Free Speech and Education

A Western professor in Japan has set up a “free speech” zone, and written into his course intro that “free speech” will be maintained, that all students can voice their opinions and views without being called “racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic etc or violating a safe space”.

This is after Dr Jordan Peterson, the canadian academic, had his planned two month fellowship at Cambridge University cancelled. Having controversial thoughts about not using preferred pronouns with transgender people and a dislike for political correctness, he is seem as a problematic figure, one that Cambridge University didn’t want to have around.

I’m not going to beat about the bush – I think that universities (and places of education in general) should not block, cancel or refuse controversial voices. I think it’s a real shame that time and time again right wing and controversial people are prevented from speaking at places that were set up to expand people’s knowledge.

I don’t say this because I agree with these narratives. I don’t say this because I want them to gain momentum.

I say this because if we are to grow as societies then we need to firstly acknowledge that people who think differently to us exist and secondly, listen to them. Really listen to them.

Without listening and understanding people who think differently to us, we hide away in our echo chambers, only interacting with the outside world on Twitter and Reddit, where we yell down anyone who thinks differently.

In the workplace, we become unable to work alongside people because of labels assigned to their stances on things, in friendship circles people fall out because they feel differently and are unwilling to find out why.

Here’s a really great Tedx talk from a feminist to confronted her own bias when she met Men’s’ Rights Activists for a documentary:

Even people who are fighting for good causes (feminism) can have blinders on and refuse to see the experiences of others (men) because they haven’t had the chance to properly listen to what they have to say.

If we block out those who have things to say that we don’t agree with, we run the risk of only having experience with a small selection of society.

So what about free speech?

The case of the teacher in Japan does rattle me. I am for free speech in controlled settings, conversations where people have opted in to discuss things with people who think differently.

But in this case, it’s a white man aggressively dominating a space in which he would like for anything to be said. This is not, I feel, the way to foster proper communication between opposing groups of people. To act in this way makes him look like he has something to hide, like perhaps he does quite often say racist, homophobic, sexist and transphobic things.

Which, in the quest to understand The Other, might be acceptable in the right contexts but being able to say what you want doesn’t protect you from negative responses from other people. What’s more, in an academic setting where students are graded and can fail, there needs to be a huge amount of trust on the person managing these discussions to make sure that things are fair within the discussions and that people aren’t instead rewarded for being controversial.

We do need to encourage young people (and even not so young people) to challenge their mindsets by engaging with people who think differently. Safespaces are needed more and more because the way we deal with people who are different to us is becoming increasingly toxic, and people are being verbally (and sometimes physically) attacked for who they are, how they live and what they think.

I’m interested to know how people out there in reader land get to understand others who think differently to them, and whether there are any ideas as to how we can better promote environments where ideas can be shared freely and challenged safely.

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