Free speech and the culture wars. It’s Fox to the rescue.

23 Mar

Lockdown has been a miserable time for everyone, but dare I say what’s made a lot of people feel even worse is the ongoing culture wars. There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without someone being “cancelled”, from Piers Morgan leaving to GMB for questioning Meghan Markle’s account of her time in the Royal Family, to Davina McCall being attacked for defending men, to, yes, the demise of Mr Potato Head. The silent majority has been wanting some leadership here.

Enter Liam Fox. Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, he delivered a brave and much-needed address at the Adam Smith Institute titled The Perpetual Battle for Free Speech. It covered an enormous amount of ground, from setting out the historical and current importance of free speech, to criticising Scotland’s Hate Speech Bill, to Fox confessing his guilt at not defending Jo Brand, who came under fire for a politically incorrect joke. I recommend readers watch it below:

Why did this matter? For lots of people, Fox’s speech will be reassuring as a measure that the Government is paying attention to the culture wars. In recent times, MPs haven’t seemed exactly enthusiastic to get involved. Take Boris Johnson, for instance, who Sam Coates from Sky News asked earlier in the year “is Joe Biden woke?” Yes, it was an awkward question. Yes the PM didn’t want to insult the President of the United States. But his response – “I can’t comment on that” paired with a pained facial expression – emphasised a general tendency to tiptoe around the culture wars/ free speech debate/ whatever we are calling it now.

Part of the reason MPs don’t want to get involved in these matters is, of course, the pandemic. Who wants to defend Piers Morgan when they are sleep deprived or have thousands of emails about Covid-19 restrictions? But it’s also a tricky area to navigate and easy to get “cancelled”. As Fox said in his speech: “The first question that anyone today might ask is ‘Why would any politician in their right mind voluntarily enter into the minefield that is the Free Speech debate’.”

It increasingly seems to me that MPs don’t have much choice in the matter, unless they want to stop watching TV, reading papers and basically tune out of the news. We seem to be going through what I call the “Twitterfication” of society, meaning that any idea and sentiment that looks “popular” on social media now moves into the real world, in a way that’s incredibly out of sync with what most people want (as I have previously written about here).

Conservatives have some good ideas for dealing with the culture wars, and some tough fighters (Liz Truss’s speech about the Fight for Fairness, for instance). One of the most interesting ideas for defending free speech comes from the Department of Education, which set out rules for universities to follow on this topic, and has essentially used funding as a bargaining tool in the matter (“if you don’t protect free speech you will not get it”, is the plan).

These are important steps, but we need MPs to share opinions too. Ultimately we’re in a battle of ideas, and the Government needs to talk more than it does legislate. Although crucially, Fox points out that this battle is “everybody’s business. Whether it is online abuse, the bullying mob of the intolerant, the cancel culture, no platforming or unwarranted government intervention, it is up to us all to speak out in defence of those at the receiving end, whether we find the prospect comfortable or not.”

Often the culture wars are framed as a “Conservative” issue; that Tories want one, and so forth, a thesis that seems completely unsupported by how few want to get involved. The truth is that these matters transcend party lines, and require everyone across the political spectrum, MP or otherwise, to stand up for a tolerant society where people can share and debate their worldviews. Furthermore, we cannot allow people who try to “cancel” others or close down debate describe themselves as “liberals”. It is simply not true.

Either way, Fox’s intervention was a great step forward. It brought me back to my time studying social psychology, where I learnt about how people can challenge “the crowd” (ours now on social media). Most of it simply comes down to one person speaking up, and then others follow. Let’s hope Fox’s speech gives many people the impetus to get loud.

Iain Dale: Biden seems to forget his Defense Secretary’s name, and the media says nothing. Imagine if it had happened to Trump.

12 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Poor Piers Morgan. Said no one ever. A narrative has grown over the last few days that he has been “cancelled” by ITV. He has fuelled that by alleging that he has been sacrificed on the altar of free speech.

Sometimes being a professional controversialist can come back to bite you on the backside. Personally, I am very sorry he has left Good Morning Britain. In the five years that he has been presenting on it, its audience ratings have been lifted out of the doldrums to a point where the show could have potentially outgunned BBC Breakfast. That is in large part, but not exclusively, down to Morgan.

Even people who can’t stand him found themselves tuning in to rubberneck some of his poor interview victims. It was often compulsive viewing, even if at time it seemed to be too much about him, rather than the people he was talking to.

He was the cock of the walk who ruled the roost. His fellow presenters knew their roles and were happy to play them. Susanna Reid had a lot to put up with but she was brilliant in playing the yin to his yang. She became mistress of the well placed eye-roll.

So what happens now to both Morgan and GMB? Morgan will come up smelling of roses. He always does. He’s already being courted by Andrew Neil and GB News. It wouldn’t surprise me if he re-emerged on the new News UK channel. He’s know to be close to Rebekah Brooks. They’ve already signed by Lord Sugar, if rumours are to be believed. A show with both of them on it would be a surefire ratings hit.

As for GMB, it’s got a big decision to make. Do producers seek to replace like with like and recruit a Morgan sound-a-like or do they go the more conventional route? It’s a big decision to make and will define the show for the next few years.

