A very short blog about privilege.

When I first went to work, my manager warned my colleagues that I was arriving, because I’d disclosed my sexuality in an informal setting that was part of the interview process. They did this in order to make me feel more comfortable because they were worried that the banter in the office might offend me. In doing so, they violated something quite fundamental – my right to disclose my sexuality to whom I choose and ‘come out’ as I see fit. I could have taken them to court immediately and I would have probably won, but this ignores the power dynamic that structured my interaction with this situation. I was a young person from a working class background, it was my first job etc. This power dynamic and my own fear of what would happen if I did or said anything prevented me from seeking justice.

When I was growing up, I thought I would get married and have kids when I was older, and I remember the feeling of devastation I felt when it occurred to me that this wouldn’t happen for me. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I might be able to adopt, and I didn’t imagine that in the future gay people might be allowed to marry and so I experienced a real sense of loss. Then there was coming to terms with who I was – overcoming a sense of self-loathing inculcated by the society I was brought up in. There was the inner pain every time someone made a homophobic remark in front of me, which included members of my own family. There was the experience of coming out and facing the very real possibility that I might lose friends as a result of it & dealing with the people who ran through the corridor at university shouting ‘faggot’ because I was dating the guy next door. Then there’s the more subtle stuff – thinking twice about holding hands or kissing in public, the years of trying to ‘pass’ as straight and the ever-present fear that you might be outed.

My experience above isn’t unusual and irrespective of all the other difficulties you may have faced in your life as a straight person, you don’t experience the above and you so can’t fully understand what it feels like to experience these injustices, aside from empathising with what others experience.

To be privileged is to benefit from a set of institutions, practices, behaviours and unconscious biases. It’s usually experienced as an absence and is therefore easier to see if you don’t have it, than if you do. In many ways, I am privileged because I’m white, middle class and male. This means that I don’t experience systematic injustice as a result of my race, class or gender, but I do experience systematic injustice as a result of my sexuality.

So it’s easier for me than it is for most to understand the absence that I experience as a result of being white, middle class and male. There are all sorts of injustices that I won’t have to experience because of this and it is important that I acknowledge this and try to fight on the side of those trying to make these injustices disappear.

Nobody thinks that freedom of speech should be absolute, but speech deserves special protection on a university campus and must be defended.

If you believe the newspapers and broadcast media, freedom of speech is under threat on our university campuses as never before. On the right, this has taken the form of questioning the so-called “anti-Brexit bias” of university lecturers, and, on the left, free speech has been challenged by students advocating trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect people from harmful speech and from the ‘microaggressions’ of fellow students.

During my time at university, just over a decade ago, this was all very new. The NUS and many university students’ unions had put in place ‘no platform’ policies designed to ensure that he far-right didn’t have a voice on campus, justified because of the violence directed against minorities when the far-right are given the opportunity to air their views. At the time, this was something I fought against, believing it to be a policy designed to prevent the far-right from being openly challenged in a robust debate in a public forum, where they would be unquestionably exposed as the racist demagogues that they are.

My view then was informed by my reading of John Stuart Mill’s classic defence of freedom of speech in On Liberty, where he defends free speech as being essential to our search for truth. His argument is that we can only make progress as a society if there is an opportunity for truth to come into collision with error. If we prevent speech – even in cases where we believe ourselves to be entirely in the right – our own convictions are rendered less secure, because we can only know the basis of our beliefs when they are challenged in debate. Furthermore, to silence the views of others is to assume our own infallibility. Even in cases where we think ourselves entirely right, there might be a grain of truth in what our opponent has to say. Mill therefore concludes by putting his case very boldly:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Mill argues that speech is a particularly important freedom that deserves special protection when speech is being used to argue and debate. This implies that some forms of speech are more important, and therefore deserve more protection, than others. For example, my right to debate a proposition in a university seminar room clearly deserves more protection than my right to shout on the street corner. By contrast, if I were to use my speech to incite an angry mob to commit violence or if I were to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, my speech is at best a nuisance, and, at worst, a cause of direct physical harm to someone else. In cases like this, it seems clear that my right to speak should be restricted.

This helps to explain why the current debate around freedom of speech centres around the university campus, because it is at a university that we might think that speech is most deserving of special protection.

In a recent high-profile case there were calls to ban Germaine Greer from delivering a lecture at Cardiff University. Eventually, the talk did go ahead and – as expected – she defended her view that transsexual women are not women in the bluntest possible terms:

I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock […] You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind […] Being a woman is a bit tricky. If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were 13 there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know. It’s not all cake and jam.

The above statement is clearly offensive to a large number of people; not just to transsexual women, but also to many who don’t share Greer’s view. But it also seems clear that Greer is defending a fairly mainstream view within second-wave feminism that there is something essential about gender that can’t be transformed via an operation. In short, that “biology is destiny,” to quote Freud.

It seems clear to me that offence can be a reason to restrict speech or action. For example, I would not have allowed Nazi sympathisers to march through a predominantly Jewish area of Stokie, Illinois wearing stormtrooper uniforms in 1977. I would also have banned the Westborough Baptist Church from protesting outside the funerals of dead soldiers holding up signs saying “GOD HATES FAGS”.

