Union of Students (NUS) officials and university management for a number of years, seeking to create inclusive and welcoming environment for a growing student body, and attract more students from minority and/or vulnerable backgrounds. Originally the policy specifically dealt with the LGBT community. The US group Advocates for Youth describe safe space as one in which every individual can “relax and be fully self-expressed” free from feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe.

The University of Bristol Students’ Union expresses the policy aptly: “The principle values [adopted from the NUS’ ‘safe space’ policy] are to ensure an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement” (my emphasis); ranging from freedom from physical and criminal activity, to being free from having one’s culture and beliefs questioned.

In the November of last year the LGBT society at the University of Liverpool lodged a complaint against the Islamic Society’s (ISoc) hosting of Cleric Mufti Ismail Menk due to his homophobic views, appealing to the Liverpool Guild of Students safe space policy. Despite the meeting being private and only open the ISoc members, the LGBT believed that the events would impinge on their “freedoms and happiness”, and would rather the Liverpool Guild of Students ban the event than have their lifestyles judged by others.

Even university institutions themselves have codified what free speech should look like on campus. The London School of Economics requires speakers to be screened. Bolton University details topics considered to be outside of the realm of debate, because of their controversial or sensitive nature, from animal experimentation to sexual abuse of children and paedophilia, and, most worryingly, “where the subject matter might be considered to be of a blasphemous nature”.

Given that such august institutions have taken on the narrative of safety first, it is no surprise that this has only strengthened students as censors resolve.

Last month the student union at the University of Derby revealed that it would be continuing its ban on the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in an upcoming debate in the run up to the 22 May European and local council elections. This follows its refusal to allow David Gale, UKIP candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections of 2012, to take part in a Q&A session. This censorship and conformism came under the tired old banner of ‘no platform’, with the SU contending that they had the right to create a space in which students feel safe while studying on campus.

The safety-first mentality also pervades throughout the on-going No More Page 3 and anti-lad culture campaigns that are swarming across campuses in the UK. Painting a regressive view of human beings the campaigns believe that a bad joke, a bit of over zealous flirting and seeing a pair of breasts irredeemably damage women who come into have to look at them and creates an “unrealistic and potentially damaging picture of what women’s bodies look like”.

Unsurprisingly, whether it’s No More Page 3 or the ban of Blurred Lines, any attempt to engage in open and critical discussion of the issues has been met with scorn. Lucy Pedrick, of Sheffield Students’ Union council, believes a “referendum [on the banning of the sale of The Sun newspaper on campus] would not be a fair debate”, keeping the discussions behind closed doors for those who are members of the right forums and councils.

It appears then that today’s students are too vulnerable to be exposed to any robust and challenging discussion. This grows out of a culture that has promoted the idea that every individual is emotionally vulnerable and cannot cope with a growing range of encounters and experiences. It is now believed that we live in a world of unmitigated risks and problems, only waiting around the corner to trip you up again, and our ability to deal with everyday problems seems to have diminished. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, vulnerability has become conceptualised a central component of the human condition and “contemporary culture unwittingly encourages people to feel traumatised and depressed by experiences hitherto regarded as routine”, from unwanted cat-calling to the discussion of dangerous ideas.

It’s a far cry from the tradition out of which the theory of liberal education and the modern university was born. The period of the Enlightenment was led by the rallying call of Immanuel Kant – ‘Sapere aude!’ – dare to know and dare to use your own understanding in the creation and formation of your own opinions. However, this is the reverse of what we are seeing today as debate is closed down and speech is censored on campus all in the name of safety.

If we are to recapture the campus, lead the progress of human knowledge, and create an active and engaged citizenry towards progressive social change, it’s free speech and expression we must engage in.

This article was posted on 25 April 2014 at