– – – – – – – – –

It is profoundly shocking that a serving Metropolitan Police officer should have been arrested in connection to the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard.

Cressida Dick looked crestfallen in her live news conference on Wednesday evening. I was in the middle of presenting Cross Question, and members of my panel found it difficult to maintain their composure. City AM’s Andy Silvester was close to tears. So was I.

The conversation about women’s safety is rightly continuing to dominate the news. While no one should run away with the idea that all men are misogynist women-hating bastards, it’s clear that a lot needs to be done to educate men on how not to spook women who are quite innocently walking along a dark street late at night.

Apparently the police have been knocking on doors around the streets where Sarah lived in South London and asking women to stay in and be more careful. While I understand the motive for doing that, their time might be better spent talking to men and asking them to think about ways they can help women feel safer. For example, if you’re walking down a street behind a woman late at night, just cross to the other side.

I took a call on my show from a mother who had been attacked in the woods by a man and the first thing she was asked by the police was “what did you do to provoke him?” The man was spoken to but unbelievably wasn’t charged. A few weeks later he committed a very serious offence against a woman and was sent to jail.

It is hardly surprising that so few women come forward to report incidents of sexual harassment or assaults if they don’t feel they will be taken seriously, or will be blamed by the police. That’s where attitudinal changes really need to be encouraged. And enforced.

– – – – – – – – –

This week Joe Biden appeared to experience a “senior moment” at the White House when he forgot the name of his Defense Secretary.

It was excruciating to watch. I covered it on my radio show but I hardly saw a mention of it elsewhere.

Imagine if it had happened to Donald Trump. Imagine the acres of newsprint that would be devoted to it. Imagine the US talks shows. They would have talked of nothing else. Imagine if Donald Trump hadn’t held a news conference for 40 days. Biden hasn’t seen fit to call a single one, I’m told.

And this is where people understandably lose patience with the media. They don’t like double standards. Biden is getting a free ride from the US media in a way that Trump never did. Nor should he have.

– – – – – – – – –

The Premier League has written to clubs, managers and players asking how VAR could be improved for next season. It’s very simple. Abolish it. It’s ruining people’s enjoyment of football. It really is as simple as that.

Andrew Tettenborn: Protecting free speech at universities. The Government’s proposals are a start, but don’t go far enough.

5 Mar

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a writer.

Politics is a bit like big game hunting. If you have a beast you want to bring down, as often as not you only get one shot at it before events move on. This is exactly the case with free speech in universities. The Government has commendably committed to legal reforms to ensure that students, student societies and professors have the right (and also the practical ability, which is not quite the same thing) to say what they like within the law. They must now get it right.

The present duty to respect free speech within the law, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 to deal with student mobs preventing (normally Tory) MPs from speaking, sounds good. University administrators can (and do) sanctimoniously trumpet their support for it; so also do bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its advice to colleges.

But it doesn’t actually work very well. Universities still regularly maintain blanket bans on speech that is sexist, racist, homophobic or whatever. Take a lecturer hauled before management for liking a Tweet, signing a letter or making a statement on social media. It’s often discreetly made clear that if they don’t tone down their comments they won’t be promoted and may be first in the queue for redundancy, and there’s not much they can do.

If a student society is denied a platform or booking (or registration with the SU), the prospect of being told that it can, at vast expense, seek an injunction or a judicial review is hardly very comforting, or very effective at making sure it is actually able to make itself heard. Again, if a class of students is threatened that what they say on Facebook may lead to disciplinary proceedings if it causes outrage to an interest group, they are most likely to hunker down. And so on. Things aren’t right.

The Government plans to do four things. It will extend the duty to respect free speech to cover student unions (which control many facilities available to students) as well as universities. It will make universities’ registration and entitlement to registration conditional on such respect and allow support to be withdrawn if it is not present. It intends to ensure that all academics’ contracts protect their right to engage in free speech within the institution without fear for their employment and promotion prospects; and it will give a legal right to students and academics to sue for damages if their right to free speech is wrongly curtailed.

This is several steps in the right direction. The prospect of liability in damages and loss of government support has a wholesome ability to scare university bigwigs, with their inflated salaries and their view of themselves as captains of industry and the institutions they run as profit centres. And the strengthening of academics’ contractual free speech rights within the institution can only be an advance, especially for younger teachers faced with overbearing administrators (sorry: line managers) threatening disciplinary proceedings.

But these proposals probably don’t go far enough. The Free Speech Union has been concerned with this issue ever since its foundation, and has considerable experience in dealing with such problems on the ground. And while as an organisation it has not stated any formal position on these plans, informal soundings among a number of people connected with it have shown widespread agreement that at least three further things remain to be done.

First, internal free speech is all very good; but we need for a degree of protection for academics’ lawful extramural political speech as well. Except where their pronouncements can be proved directly and substantially to damage a university’s interests over and above its general desire to protect its reputation, institutions should be forbidden to interfere with what they say in a private capacity. If complaints are made to a university by third parties about what one of its academics has said (an increasingly common way of silencing people these days), it should at the very least be under an obligation to stand back and decline to get involved.

