Is the left waging a war on free speech?

Everyone interested in social discussions online has heard of the war on free speech. Famous people who have made these accusations include Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris, Jonathan Chait, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry and Bill Maher.

If I understand the complaints correctly, there is a war on two fronts. The first front is the refusal of some segments of the left to tolerate dissenting views, often on gender, race and religion, or not to accept the views from people outside of the gender, race or religion being discussed. The second front is the overflowing of this intolerance to academia and leftist platforms, with some speakers banned from some campuses, the placing of trigger warnings on some content and the demand for safe spaces.

To get started let me say that I love free speech, as do many people on both sides of this debate. I believe that people must be free to say what they mean and I also believe that others should be free to criticise them.

On the first count of intolerance of views it appears that people who see themselves as progressives are being accused of bigotry an awful lot by other self-identified progressives. Now for a progressive, being called a bigot is the worst thing because as far as they are concerned, they have been fighting bigotry. So how are they the enemy?

I understand that people who consider themselves progressives would find it ridiculous that they should be included with people who hold far right views, but that in itself has nothing to do with free speech. Criticism for views held is something one cannot escape from. And advocates of free speech should be the first to embrace the reality that people strongly disagree with them and will make that known.

It is undeniable that views of people from outside a race, religion, or gender are being increasingly ignored by people of that race, religion or gender on issues affecting them. Once again what appears to some as stifling of speech is people exercising their right to listen to what they will and disregard what they will. The growth of social media has allowed many minorities to connect and get their voices out having previously had to rely on traditional channels which excluded them. Perhaps they have heard more than enough about their issues from others and now want to focus on getting their side out.

I do not believe that one has to be a member of a group or has to have had some experience to be able to speak on an issue affecting them. But to claim that people ignoring your views on them is an attack on free speech is a remarkable misunderstanding of free speech. The right to speak is not the right for others to listen to what you say.

Now to the issue of trigger warnings, safe spaces and speakers being banned from campuses. I have no issue with labels being placed on materials to warn people who may be traumatised by it. There are people with no need for it. That does not mean people who do need it should not be accommodated. Saying trigger warnings should be removed is like saying warnings of flashing lights in movies should be removed because you personally don’t suffer from photosensitive epilepsy.

I think safe spaces and the banning of speakers from campuses are related so I will address them together. I am not a student. I do not know what goes on in American university campuses but it seems to me that they are following a tradition of being idealistic. In years past students demonstrated against wars and now they are demonstrating against people they believe hold hateful views.

The question is therefore not whether students should be protesting (it’s a tradition after all) it is whether the refusal to host certain speakers indicates a fear of ideas and/or is discriminatory to other views in society. Protesting speakers has nothing to do with fearing their ideas. It is simply a political tool meant to bring attention to ones views. There’s nothing strange here.

Now it is true that protesting is discriminatory towards certain views. Society has a lot of people with views considered offensive by some and they also have a right to use a public platform to promote their views. So my view on this is that students can protest and boycott but it should not mean that people with views they disagree with should be banned. Let students play politics as is their right, but the university administration has a duty to allow the freedom of opinions.

In conclusion, I have read several pieces about how the left is being ruined by political correctness. I have seen how people who call themselves progressives join the right in attacking social justice warriors as if it were a bad thing to want social justice.  And the most egregious part is the idea that minorities should not be offended at something because they personally do not find it offensive.

I find it harder to distinguish between right-wing positions and the positions of these progressives on issues relating to minorities.  And I would not write about it if I were not regularly dragged into the conversation by people I know with such views.  I am not bothered when I’m called politically correct or an SJW or a member of the regressive left. But I will be bothered when I’m cheered by those I’m supposedly opposed to.

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