All posts filed under: Free Speech

Mark Zuckerberg and the Changing Civil Rights Movement

On October 17, 2019, defending Facebook’s generally hands-off policy with respect to regulating the content of political advertisements, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the podium at Georgetown University and delivered an eloquent defense of free expression. In his address, he linked speech to the historic pursuit of justice for the powerless, and made reference to his experience as a student immediately following the invasion of Iraq. This fed his later conviction that open forums for discourse are essential to the advocacy of political causes: Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale. When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus. It taught me that while the world’s attention focuses on major events and institutions, the bigger story is that most progress in our lives comes from regular people having more of a voice. This …

YouTube Censored My Interview With Posie Parker

One of the crucial debates in the modern online space in recent years has been about the limits of permitted speech. While the First Amendment protects the rights of Americans to speak their mind, those of us living in Europe and much of the rest of the world are increasingly subjected to restrictions on what we are and aren’t allowed to say. In 2016, the British police detained and questioned 3,300 people for saying the “wrong” thing on social media. A recent example of this style of policing is the ex-cop who was told by the police that he needed to “check his thinking” after he retweeted an offensive limerick. He has brought a case against the police and has launched a crowdfunder to pay his costs. Traditionally, “hate speech” has been understood to mean words aimed at stirring hatred and violence towards members of various protected groups. But today hate speech means whatever tech giants want it to mean. Earlier this year, Francis Foster and I interviewed transgender TV presenter India Willoughby about life …

‘The Rise of Jordan Peterson’—A Review

Given today’s downward cultural spiral, it’s disturbing but not surprising that the makers of a thoughtful new documentary about Jordan Peterson are having a hard time finding somewhere to show their film. Many mainstream and independent cinemas have refused to screen it because they’re “fearful of controversy” or “morally concerned.” One theater in Toronto cancelled a week-long showing after some of the staff “took issue with it.” A theater in Brooklyn cancelled a second screening, despite the fact that the first sold out and received good reviews, “because some staff were offended . . . and felt uncomfortable.” We were going to join 11 Canadian cities watching #RJPFilm today but we received a last-minute cancellation from the Brooklyn venue because apparently some staff were offended by the content and felt uncomfortable to work at our screening.. https://t.co/nOTpoiGuGg — Patricia Marcoccia (@pmarcoccia) October 6, 2019 Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson! That name, that man, that swirling storm of impassioned controversies—again? After the flood of protests, podcasts, profiles, social media storms, hit pieces, and heartfelt testimonials …

Olga Tokarczuk: Poland’s “Patriots” Struggle To Accept The Nobel Prize

For a few minutes on Thursday afternoon, after Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize in Literature had been announced by the Nobel Committee, Polish public television did not mention her name. Her picture appeared on the screen of TVP Info, the public news channel, along with the headline: “A Pole Awarded the Nobel Prize.” But her name was conspicuously omitted. I had rushed to turn on our TV at the Warsaw editorial offices of Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, to see how public television would handle the news. Previous Polish Nobel Laureates—from Marie Curie to Wisława Szymborska—have been sources of great national pride in Poland. But Tokarczuk is on the Polish Ministry of Culture’s informal “black list,” and it may well be that in the minutes following the announcement of her award, the TVP Info editors simply did not dare mention her name. So, ironically, a writer who has been consistently denounced as unpatriotic by the ruling national-conservative establishment, was simply described as a Pole.  This weekend, a week before the parliamentary elections next Sunday (October 13), the charismatic …

The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

The idea of a sensitivity reader, the newest profession birthed in our politically correct times, instinctively does not sit well with writers. Because writing is not about protecting people’s feelings—it’s about provoking them. And nobody pursues a career in the arts because they like being told what they can and can’t say with their work. So I, like many writers, watched the influence of these “editors” grow with significant consternation. In theory, sensitivity readers simply review looking for anything that might offend the arbitrary sensitivities or transgress the invisible fault lines of the moment. In practice, I saw what looked like hordes of censors with the power to block the publication of Young Adult novels. I even watched as one professional sensitivity reader—a black, gay man—had his own novel sunk for not being sufficiently sensitive to diversity concerns. I shook my head and then, for some reason, I thought, “Well, I’d like to try that.” Earlier this year, between the final passes on my book Stillness is the Key, I told my publisher that I …