Second, any protection for free speech is apt to be undermined by an insidious provision in the Equality Act 2010 (s.26, since you asked), outlawing any conduct seen as violating any other worker’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It needs to be made clear that in so far as speech is protected as free speech, this provision does not apply. A university must not be allowed to take away with one hand what it has given with the other.

Third, we must not forget students. They need specific protection for their lawful political speech, both within and outside the university. Even where posts on social media cause controversy or prove offensive to other students, they should not be able to be made the subject of disciplinary proceedings under speech codes or other regulations.

One more thing. To cement the protection of free speech and deal with the problem of selective “no-platforming”, in my view there is a need for yet a further provision. Universities and student unions, in so far as they make rooms and other facilities available to student bodies for meetings and talks, must be specifically required not to discriminate on the basis of the views held by such bodies or likely to be expressed at the event, unless they can show that such views are actually unlawful.

In other words, if an institution chooses not to allow political meetings at all on its premises, that is fine: as a private, albeit charitable, organisation that is its prerogative. But if it chooses to permit them, it should not be permitted to be selective in the views it allows to be expressed.

As we said earlier, the Government has a wonderful opportunity to preserve freedom on university campuses. But it’s one that, given the ways of politics, may not present itself again for some time. Gavin Williamson can’t afford another reform that goes off at half-cock. We must do things properly this time.

Caroline Ffiske: How non-crime hate incidents came into force. And why they should be reformed – or scrapped altogether.

18 Feb

Caroline Ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government and Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Sir William Macpherson, who led the damning report into the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, has died, aged 94. Tributes have poured in for his groundbreaking work in naming and tackling institutional racism.

However, his legacy is mixed. For it was the Macpherson report which introduced into policing, the concept of the ‘non-crime hate incident’ which has become so controversial today.

Introduced with the best of intentions, it has grown and morphed beyond reason – more so than Macpherson could surely have imagined. How can we now freely debate important and controversial political issues, when to do so might land us with a police record accusing us of hate?

The question is of growing importance. Conservative MPs are taking an increasing interest in free speech – and Priti Patel is reported to be considering an overhaul of hate crime law.

Action would be complicated. There isn’t a single piece of hate crime law that, with a tweak or two, would restore us to a Miltonian lost paradise of free speech. But the non-crime hate incident is part of the mix ,and needs reform. Before exploring options, it’s useful and timely to revisit its origin and evolution; and also to carefully consider whether and how it harms.

The origin of the non-crime hate incident

The widely publicised Harry Miller case in 2019 helped to bring the non-crime hate incident to public attention – and gave the police a jolt.

Miller received a call from the police and was told to ‘check his thinking’ – and so learned that participating in online debate about the meaning of sex and gender had earned him a police record accusing him of hate.

When he took the matter to court, the judge agreed that the behaviour of Humberside Police, in their visit to and warning of Miller, had breached the boundaries of the reasonable. Their actions were criticised as being akin to those of the Cheka, the Stasi, and the Gestapo.

However, the judge also concluded that it was perfectly correct for the police to maintain a record of Miller’s tweets. In doing so, they were following the College of Policing Hate Crime Guidance which originated in the Macpherson Report.

This introduced key components of the non-crime hate incident; the most significant being the validity of individual perception. A ‘racist incident’ should be defined as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. That was in 1999.

Concept creep

The College of Policing’s current Hate Crime Guidance can be found here; and the definition of non-crime hate incidents here.

As inspired by Macpherson, this says that all reported incidents must be recorded. There is a reminder of their supposed seriousness; they “should not be dismissed as unimportant; they can cause extreme distress to victims and communities”. After all, they might be “the precursor to more serious or escalating criminal offending”. This reminds us of Macpherson’s original serious intent.

But, twenty years on, nothing seems too trivial to count as a hate incident. It’s anything that anyone perceives to have been “motivated wholly or partially by hostility…the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief”. Indeed, police officers “should not directly challenge this perception…police officers may also identify a non-crime hate incident, even where the victim or others do not”. Indeed, “victims … may not be aware that they are a victim of a non-crime hate incident, even though this is clear to others”. Hostility? This from the Met: ‘evidence of the hate element is not a requirement.’

Macpherson intended the concept to tackle racism. But more ‘monitored strands’ have since been added: disability, religion, sexual orientation, and, most recently, transgender, in 2015. However, these don’t limit the concept: “non-crime hate incidents are also committed against victims who are targeted because of a non-monitored personal characteristic”.

The non-crime hate incident has become a concept without meaningful boundary – no wonder the police record people’s tweets.

The police keep notes; how is that a problem?

Firstly, the scale of the issue is not insignificant. In January last year, it was reported that police forces in England and Wales had recorded 120,000 non-crime hate incidents over the last five years.

People aren’t told when they’ve been accused of a hate incident now on police record. And there is an issue over how police handle these records.

In the Crime Report relating to Miller’s tweets, Humberside Police stated that “the suspect” was “posting transphobic comments on Twitter” and “showing hatred for the transgender community”.

This was a slur. Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who co-founded WeAreFairCop with Miller, discovered that her local police force has records describing her as ‘a barrister who has been posting hate about Jewish and transgender people‘.

