‘Hate speech’ or ‘free speech’? A plea for open, respectful debate on campus

Photo credit: Sam Graham/Flickr (www.thecollegefix.com/post/25086/)

Having lived my whole life in safe, open, democratic societies, I’m profoundly grateful for democracy. I find myself in thorough agreement with the comment attributed to Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” But democracy doesn’t always get it right, nor is it guaranteed to produce the best and fairest outcome. After all, two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner is democracy. Sometimes ‘the wisdom of the people’ proves to be anything but wise.

That mini-rant about democracy was inspired by a referendum that’s just been conducted by the Auckland University Students’ Association. Very sadly, students have voted in favour of demanding that the AUSA disaffiliate ProLife Auckland.[1] This is a group that describes itself as “a voluntary, student-run organisation that aims to raise awareness of abortion and its surrounding issues at the University of Auckland, through:
– promoting discussion on the issue of abortion
– informing students of the effects of abortion
– advocating for the unborn, and for women who are experiencing an unplanned pregnancy or are suffering after an abortion
– promoting our vision for a world where all human life is respected and no woman must choose abortion”.

Horrific stuff, obviously. Get rid of them quickly and give me my safe space! I mean, how could university students be expected to hear ideas with which they might disagree?! It’s about time such intolerant hate speech was stamped out.

Seriously, though, I did find a few online comments (and I know, reading online comments was my first mistake) that described the pro-life position as “hate speech against women” – and I admit that I couldn’t help but wonder whether that includes the unborn women they’re hoping to save from abortion. Also, I was disturbed to learn that apparently you’re not allowed to be pro-life unless you have a uterus. But slightly condescending (yet true) comments aside, accusing ProLife Auckland of ‘hate speech’ would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It’s a sad day for free speech, and a victory for people who clearly have only the most shallow understanding of what genuinely constitutes ‘hate speech’.

Before the results were announced, ProLife Auckland called the push for disaffiliation ‘an affront on free speech’. “Just because the club is still able to meet in limited ways, does not mean its voice is not being suppressed,” the club said. “Students must hear all sides on vitally important issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Make no mistake, this is unequivocally about censoring voices based on ideology.”

In articles and online discussion, those arguing in favour of disaffiliation basically took the line: ‘If a majority of students disagree with or dislike the stance taken by a particular club, then why should the AUSA agree to affiliate them?’ The implied answer to that line of thought seems to be: ‘exactly!’. But I hope people see a very different implied answer: “Why should you still affiliate them? Because the majority should not seek to control the minority’s ability to freely and openly present their views. The majority should value the free and open exchange of ideas a little more than that.” I mean, where would same-sex marriage be if, as recently a decade ago, the majority of people who opposed it in almost all countries (including figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) had silenced the minority view? People’s views change over time because the minority is allowed to freely argue their point. Sometimes the minority persuades enough people for their view to become the majority view; sometimes they don’t.

Another worrying aspect of all this is found in the specific wording of the referendum question, which instructs the AUSA to “ban any clubs with similar ideology from affiliating in the future” (emphasis added). Robyn Drake, a colleague with TSCF in Auckland, told me, “we’ve yet to hear how AUSA will interpret and apply that”. Not that I have any inside information here, and I don’t want to be alarmist, but it’s not much of a stretch to think that the notion of ‘similar ideology’ could be used to apply restrictions on religious (not just Christian) clubs like those run under the TSCF banner.

The AUSA promises that the practical effects of the decision will be minimal. ProLife Auckland will still be allowed a stall at orientation and access to university space. They can distribute information on campus and apply for funding. But the decision is still highly significant. It certainly doesn’t mean nothing. As Robyn told me: “I think it’s a case of gradual creep, where it doesn’t have much impact now or even next year, but over time will impact more and more on what access such clubs have to the campus and to funding.” It certainly seems like the ball has started rolling down a fairly slippery slope.

In terms of deeper analysis, I don’t have anything particularly new to add. If you’ve paid any attention at all, you’ll already know how this fits into the trend that’s been developing on university campuses (and in society generally) where voices that differ from the new orthodoxy are labeled ‘intolerant’ and then (highly ironically) silenced. But even though it’s not new, it’s still worth drawing attention to just how foolish and worrying this is.

Universities should be places where big ideas are discussed, where crucial ethical issues are debated, where the meaning of life is debated, where people of opposing viewpoints can stand toe-to-toe in the marketplace of ideas and argue their point of view openly, clearly and respectfully. Universities should be places where both sides of an argument want the truth to win out (and where both sides actually believe there’s such a thing as truth), and where both sides are less worried about having their feelings hurt and more worried about maintaining free speech. And at the end of a serious but respectful debate, you thank God (or the university, or yourself – depending on your perspective) for the freedom for both sides to argue their point. “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” and all that.

What scares me most about so many people on the ascendant Left is not how passionately they hold their views, or the inconsistencies within their worldview, or even how antithetical so many of their views are to biblical Christianity. It’s how unwilling they are to listen, how scared they are of dissenting views, how quickly they play the man rather than the ball (while claiming the moral high ground), how they can’t grasp the idea that people disagree with them for reasons other than “I am a [whatever]-phobe who hates you and/or finds you disgusting and scary”.

Anyway, that’s starting to sound like the cultural analysis I promised I didn’t have. So instead, a modest proposal: Maybe it’s a good time for clubs like TSCF’s to put their heads together with other clubs on their campuses and write to executive committee members of their students’ associations. Gather other Christian clubs – and perhaps even gather clubs representing other religions, or any clubs that see the big issues at stake here. Write a joint letter asking the leaders of your SA to assure you that they believe in freedom of speech and the open, respectful exchange of ideas on campus. Ask them to assure you, and all students and staff, that they’re committed to upholding the rights of clubs with whom they personally agree and the clubs with whom they personally disagree equally. While you’re at it, assure them that – while you intend to keep arguing your own point of view unashamedly – you’ll do it respectfully, and you’ll vigorously defend the right of others to argue their points of view, even when those views differ from your own.

Barack Obama said: “You don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat them. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.” He’s absolutely right. Argue your point; don’t silence or disaffiliate your enemy. It seems to me that our commitment to free speech increases the more we’re committed to two other ideas: a willingness to listen respectfully and carefully to others, and to speak respectfully and carefully ourselves; and a belief that The Truth will win the day – and maybe even set people free.


[1] Actually, just over 10% of eligible voters voted to disaffiliate ProLife (1609 out of about 15,000 members; 1038  students voted no).


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