In light of the atrocities in Paris on Friday, I feel myself writing a markedly different article to that which I envisioned. We have heard it said a number of times that the threat of Islamic State is a threat first and foremost to our way of life. Cynically, I dismissed “shared British values” as a diluted phrase thrown around by politicians and interest groups for political gain. To some extent I still believe that. But systematic attacks on innocent people enjoying the diverse culture we are privileged to have in the Western world illustrates to me that this isn’t just about politics; it’s about a conflict of beliefs – values. And whilst we have as little right as IS to assert through violence and war that our values carry weight, boy must we defend them.
The golden value isn’t, as some claim, democracy or even the rule of law – those are ideas many of us don’t even really understand, at least not in the same way as the real golden value: freedom of expression. We are not going to win an intellectual war with IS by destroying homes and taking pride in killing without trial. We are not going to win by spending billions on nuclear weapons most of us can never imagine using. But we can and will win when we appeal to the hearts and minds of those attracted to the cause; and to do that we all have a duty to stand up for this fundamental freedom.
Arguably some have a greater duty than others, and I take no hesitation in claiming that for educational institutions it is certainly the case. Events in recent weeks, at universities ranging from UCL and Manchester to Yale and Missouri, illustrate a grotesque failure to do so. Political correctness is stifling debate, and our educators and leaders have a responsibility to put genuine open debate back on the table. So to the Yale student who claimed “it is not about creating an intellectual space... it’s about creating a home”, I respectfully disagree. To the University of Manchester Students’ Union prioritising a “safe space” over giving a platform to ‘controversial’ speakers, I respectfully disagree. And I am free to do so because of a crucial value that we share and must together protect and encourage. There is absolutely no reason why the safety of home and openness of intellectual space must be held apart. Freedom to offend is just as vital as the freedom to say popular or uncontroversial things. If we can’t appreciate such a notion in a place of learning, if we can’t respect that in the sanctuary of our homes, we cannot win a war of ideals.
And I don’t think that I’m alone. Sadly, France is no stranger to terrorism, and following the Charlie Hebdo tragedy back in January many of us launched a staunch defence of the cartoonists’ right to draw pictures of the Prophet Muhammad. Was it offensive? To some people, one of the most offensive things that could be envisaged. Should they have done it? I happen to think that, on the balance of it, they probably had a moral duty not to. Should their actions have been banned? Absolutely not.
We cannot choose to believe in freedom of expression only when we happen to agree with what is being expressed. Such a mentality underpins the actions of totalitarian regimes. When we as a majority agree on some moral or ethical basis for banning something or silencing someone, we legitimise the abuse of the power we give to those banning or silencing. So we may find it immoral, unethical, rude, crass, or stupid for someone to draw a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, but that is not a sufficient reason for using power to stop their expression.
Now, some will make the case that freedom of expression cannot be held above any institution’s duty to protect; a university’s responsibility to protect its students, a government to defend its citizens. But freedom to offend and freedom to incite violence are not synonymous. The latter necessarily inhibits the freedoms of others, and thus – unlike freedom to offend – is not a part of freedom of expression.
To that end, if people are offended by something so bloody what? That is not a reason to silence the protagonists through the exercise of power. Yet, it is absolutely a reason to ‘silence’ them through intellectual debate; to illustrate their shortcomings, to prove to them that they are wrong, and slowly but surely begin to change their hearts and minds.
So, as we mourn more casualties of the war against Islamic State – not only in Paris but Beirut, Baghdad and many other places around the world – let us remember what we’re actually fighting for: a way of life that isn’t articulated through bombs and bullets, but through words and peaceful actions. That means accepting the good and the bad. It means defending our freedom of expression.