Can Europe Make It?: Feature

Safe speech vs free speech: higher education’s false dilemma

In the ‘cancel culture’ era, universities should remember that the original purpose of free speech was to empower the weak, not to shelter them

Albena Azmanova
26 April 2021, 12.01am
Pericles, supporter of democracy, in front of the Greek Assembly
Wikicommons/ Philipp Folz. Some rights reserved

Universities in the US and the UK have become a battleground in the war between safe speech and free speech. I believe that this is a false dilemma – and understanding its falsity can enable us to detect the social forces imposing it on us.

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” wrote George Orwell in 1945 in an introduction to Animal Farm. The introduction was so controversial that it was not made public until 1972.

In it, Orwell relays how hard it was to get the novel published. Significant sections of the English intelligentsia in the 1940s held Stalin in high regard, so a book that was a thinly veiled attack on the Soviet Union and its dictators was scarcely timely. Four publishers, afraid to expose themselves to public scrutiny, rejected it. One said: “I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”

Intellectual freedom in the West

Orwell’s diagnosis of the malaise in 1945 is worth a fuller quotation, as it is so prescient for today:

There is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can defend democracy only by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who “objectively” endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought.

While the public sphere has always been somewhat hostile to contrarian opinions, there has been one place stubbornly free of this danger – the university. At around the time that Orwell expressed his fears about the loss of intellectual freedom in the West, the American Association of University Professors adopted an important document known as the ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’.

The document said: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. […] The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” In 1970, an addition to the text explicitly stated that controversial speech should not be discouraged: “Controversy is at the heart of […] free academic inquiry.”

Academia has been the bastion of the freedom of thought and speech that first emerged in Ancient Athens, because of the conviction that unconstrained intellectual freedom is the engine of both scientific advancement and societal progress. The university, for more than 2,000 years, has been a place for experimentation – the only place, in fact, where one had the right to be wrong.

In its search for truth, scientific reason has not been weighed down by what Immanuel Kant described as “the scandal of reason” – the propensity of reason to waiver between dogma and uncertainty. On the contrary, the advancement of knowledge has been animated by that very scandal, as I have argued in my exploration of critical judgment.

Importantly, freedom of speech has been a weapon for fighting oppression from two sources: central authority and public opinion. John Stuart Mill famously observed that the chief threat to free speech in democracies was not the state, but the “social tyranny” of one’s fellow citizens. This is what Orwell was alluding to when he decried “the general weakening of the Western liberal tradition”, appalled at ‘how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries”.

Safe speech and safe spaces

The university has consistently been a fortress, sheltering freedom of speech from both prevailing public opinion and the intrusions of political authority. And yet, in a curious shift, over the past decade universities have transformed into spaces for safe speech – as students claim that the university is akin to a home.

College campuses in the US and Europe have experienced major student protests, because some students feel that absolute freedom of speech on campus promotes a hostile environment that harms minority students and hinders their ability to learn.

They have argued, compellingly, that denying hateful or historically ‘privileged’ voices a platform is necessary, so that the marginalised and vulnerable can finally speak up. They demand censorship and prohibitions against giving offence.

As a result, universities have created ‘safe spaces’ in which offensive or disagreeable speech is prohibited and punished. ‘Cancel culture’ and ‘de-platforming’, codifying ‘protected categories’ of students: these are all now part of university life. The ‘equal respect agenda’ is enforced through disciplinary and grievance procedures, and ‘safe space marshals’ patrol events looking for macro- and microaggressions.

Fighting dogma

Is this the end of free speech in the university? I don’t think so. We can resolve the deadlock between safe speech and free speech if we remember the original mission of free speech. It was not meant as a tool of information, but one of liberation; it was conceived as a political weapon – a weapon against the oppression of dogma and the abuse of power.

To quote George Orwell again, freedom of speech is a right to express “what one believes to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail from any side”.