Regarding her comments about Jewish people, they noted that there is nothing ‘overtly offensive’ about them, but nevertheless claimed that she had been ‘posting hate’.

Again, this was a slur. But when Phillimore asked the Wiltshire police to delete the record, they wouldn’t – and here seems to be no mechanism for review. College of Policing Guidance also indicates that records could be shared with future employers via DBS checks.

You may feel sympathy for the police as they battle the intersections of ‘culture wars’, ‘vexatious reporting’, and guidance which requires them to record trivial matters. They must, at least, minimally comply.

But here is a video from the Wiltshire Police touting for trade ‘if you experience any kind of hate crime or incident then please call us on 101 or report it online’.

More generally, the non-crime hate incident now feeds into a police culture too focused on accusing us of offence. It’s one of the building blocks, which, taken together, resulted in the police investigating Darren Grimes for a media interview with David Starkey, and arresting Kate Scottow at her home and holding her in custody for eleven hours, because of some offensive tweets.

In February 2019, Boris Johnson said of Scottow’s case: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of this internet feud, we are wasting too much time and resource on cases like this’.   Macpherson intended the concept to help drive community cohesion; I would argue that the non-crime hate incident has grown into a tool that can be used vexatiously to drive us apart.

Options for reform

The obvious route is a Law Commission Review. But the Commission is already mid-way through such a process – and it’s not boding well for free speech.

It’s more of the same: the Commission proposes to expand the reach of hate crime law, not limit it. It has proposed a new category of communication offence.  Here is a telling extract: “The offence does not require proof that anyone was actually harmed”.

No, the Government must take charge. Racism and discrimination must be taken seriously; so too, must free speech and open debate – and the pursuit of violent crime. None of these benefit from police focus on the inconsequential.

Here are some suggestions for reform:

  • The emotive concept of ‘hate’ is not helpful – would ‘discrimination’ be better?
  • Some degree of significance is needed.
  • If someone is accused of a non-crime hate incident, they should be informed.
  • There should be a mechanism for challenge.
  • Records should use non-emotive language; they should not slur people.
  • The police should not tout for trade.
  • Non-crime hate incidents should not be disclosed in DBS searches.

Alternatively, the government could grasp the bull by the horns; in the spirit of Macpherson, be bold. Twenty years on, the Conservatives could go full circle – and simply do away with the concept of Hate Crime altogether.

Protecting free speech. University legislation will help. But ministers need to speak out more.

16 Feb

Today the Government will unveil bold legislation to promote free speech at universities.

It includes proposals for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion, who will highlight the importance of free speech and investigate when it’s been infringed in higher education, fines for universities that fail to uphold free speech, and the widening and enhancement of academic freedom protections at English institutions.

This is an important step in protecting free speech at universities – places that have arguably become more famous for censorship than student curiosity in recent years. Take last year when Oxford University cancelled Amber Rudd for an event (as part of a “Trailblazer Series for International Women’s Day). That the former home secretary could be “no platformed” was a wake-up call to say the least.

Furthermore, research suggests that the current climate is having an impact on students’ learning experience. Last year Policy Exchange found in its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, that only four in 10 leave-supporting students felt comfortable to discuss their Brexiteer beliefs in class (versus nine out of ten for Remain-voting students), along with other examples of people being “stifled by a politically-homogeneous culture”.

The Department of Education has said it wants to stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses; in short, its proposal is designed to ensure every student and academic, from Marxists to Brexiteers to otherwise, has an actual “safe space” to discuss their politics.

It is not the first time the DfE has tried to protect free speech at universities; in July 2020, Gavin Williamson warned “if universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, and brought out a policy that required English universities to tackle censorship in order to receive a Government bailout (to help with the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic).

Will the latest legislation do the trick? It should be said, first of all, how terrible it is that we’ve got to the point where institutions need reminding of the importance of free speech, which is central to learning. It does not bode well that the next generation of civil servants, lawyers, doctors and everyone else spends three years in institutions that have normalised groupthink and fear of Amber Rudd.

But here we are – and the legislation should, in theory, stop the problem getting any more out of hand – giving new protections to academics over their right to free speech. Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure the legislation does not become a form of cancel culture in itself – inhibiting university’s decision-making abilities – and it must be carefully applied.

It’s worth looking at how the free speech legislation fits into a wider context, too, in the Government’s unofficial “war on woke”. Although Boris Johnson has been keen to stick out of the culture wars – when he was recently asked if Joe Biden was woke, he looked like he wanted to run a hundred miles away – Munira Mirza, Director of 10’s Policy Unit, is highly engaged on these issues, and we have started to see some powerful rebuttals in the culture wars.

Take Liz Truss, who recently attacked “identity politics”, in her recent “Fight for Fairness” speech, and writing for The Mail on Sunday, warned of people “behind pernicious woke culture (who) see everything in terms of societal power structures”. Kemi Badenoch, too, has been incredibly brave – warning of the dangers of Critical Race Theory and its reductive assumptions about people.

This may seem far away from the university debacle, but it shows that the Government is taking the culture wars seriously – and has tools up its sleeve to combat some of the most illiberal ideas in our society masquerading as social justice. Many voters have been delighted to see a fightback – Badenoch won our speech of the year, and Truss was not so far behind, in a sign of how much this matters to Conservative voters.

