We’re now in an environment where there are so many different public spaces where you can express yourself and vocalise dissent.

The problem with the free speech movement

Alice Thwaite

Alice Thwaite on why challenging debates are needed to inspire individual thought

11 October 2018 15:46

I’m still young enough in my career to feel incredibly lucky whenever I receive a speaking invitation. You meet many fantastic people who you wouldn’t otherwise, and you often get intelligent questions which change the shape of your ideas and argument. It feels gushing to say this, but it’s a real honour and a privilege.

So when I received an invitation to the Battle of Ideas to speak on a panel about social media and the public sphere, I was really excited. Mostly I’m asked to speak on issues which are tangentially related to my work, but this is bang on my specialist area. I’ve spent over 2 years working on a social project called the Echo Chamber Club, and a year of that time studying the internet’s effect on the public sphere at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Despite this, I felt wary about the wider curation of the festival. There is a segment on the #MeToo movement that’s nearly all curated by the courageous yet quietly-spoken anti-feminist Ella Whelan. She’s the author of ‘What Women Want: Fun Freedom and an End to Feminism’. It features a debate on the trans movement which includes 4 anti-transgender feminists, and one person who performs in drag. The bias in this debate, and indeed in the whole segment, makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. In an age where Brett Kavanaugh has been successfully nominated as Supreme Court Justice, a man who clearly has complete disregard for sexual assault, I feel the producers and the panellists should be more equally representative of the diverse range of views. I’m more than happy for Ella to have her say, but the bulldozing anti-feminist agenda setting here is wrong.

Often, you’re put on a panel with some people who you disagree with, but this is all part of the fun it. You eye up your opponents, and figure out what they might say and how you would counter it. For my debate, I thought I’d most disagree with Charlie Parker. Charlie started the ‘Free Speech’ society at the LSE and was against safe spaces on campus. I find this view absurd and discriminatory.

Often, you’re put on a panel with some people who you disagree with, but this is all part of the fun it.

So, imagine the sense of injustice I felt when I received an email from the chair saying that Charlie would be given a 10-minute opener, and the rest of the panel would be given 2-3 minutes to respond. He would then respond again, then the panel would open to questions from the audience.

This means that Charlie would get four or five times more room to elaborate his point of view and set the agenda for the debate. I would have to work within his framework and wouldn’t have the opportunity to put forward my own argument about how social media should be designed to create public, private and government spaces. It seems hilariously ironic that someone who was so patently against safe spaces would want to create an environment where he couldn’t be equally challenged.

Encircled by the silence of my work desk my emotions boiled over. I took myself to the lobby and looked comically indignant. I was dressed in all black, pacing from stair to elevator, trying to construct a calm and reasonable argument whilst muttering at different volumes. I was a state.

With the help of a sober friend, I complained. I argued that deliberation should always be equal and symmetric. Free speech is as much about letting everyone have their say, and listening to their views, as it is for your voice to be heard in the arena. This is pretty much accepted by all deliberative academics and scholars.

But not so by the chair of this debate. He said that Charlie was a young researcher who had some very interesting, recent work to relay to us about online democracy. He told me the unequal and asymmetric format would be more dynamic. He said that I should give it a go.

After a couple of emails back and forth, the chair forwarded the exchange to Claire Fox, the organiser of the whole festival. I was feeling confident. I was a huge admirer of Claire and always saw her as one of the good ones. I was sure that she could see the asymmetry in the format and recognise it as being deeply unfair.

It seems hilariously ironic that someone who was so patently against safe spaces would want to create an environment where he couldn’t be equally challenged.

I met Claire in a dingy pub in the old Soviet bloc of East Berlin. It was October 2016 and there was a meet up which was discussing the state of free speech in Germany. It was wonderfully raw and informal; we could hear noise from a movie screening next door and I think one of the speakers turned up with his dog, who patiently sat at his foot whilst he delivered his polemic. I was excited. I’d already messaged Claire to find out if she’d be willing to talk afterwards, and to perhaps mentor me in the future. She had been a lifelong campaigner for freedom of speech, and put on the Battle of Ideas, which had attendees from across the political spectrum debate important topics of the day.

She didn’t disappoint in the flesh. Cool and quick-thinking, she argued that free speech is important because there are [paraphrased] ‘many issues on which I’ve been so certain in the past, and I’ve changed my mind through great debate’. Whilst we subsequently drank Pilsner beer and Riesling wine, she waved a cigarette around and advised that I should come to the Battle in a few weeks’ time. I bought tickets for a flight the next day.

The festival was excellent. I was so impressed with the diversity in both the panels and the audience. School children raised their hands to contribute alongside pensioners. There was an overwhelming medley of accents from all over the UK and an even split of those who had voted to Remain and those who had voted to Leave. Everyone felt comfortable to broach difficult topics and I learned a great deal from the speakers and the audience members.

“How have you managed to get such diversity here?” I asked Claire. “Experience” she answered. “We’ve been building up to this for years.”

So, I trusted Claire a great deal, and truly admired her for all that she’d achieved. Although there are several issues where I disagree with her, I know in her core she values debate and diversity of thought above much else.

It came as a shock, as you can imagine, when she replied to say the biased format would stand.

I trusted Claire a great deal, and truly admired her for all that she’d achieved.

If you’re lucky, there are two options available when you feel like a situation is systemically set up for you to fail. The first is to fight with the cards that you’ve been dealt and do the best you can. I could have chosen to use my 2-minute segment to tell everyone how unfair this debate, this public space, had been designed. This is unattractive though, because it’s emotionally draining and you’re likely to lose. The second option is to change cards, and start playing a new game. So, I take myself off the panel, and write about the inequality elsewhere. This is risky, because you’re likely to anger those who conditioned the original set up.

But this is the beauty of the internet age. We’re now in an environment where there are so many different public spaces where you can express yourself and vocalise dissent. A person is no longer reliant on a small set of establishments which are the gate-keepers setting the public agenda.

I’ve made the decision to refuse to participate in a debate where I’m given 2-3 minutes to articulate my views on social media and the public space, where someone who I ideologically disagree with is given 5 times that much room. Instead of spending a very short amount of time describing why the debate was unfair, I’m able to craft an article which aims to persuade the organisers that, this time, their judgement was wrong. Next festival, please do not have one sided debates in the programme, and particularly not ones where the audience – nor the speakers, really – know they are letting themselves in for an unequal fight.

We’re now in an environment where there are so many different public spaces where you can express yourself and vocalise dissent.

After the festival last year, I grabbed a drink with some speakers, all of whom were much more experienced battlers than I. We discussed how we thought it had gone. “Did anyone feel it’s got a bit ‘libertarian-y’?” asked one. Others nodded in agreement. Ayn Rand had bought a place on one of the main stage panels and all the debates seemed to focus on establishment censorship in one way or another. Although the audience often fought back with interesting and nuanced questions, it was the curation of the programme that felt angry and one-sided.

Ultimately, this is the problem with the freedom of speech movement. It feels that those who are pushing this agenda have exactly the same point of view. We are all aware of arguments against gay marriage, against trans people, against climate change, and against religious minorities. This conservative group doesn’t lack free speech really, it’s just that attitudes are changing and it’s going against them. They feel they are losing their speech, but, actually, they are losing their control.

Most of us do not like an aspect of the new world, and we may want to fight against it. But having slogan’s like ‘free speech allowed’, and then creating an environment which does not allow for equal and inclusive free speech is wrong. Free speech should not be used to justify one-sided agenda setting. It’s too hypocritical.

We’re now in an environment where there are so many different public spaces where you can express yourself and vocalise dissent.