Whenever speech is used to oppress, to bully or to humiliate, it is no longer free speech because it violates the very spirit of the concept

Exactly because the original vocation of free speech is to fight dogma, we should not transform it into a dogma. And to ensure this, we must consistently use it as a tool for fighting oppression. Whenever speech is used to oppress, to bully or to humiliate, it is no longer free speech because it violates the very spirit of the concept.

This means that the grievances of those calling for a ban on offensive speech because it deepens existing injustices are valid. But they are valid because our societies have been subjected to massive precarisation, which has indeed left many feeling homeless. Public authority has responded to the growing social decay with autocratic shortcuts: for example, sending the police into schools or speech marshals into universities.

By admitting the validity of the grievances behind the ‘cancel culture’ , we have made the first step in breaking the deadlock. The second step is to find the right way to respond to these grievances.

Banning speech

The gut reaction is often to censor offensive speech – from banning the use of certain terms as forms of microaggression (for instance, addressing women as “guys”) to banning controversial speakers. But these solutions, though effective in the short-term, incur long-term costs.

When we exclude some views from public debate for being dangerous and unsavoury, then we miss the opportunity to rigorously contest these views. They will, however, thrive in private, safe spaces, and will continue to poison society.

Civil rights law in the U.S. and many European countries prohibits discrimination based on characteristics such as skin colour, religion, national origin, sex, disability, familial status. On this basis, school regulations often codify the protection of certain groups, identified in terms of race, religion, gender and so on. The problem is that, as the number of recognised identity categories proliferates, this apparent increase of cultural diversity does not, in fact, foster a culture of diversity.

Instead, these designated collective identities entrap individuals into boxes of belonging, which deepen divisions in society. Cultural identity becomes a prison – not despite, but because of the effort to allegedly protect that culture. This brings us further from the ultimate goal of the fight against discrimination: that people be judged not by the colour of their skin, or their gender, but (in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.) “by the content of their character”.

Efforts to replace free speech with safe speech open the door to autocratic rule

When sheltered in this way, packed in categories of protected groups, students are infantilised and develop the habit of being patronized. They fail to learn the skills to stand up and defend their positions with solid arguments. Malcolm X was right to say “If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.”

Efforts to replace free speech with safe speech open the door to autocratic rule. There is no limit to what any individual might define as disrespect. Who is to decide what exactly is to be protected? And so, we pass this judgment to administrators and hand them the keys to discretionary power.

And finally, the biggest harm of all: the policing of unwelcome speech eventually generates self-censorship, which nurtures intellectual cowardice. This is the foundation of a totalitarian outlook and the ultimate blow to freedom. I grew up in such a society and, as a university student, fought against this oppression by joining the dissident movement against the dictatorship in my native Bulgaria.

Remember, the enemies of freedom of speech are twin sisters: the bigot who attacks vulnerable minorities and, paradoxically, the militant who tries to protect these minorities.


Is there an alternative? Well, yes. It will help to remember that the original purpose of free speech was to empower the weak, not to shelter them. The university should empower the vulnerable, not protect them via safety measures. Here is what we can do:

First, we can give bigotry a tribune in order to expose it via rigorous questioning. Even though all positions have the right to be heard, not all deserve equal respect. Respect is gained, not granted. We need rules about the conduct of debate, but should never prevent speech that is lawful.

Second, we should abstain from placing people into the rigid boxes of collective identities. We should speak not of identity, but of a sense of self that is multidimensional and constantly changing. That is, we should build a culture of diversity, not diversity of cultures, to draw on Arjun Appadurai’s insightful distinction.

We should build a culture of diversity, not diversity of cultures

Third, and most importantly, we should be equipping students with the knowledge and skills to create the kind of society that does not generate inequalities and exclusion. The kind of society that does not create victims in need of protection. Only then can the university stop being a home, and return to being a laboratory, a place for experiment and learning, not a shelter from a society infested with injustice.

This is a more difficult road to take than imposing prohibitions. But this is the only road that leads away from the covert harassments of self-censure and the overt cruelties of political oppression.

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