Even so, the Government must go even further in defending free speech and the Enlightenment values. A lot of the culture wars cannot be “legislated out of”, but are about stating one’s position over and over again – to make others feel safe to do so also.

Indeed, part of the reason we have seen cancel culture accelerate is because people have become scared to stand up to proposals they do not like. Recently, for instance, a Brighton hospital told its midwives to call “breastfeeding” “chestfeeding”, and I counted one Conservative speak out about it. And so the radical agenda continues, without an opposition. Yes the university legislation will help, but we need more voices too.

Andrew Lewer: It’s time to turn the taxpayer funding of left-wing student union campaigning

20 Jan

Andrew Lewer is MP for Northampton South.  He is founder and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Independent Education,

Together with twenty other Conservative Members of Parliament I have written to the Prime Minister urging him to tackle the problem of student union political activism. While successive Conservative Governments have tackled the problems posed by trade union radicalism, student union leftist activism has been left relatively untouched.

Student unions are now at the forefront of the so-called culture wars, pursuing a narrow ‘social justice’ political agenda focused on tackling alleged ‘structural oppression’ in society.

Moreover, they seek to limit free speech on campus, variously by blocking the sale of certain publications, barring speakers or seeking to approve their speeches in advance, blocking the formation of free speech societies, preventing certain groups from participating in freshers’ fairs, and imposing excessive red tape to make it difficult to invite speakers of whom they disapprove.

Reform of student unions is central to implementing the Conservative Manifesto commitment to strengthen free speech in universities. Why this matters so much was underlined in a superb speech from David Davis on the crucial nature of free speech in universities in a Ten Minute Rule Bill earlier this week, citing Voltaire and the Bill of Rights.

Students themselves are alienated from student unions. Research shows that only around ten per cent of students vote in student union elections, with less than three per cent of students electing delegates to the National Union of Students (NUS), demonstrating the unrepresentative nature of that left-wing activist body. Judging by its social media activity, NUS’s main current focus is ‘decolonising the curriculum’.

Of course, in some cases a higher turnout is achieved. For example a truly magnificent four per cent of students participated in last November’s election of NUS delegates at Cambridge University. It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of students have no interest in either the NUS or activist/political student unions, and resent being bullied and hectored by leftist student politicos.

It is inappropriate for taxpayers to have to foot half the £165 million bill for student unions, and for students themselves to be forced to pay the other half, given this kind of activity.

We should adopt a similar approach to that applied to trade union reform. Students should have to actively opt-in to become members of student unions and the NUS, and just like the strike ballot threshold, consideration should be given to a membership and election turnout threshold, which student unions should be required to reach before they can play any part in university governance.

There is a strong case for student unions being limited to supporting social and sports activities, as well as academic representation. Meanwhile, if any students wish to fund political activism or join the NUS they should of course be free to do so, but at their own expense and paying any subscriptions from their own pockets.

Students need to be freed from student unions and allowed to get on and enjoy their time at university without suffering constant political harassment. We very much hope that action will be taken by the Government as soon as Covid permits its attention to return to the domestic reform agenda.

Radical: A University lesson from the Kathleen Stock fracas. It’s harder to support her if you’re a younger academic.

19 Jan

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this fortnightly column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regular readers of this column will know that the two of us who write it have some differences of opinion. Since one of us is a classical liberal (me), and the other a classic conservative (Victoria), you might not be surprised to learn we disagree about the honours system. One of our many points of agreement, however – regardless of whether the UK should have such a system – is that there are few people in public life more deserving of public gratitude than Kathleen Stock.

Professor Stock was awarded an OBE in December for ‘services to higher education and academic freedom’. Over the past decade, she has written and spoken at increasing length about sex and gender, emphasising her concerns about the rise of ‘gender-identity’ activism. She has approached this as a trained philosopher – writing analytically about complex matters in a clear and coherent manner.

I, for one, find her approach comes as a sharp relief, amid the sea of stream-of-consciousness ‘arguments’ from ‘authority’ that make up most of the contemporary writing on these matters. And I challenge anyone to read her relevant public philosophy and fail to understand exactly what she’s saying. Now, being clear is, of course, insufficient in itself. But it’s hard to stress quite how rare it is, today – not just in public writing about sex and gender, but, sadly, in academic writing more generally.

One reason Stock focuses on the area of sex and gender (having previously written mostly about aesthetics) is evident from something she wrote last weekend:

“People such as me are going to carry on thinking and writing about [the risks of uncritically assuming gender identity to be more important than biological sex] even if many of our colleagues would prefer us to shut up. I’m afraid we can’t afford to stop. The costs to the public are too large to do otherwise.”

Two salient points to take from this are that –

a) Stock believes that if she and others stop doing the kind of thing she’s doing, serious harms will ensue; and

b) that there are many people who want her and those others to stop.

The first point relates to the substance of arguments she makes: about the risks ‘natal’ women face if ‘natal’ men who self-identify as women are permitted general access to women-only spaces;* the societal importance of acknowledging biological truth; and the requirement to respect obligations of care towards children who aren’t capable of consenting to taking life-changing drugs of the type prescribed by the Gender Identity Development Service.