In the case of Greer, I would take a different view. Whilst her speech was offensive to a large number of people, it was offensive in the same way that the contents of a book or a television programme can be offensive. If I don’t want to be offended, I can simply put down the book or switch off the television. Equally, if I don’t want to hear Greer’s offensive words I can simply go somewhere else. This was not the case in the other two examples above, where the offense was egregious and almost impossible to avoid.

A further case could be made for restricting Greer’s speech on the basis that speech such as Greer’s undermines the basic dignity of transgender women that is essential to their equal status in a liberal democratic society. I’m much more open to this argument, because I do think that the wide preponderance of views that are transphobic could undermine equal status, which is essential for us to engage each other in debate and conversation as moral equals. Having said this, I think that speech like Greer’s is already sufficiently policed by social stigma, and general disapprobation without requiring the university or the state to further constrain her freedom of action.

Freedom of speech is a tricky area of debate precisely because nobody believes that freedom of speech should be absolute or that it is equally deserving of protection in all circumstances. However, the reason why the current debate is so pressing is that most people think that speech that is trying to further knowledge or speech that questions the actions of the government is in need of special protection.

This does not mean that all speech in these categories should always be protected, but it does mean that, in cases such as these, our presumption should be that freedom of speech should be protected unless as very compelling reason can be given for the opposite conclusion. This means that people like Greer should be afforded the opportunity to speak and if we don’t like it, we should go somewhere else.

Weekly News Bulletin

Parliament was prorogued again this week, finally bringing an end to the longest session of parliament since the Civil War. The prorogation will allow Boris Johnson to bring forward a Queen’s Speech that will set out his government’s priorities for the next parliamentary session.

The BBC have a useful article about what a Queen’s Speech is and why it’s important.

Whilst a Brexit deal remains unlikely, there were some positive noises from the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, this week after he met Boris Johnson in Liverpool to discuss a way forward in the Brexit negotiations.

The Times has a useful flowchart detailing what could happen next. [paywall]

UK Politics: Weekly News Round-up

In the news this week…

The European Election campaign we were never supposed to have kicked off in earnest this week, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats publishing their manifestos ahead of the vote next week. There was criticism from some over the crassness of the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan adopted by the Liberal Democrats, but Stephen Bush, writing in the New Statesman, argues that the move is a ‘stroke of genius’.

With polling showing a marked dip in support for the Conservative Party, and with little evident movement in the talks between the Conservatives and Labour, Theresa May is under increasing pressure from the Chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, to name her departure date. She will meet with him, and the rest of the 1922 executive, on Thursday in what promises to be a difficult meeting for the Prime Minister.

This is now officially the longest sitting of parliament since the English Civil War and yet there hasn’t been a division in the House of Commons for over a month, illustrating the extent to which the government is in office but not in power. As Theresa May clings to power, there are a whole host of figures queuing up to replace her. This week’s ‘Brexitcast‘ podcast takes a look at the Tory contenders to replace her.

In global politics…

  • As the trade war between the US and China continues the BBC analyses who is losing out as a result.

And…there are three excellent podcasts this week from the New York Times’ ‘The Daily’ podcast…

  • On the stand-off between the Trump Administration and Congress over the Attorney General’s refusal to publish the Mueller Report in full.
  • On $1 billion of losses revealed by Trump’s tax returns over a decade.
  • On the Trump administration’s stand-off with Iran over their nuclear programme.

Cartoon of the week

UK Politics: Weekly News Round-Up

From The Times (30/04/19)

Labour divisions over Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn won over the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) this week after they agreed the following order of priority when it comes to Brexit:

  • Firstly, get the government to agree to Labour’s alternative Brexit plan
  • Secondly, trigger a General Election
  • Thirdly, fight for a 2nd referendum

This row exposed deep divisions in the Labour Party, with many Labour MPs, led by the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, calling for the party to come out clearly in favour of a second referendum in time to fight in the European elections on Thursday 23rd May. Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester, argues that, by refusing to listen to the overwhelming majority of Labour members, Corbyn has exposed himself as a hypocrite. As Theresa May sets a one week deadline for cross-party talks to reach a conclusion, this may lead things to come to a head early next week.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion gained some ground this week, with a declaration from the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, that there is a ‘climate emergency’. The group also secured a meeting with Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, where they were able to discuss their demands. Writing in The Guardian this week, Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas and Laura Sandys called for a green new deal, echoing voices in the US Democratic Primary, who are also calling for bold policy in this area.

A “constitutional outrage”?

Despite the fact that Theresa May’s legislative agenda has stalled, Number 10 signalled that the government will not be proroguing parliament In order to bring forward a Queen’s Speech. This typically happens yearly, but there hasn’t been one for almost two years as this session of parliament was designed to get all of the Brexit legislation through in one session. Labour MP Chris Bryant described this decision as a “constitutional outrage”, because the Queen’s Speech is designed to ensure that the government has a majority in the House to pass its programme – something Theresa May is keen to avoid! There have only been 5 years since 1900 where there hasn’t been a Queen’s speech, so this is certainly an unusual situation.

Political Podcasts

In Political Thinking this week, Nick Robinson talks to Tony Blair’s former Communications Director and prominent People’s Vote campaigner, Alastair Campbell. Meanwhile, the Times Red Box podcast previews Thursday’s local elections with leading pollsters.