Free speech and the education faculty

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Three days before Australia’s election, a piece was published in The Conversation about a policy of one of the major parties. Oddly, the comments were locked. After contacting the editor, Misha Ketchell, today, the comments have been reopened, but not in time to reflect criticism prior to the election itself. In his response to me, Ketchell suggested that, “Sometimes we close comments on contentious topics if we are unable to spend the time we need moderating those comments.” If an organisation like The Conversation lacks the capacity to moderate comments then the obvious thing to do would be to avoid publishing articles on contentious topics.

In my Twitter timeline, on the other hand, there is an education lecturer complaining about the ‘shaming’ of academics by people disagreeing with them. This lecturer has previously taken aim at renegade professors, suggesting that disrespecting a university’s diverse range of research practices might fall foul of the university’s code of ethics. So presumably, you could not say, ‘qualitative education research sucks’ without being hauled before a disciplinary panel. I doubt this interpretation is correct, but it is interesting that a code of ethics would be deployed in this way.

I take a dim view of such arguments, having been the subject of a complaint to my university about statements I made online. Fortunately, the complaint was dealt with sensibly and dismissed, but it certainly made me pause and reflect.

The fact is that nobody particularly enjoys being disagreed with and everyone likes to think of themselves as one of the good guys. We are tempted to give a pass to the person on our side of the argument who is taking things too far while taking great offense at the inferred tone of someone we disagree with. That’s just human nature. The trouble comes when we are given the power to police the speech of others.

In recent years, it has become akin to outing yourself as fascist to declare in favour of free speech. Indeed, the free speech argument has been used by some pretty hateful people. But as a proud member of Generation X, I still remember that free speech is a progressive cause. Tyrannical regimes control what people can and cannot say. Liberal democracies generally do not, with the exception of a few kinds of speech like incitement to violence. Why? Because liberal democracies recognise human nature and its desire to abuse such controls.

I still remember the day after the 1992 general election in the UK. The polls had convinced everyone that Labour would win. Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, had even held a rally prior to the vote that had the look and feel of a victory celebration. And yet, on that bright, cold day in April, Conservative John Major took the victory. He was the unglamorous grey man who visited every town centre and stood on his soapbox to give a speech. It worked.

The pollsters were puzzled. Voters must have been lying to them. These voters were dubbed ‘shy tories’ because they would tell others they were voting Labour, but in the privacy of the polling booth, they voted Conservative.

When you ban views either overtly, through laws, regulation and codes, or by making them unacceptable in genteel society, you don’t make those views go away. People still hold them, it’s just that you don’t know that they hold them and so you cannot challenge them. This does not matter so much if you live in a totalitarian regime with an iron grip on power, but in a democracy that has regular elections, it’s useful to know what people think.

When you label the UK’s Leave voters as racists, you make them less inclined to declare themselves at polite dinner parties or to pollsters, but don’t be surprised when they turn out in large numbers to vote for The Brexit Party.

We have been reminded of this again in Australia this weekend. The pollsters got it wrong and so did much of the media. Without missing a beat, on the day before the election people were marking the passing of Bob Hawke by declaring that it was a shame he would not be around to see a Labor election win. It was a given. Ignoring the lessons of history, we all knew what would happen. But we were wrong. The Coalition won. The media had been listening to itself again, giving us the middle-class view of reality.

Just like every other area of public policy, education needs its debates. If I am wrong about something then demonstrate that I am wrong. I may never quite accept you have succeeded – that takes a pretty big person – but others who may be inclined to think like me may shift position as you expose the hollowness of my claims.

By trying to silence, you put as all in the deep freeze, with no possibility of progress and nobody any the wiser.


2 thoughts on “Free speech and the education faculty

  1. I wondered how you would react to the election outcome.
    This was a really well laid out argument and I do think you are at your best when you employee this style.

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