The second point relates specifically to the appalling treatment Stock constantly faces at the hands of others within academia. Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn she needs extra security on campus. Beyond that, just consider the past few weeks.

After the OBE announcement, many professional philosophers denigrated Stock on social media. They claimed she’s a weak philosopher, whose work is unworthy of public honour, and even – in one notable case – that it’s totally lacking in value. Learning, however, that the OBE hadn’t been awarded for the philosophical merit of Stock’s corpus, but for her embodiment of commitment to free speech, her opponents turned to character assassination.

Hundreds of academics signed a public letter stating their dismay at the OBE, on the implicit grounds that Stock is transphobic. Whilst this un-evidenced and defamatory specific accusation isn’t directly put into words, the letter is entitled ‘Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy’, and includes claims such as: “[d]iscourse like that Stock is producing and amplifying contributes to […] harms” against trans people.

That the letter included a serious substantive error (it stated that Stock opposed the GRA, rather than particular reforms to it) seemed of little concern to its organisers. Indeed, they stuck with the letter’s original uncorrected text for some time, preferring to present exactly what their initial signatories had agreed to (see the first attempt at an erratum), over removing untruths about Stock’s views.

This was actually helpful: it showcased the lack of value these people place in truth. This is unsurprising, of course, since dangerous truth-denying post-modernist roots lie beneath many of the ‘arguments’ that Stock’s work counters.

The letter’s organisers have now added a correction, however – in parenthesis, asterisked to an updated erratum. Even post-modernists understand the costs of being seen not to care about truth, it seems. (Of course, many of the signatories are not signed-up post-modernists. But I’d bet all of them believed signing would bring personal career benefits over costs.)

One particularly badly-thought-through take making the rounds these past couple of days explicates the matter further. Apparently, because Stock has an academic book coming out, because she’s given prestigious lectures (amid angry petitions), because she’s been able to reveal her struggles in the national press, and because she’s been awarded an OBE (suddenly of interest to philosophers all over the world..), therefore, they claim, she’s not ‘being silenced’.

Now, current obsession with the term ‘silencing’ is surely generally unhelpful. Attacks on free speech aren’t limited to instances of literal gagging. In a liberal democracy, it’s required that all members of society are able to speak out about whatever they want. Yes, certain conditions are typically placed on this, such as that constituted by J.S. Mill’s famous ‘harm principle’. But just because someone is able to speak publicly in certain privileged ways – indeed, even if they were able to shout directly into everyone’s ears, via some clever new technology – doesn’t mean their freedom of speech is not unjustifiably at risk.

Such risk can come from many places – not only from within the formal apparatus of the state, but from other institutions, groups, and individuals. A liberal democratic society must model an environment of deliberation, equally open to every member. We all have responsibilities, here. But foremost among the institutions expected to help maintain this environment are educational establishments. Within those, if you’re lucky, you’ll find some philosophers.

Philosophers are people committed to searching out truth. They understand the value of formal argument, and practise it. Not to denigrate or otherwise harm others, but to try to reach truths, by fully testing differing positions, which involve obviously firm things like scientific facts, and less obvious but nonetheless equally firm things like values and principles. We need these people badly. We need them, not least, to help us find our way through important but difficult and emotive debates.

So you should be pleased to hear of a second public letter. Entitled ‘Open Letter Concerning Academic Freedom’, its academic signatories state their consternation at the ‘public vilification’ the anti-Stock letter represents.

But, beyond concerns about the value of public letters, there’s something else worth considering. Although it’s cheering to note that many more philosophical ‘big hitters’ signed up to the second letter than the first, that doesn’t mean all’s well.

Successful older academics can say pretty much whatever they like, as long as they provide decent reasons – certainly without fear of career cost. But junior scholars don’t have that luxury. Telling a twenty-something graduate student ‘hey, don’t worry, you’re on the side of some of the most famous living philosophers!’ doesn’t mean much. Not when they know that their peers – and the academic administrators they depend on for preferment – are watching for any ‘misstep’, fingers on the screenshot buttons. Academic freedom? Doesn’t sound like it to me.

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*Stock doesn’t use the term ‘natal’ like this, anymore. I think that’s generally a good call, but I’m using it here for clarity in the context of a limited word count.

Why shouldn’t Tories use Parler?

18 Jan

Yesterday The Observer ran a piece titled “Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler”. Presumably anyone reading was meant to be incredibly shocked that at least 14 Conservatives had been on the app including Michael Gove, Steve Baker and Ben Bradley.

If you haven’t used Parler before – and it’s since been removed from Google, Amazon and Apple platforms, so there’s not much chance of that now – its users consider it a free speech site. Others, particularly left-wing publications, have mischaracterised it as “synonymous with the alt-right”. Those associated with it have been demonised.

I happen to be a commentator who joined Parler, and I have no guilt about my actions. I started an account last year after having concerns about Twitter’s increasing use of labels for “disputed or misleading information”, as I tend to the view that people can think for themselves and regard such signposting as tech overreach, paving the way to increased, ideologically-driven censorship. In general, I regarded Parler as a “back-up” option in case I ever left Twitter, for whatever reason.