My Book Defending Free Speech Has Been Pulled

I recently completed a book defending free speech. Emerald Press scheduled it for publication but then decided not to proceed. Here’s what it said about the book in Emerald’s September 2019 catalogue: In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor Author James R. Flynn, University of Otago, New Zealand Synopsis: The good university is one that teaches students the intellectual skills they need to be intelligently critical—of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians and the media. Freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought, but on university campuses today free speech is restricted for fear of causing offence. In Defense of Free Speech surveys the underlying factors that circumscribe the ideas tolerated in our institutions of learning. James Flynn critically examines the way universities censor their teaching, how student activism tends to censor the opposing side and how academics censor themselves, and suggests that few, if any, universities can truly be seen as ‘good.’ In an age marred by fake news and social and political polarization, In …

How the Trans-Rights Movement Is Turning Philosophers Into Activists

On July 3, I received an innocuous-seeming email from the Digital Content Editor of a London-based arts organization called the Institute for Art and Ideas. She asked if I might set out my views on the question, “How can philosophy change the way we understand the transgender experience and identity?” As the expected response was supposed to be only 200 words in length, the task didn’t seem particularly demanding. So I agreed, and sent along a brief answer in which I focused on the now common assumption that everyone has a “gender identity.” I provided some (necessarily) brief objections to the concept as it is currently being advanced by some trans rights activists, and ended by commenting that philosophers can help people to “understand what a gender identity might be, and whether it’s a fitting characteristic to replace sex in law.” The gender wars in philosophy had been heated since May, igniting with University of Sussex philosopher Kathleen Stock’s Medium post asking why academic philosophers—feminist philosophers, in particular—weren’t contributing to the discussion about Britain’s Gender …

In the U.S. Campus Speech Wars, Palestinian Advocacy Is a Blind Spot

In 2015, a group of undergraduates applied to establish Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as a club at Fordham University in New York City. In accordance with the school’s policies, the students submitted paperwork stating that their goal was to “build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.” The applicants also stated that the club would participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In 2016, Fordham’s Dean of Education denied the club’s application on the grounds that it would likely be polarizing, singling out its support for BDS. The students took Fordham to court. In August, a New York judge struck down the Dean’s decision as “arbitrary and capricious.” The court’s verdict was a win for the Fordham students. But the fact that setting up their club required four years and a lawsuit is telling. As the judge noted, Fordham has clear rules about creating clubs, and they don’t …

A Flawed Defense of Safe Spaces in the New York Times

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth offers a defense of “safe enough” spaces on our college and university campuses. Roth seeks to establish a middle ground between proponents who aspire “to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom” and critics who see safe spaces as “sanctimonious ‘safetyism’—counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile.” So, he asks, “what’s a university to do?” “We should begin,” writes Roth in answer to his own question, “by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.” He provides historic examples of space spaces for employees and managers in post-World War II manufacturing, group therapy in psychiatry, and later feminist and gay liberation community building. None of this was controversial, he suggests. But Roth’s examples are not really on point if the risk of safe spaces perceived by their critics, as Roth puts it, is of  “groups…enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from …

No, Jonathan Haidt is Not Like a Slavery Apologist

Eve Fairbanks, in an essay for the Washington Post, argues that many of the writers on the so-called “reasonable right,” a group that includes such seemingly benign figures as Bari Weiss and Jonathan Haidt, are making many of the same arguments and using much the same language as proslavery advocates in the American South: The reasonable right’s rhetoric is exactly the same as the antebellum rhetoric I’d read so much of. The same exact words. The same exact arguments. Rhetoric, to be precise, in support of the slave-owning South. Fairbanks follows this breathless announcement by acknowledging that she is not accusing anyone of defending slavery, and that includes, weirdly enough, actual antebellum proslavery writers. “Proslavery rhetoricians talked little of slavery itself,” she writes. “Instead, they anointed themselves the defenders of ‘reason,’ free speech and ‘civility.’” This is a bit like smearing someone as a Nazi, then qualifying it with the claim that overt anti-Semitism was really quite atypical of Nazism. In her characterization of proslavery thought, Fairbanks has taken a line that not even the …