Many others seemed to have this idea and created Parler accounts. On the occasions I logged onto Parler – which were few and far between as I found it clunky – the posts seemed friendly enough and I never saw anything untoward. However, it is clear from recent news that a cohort of extremists did use Parler to post horrible content, perhaps viewing “free speech” as an invitation to be as offensive as possible.

Here’s where Parler got into difficulties, the ultimate irony being that it’s never actually promoted absolute free speech. Parler, in fact, had its own moderators to go through posts, but there weren’t enough of them to deal with problematic content, something that became more noticeable when the Capitol was under attack. While Twitter banned Trump, Parler’s inertia in dealing with posts that incited violence against elected officials led Google and Apple to pull the plug, removing it from their app stores, thus rendering it non-existent (albeit its founder has said it will be back by the end of the month).

Whether deleting the whole app was justified is another debate. But the point of this piece is to address the smearing of Tory MPs, Conservatives and others who signed up to this site, all for the crime of exploring alternatives to Twitter. There’s something deeply sinister about the manner in which people have noted their names, viewing them as “guilty by association” because others misused the system (a rule that would mean everyone on Twitter was “guilty”, incidentally).

It’s clear that Parler will simply become a word used to damage people’s reputation. “But you were on Parler!” You can imagine an opposition MP one day charging at Nadine Dorries. These attacks are not only poor form but actually counter-productive; as Andrew Doyle carefully put it on Twitter – they can increase online echo chambers, as more moderate voices shun alternative apps, like Parler, lest they be smeared for merely logging on.

The even greater shame is that we’re not discussing the most important aspects of the Parler story. Some of these stood out to me the other day while listening to John Matze, one of Parler’s founders, on the Megyn Kelly podcast. I discovered that he graduated in 2014, so perhaps it’s no wonder his management of free speech has been lacklustre compared to more experienced tech giants. Mild-mannered and trained as an engineer, he struck me as a geek who wanted to do good in the world, promoting healthy debate. In fact, the point of Parler is its name – “parler”; to speak – as it was designed to foster exchange between different political groups.

Instead of searching for MPs who used the app, the media should be talking about one of the most pressing issues of our time, tech censorship. There are big questions about Amazon and other corporate giants completely removed Parler (is it to gain complete control of the marketplace?). The app’s fate is arguably much more important than why Twitter deleted Trump’s account. A little more discussion on this issue wouldn’t go amiss.

Toby Young: O’Brien is wrong – censorship is never the answer

12 Jan

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union and the Editor of LockdownSceptics.org.

I was disappointed to read Neil O’Brien’s column on this site yesterday (‘Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists’), and not just because I’m the only person in the media whom he actually “calls out”.

He didn’t say outright that he supports the Donald Trump Twitter ban, or the censorship of cranks and conspiracists on social media, but he came close. Indeed, he called for newspapers to no platform some of the people who challenge the official narrative about Coronavirus, dismissing them as “professional contrarians” who are poisoning the well of public discourse. “We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting,” he wrote.

That a Conservative MP and the Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board should set so little store by free speech is alarming. No one is suggesting that the right to it should extend to inciting violence, and some of the things that Trump said in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. Capital last week and on the day itself crossed that line.

But couldn’t Twitter have simply deleted anything it regarded as dangerously inflammatory rather than banned Trump outright? He is the President of the United States, after all, elected by 63 million people in 2016. Who elected Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter?

O’Brien says he’s concerned that British politics will become as polarised and venomous as American politics if the media doesn’t behave more responsibly, by which he means excluding people express views he considers false and dangerous.

However, there are numerous problems with this censorious attitude, starting with the first question that defenders of free speech always ask: who decides? After all, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s inconvenient truth. It’s all very well saying we should ban ‘misinformation’, but these days that’s just a euphemism for ‘a point of view I disagree with’.

Sometimes, the would-be Lord Chamberlains use the phrase ‘hate speech’ to describe the views they think should be censored, but defining which opinions are ‘hateful’ and which merely controversial is notoriously difficult. Last year, I started an organisation called the Free Speech Union, and many of our members have been kicked off social media platforms for breaching anti-hate speech rules, even though their views would be considered perfectly reasonable by ConservativeHome readers.

To give just one example” a trans activist started a petition on Change.org last year demanding that the OED change its definition of woman from “adult human female” to something less “exclusionary” – i.e. delete the word “female”. The feminist campaigner Posie Parker responded by launching a counter-petition on the same platform, asking the OED to retain its definition. Change.org took it down, explaining to Posie that defining a woman as an “adult human female” was “hate speech”.

But even if there was a consensus among right-thinking people about which points are beyond the pale, would that be a good reason for banning them? I’m not talking about stirring up racial hatred, which I would never defend, although the bar needs to be set a lot higher than it was by the police in the Darren Grimes/David Starkey case.

But what about the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Washington is run by a cabal of devil-worshipping paedophiles? If you’re concerned that people’s belief in this theory may lead to their estrangement from civil society – or worse – isn’t it better to let its proponents set out their case in the public square, where it can be rebutted with reason and evidence? If you suppress it, not only will you deprive people of the opportunity to hear these rebuttals, you will probably convince some fence-sitters that it’s true. After all, if it is obviously and transparently false, why hush it up?

As the Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said: “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”.

Which brings me to Neil O’Brien’s disapproval of lockdown sceptics. In his article, he smears me and the contributors to the sceptical website I run as cranks and conspiracy theorists, lumping us together with Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers. He even puts inverted commas around the word “scientists”, as if no respectable scientist could be anything other than four square behind the lockdown policy.

This is plainly ludicrous. There are plenty of mainstream scientists, not to mention psychologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, statisticians, actuaries, financial analysts and novelists – even some Conservative MPs – who believe the harm caused by the lockdowns outweighs the harms they prevent.

They’re not Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers – just people who are sceptical about prioritising saving people from Covid-19 at the expense of everything else, including other deadly diseases, mental health, children’s education, the economy and our civil liberties. Many of them are contributors to Lockdown Sceptics.

O’Brien is perfectly entitled to think this is a dangerous, irrational point of view, just as most of us think his fanatical support for lockdowns is dangerous and irrational. The difference is that we don’t think he should be kicked off Twitter or no-platformed by the mainstream media. We believe in free speech, which means we think the best way to determine when the current restrictions should be lifted – and weigh up the costs and benefits of the lockdown approach more generally – is through vigorous, open debate.

John Bald: The use of provocative language to stimulate thinking is a teaching style that has become unfashionable

18 Dec

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

First the good news – this week’s appointment of Ian Bauckham CBE to the chairmanship of Ofqual will replace statistical shackles with professional competence. Ian is CEO of the Tenax Schools Trust (Kent and Sussex) and a highly successful teacher and headteacher, who has been instrumental in the reform of languages teaching and personal education. He was the first member of the Ofqual board to break ranks and point out that its mathematical formula could not be fair, and has recently chaired the DfE expert group on GCSE languages reform, of which I was a member. He has work to do, and the ability to do it. Ofqual may yet survive.

Next the bad, in the form of Eton’s sacking of English teacher, Will Knowland, which has been upheld on appeal. The story has been well aired over the last couple of weeks, with the Guardian praising the Head Master – Eton’s unusual and possibly unique separation of the words – for reforming the school, and much of the Left joining in. Knowland’s lecture on YouTube, the Patriarchy Paradox, contains inaccuracies, and can fairly be described as tripe. A sixth former presenting it might expect it to be “ripped”, though a few interesting points, including the use of physical strength to provide protection, that might have raised the grade to a C. I found it difficult to sit through but, if you insist, here is the link.

What I really object to is the use of “gross misconduct” in relation to failure to remove a lecture from a personal website at the “request” of the Head Master. Gross misconduct is as serious a charge as can be laid against a teacher, usually with criminal implications. No-one has suggested referring this lecture to the police or the Department for Education, and its production as part of a critical thinking course could be thought appropriate, if only by encouraging critical analysis of the lecture itself. The reported legal advice that it could breach the Equality Act is ridiculous – there is nothing in the Act against free speech, and Eton could not be held complicit in a social media posting. Neither is free speech to be trivialised, as it has been by Professor Priyamvara Gopal, as “Freeze Peach”. We read last week of the kidnapping and execution of the Iranian Ruhollah Zam for its exercise, on the charge of being “corrupt on earth”, in itself an extreme version of being politically incorrect.

Simon Henderson, the Head Master, was reported to have sent a pupil home for suggesting that he should be fired instead of Knowland, an offence of “lèse-majesté” if ever there was one. Those of us who are not in his power remain free to criticise. His attempts at “modernisation” are highly questionable in themselves, beginning with the appointments of deputy heads for “pastoral” and “academics”, an idea borrowed from comprehensive schools, and the source of many errors. The core structure of Eton, like most public schools, is its house system, with the housemaster as the first line of senior management and responsible for all aspects of a pupil’s education. The pastoral/academic divide was originally a way of creating senior posts for the former headteachers of the smaller schools that were brought together to make comprehensives, and its separation of key elements of education into separate compartments has been a major cause of their failure. The roles of Eton’s Lower Master and Head Master brooked no such division. And, after Henderson’s use of the sledgehammer on Knowland, we might remember that Eton had to remove its new “academics” deputy for abusing his position as an examiner, an offence that better fits the description of “gross misconduct” than Knowland’s lecture.

The use of provocative language to stimulate thinking is one of many teaching styles that has become unfashionable, and Jamie Blackett’s “The Enigma of Kidson”, a highly successful, if somewhat eccentric history Master, whose pupils included Sir Matthew Pinsent and David Cameron, is a delight. Jacob Rees-Mogg described him as “an inspired beak who ignored all the modern rules but put his pupils first”, and feared he would drive Ofsted inspectors to apoplexy, though, having been one of those ogres, I would more probably have put a 1 in the box and enjoyed writing a cameo on his excellence. Knowland’s teaching – see “Be an eagle, not a snail” – is in that tradition, though perhaps without the twinkle that made Kidson’s pupils love him. He has a tuition business, is apparently not to be put out in the street before Christmas, and has expressed confidence that he will be “all right”.

I expect Henderson will be all right too, which will be Eton’s loss.