I may disagree with what you have to say but I shall defend your right to say it (Attributed to Voltaire but written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall)
10th May 2019
Upholding the freedom of speech can be challenging especially if it means defending the right for people to express their views, with which you disagree.
When people choose words to deliberately (or unconsciously) hurt and offend, we may wish to curtail that freedom. Racist comments can create fear and incite violence. Sexist comments may humiliate and perpetuate inequalities. Personal comments may inflict deep and lasting wounds. Words are not without consequence and are always to some extents acts as well as utterances. They create the world in which we live for better or for worse and therefore we need to take responsibility for what we say and how we say it.
However, if we were to have legislation about what we can and can’t say then we would no longer live in an open society in which ideas can be expressed and challenged. This is what Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson believes is currently under threat in many of our universities, as he and others find themselves being denied a platform for views deemed ‘offensive’ or ‘politically incorrect’. Dr Peterson was thrust into the limelight because of his refusal to comply with legislation being imposed by his university, about correct use of pronouns. If people requested gender neutral pronouns to be used (ze, vis, hir) , staff were told they should comply or face charges of harassment. Dr Peterson challenged this ‘policing’ of language not because he necessarily disagreed with gender neutral pronouns, but because he saw their enforcement as an erosion of free speech.
‘No-platforming’ in universities is of real concern about which we are making Wychwood girls aware, because in shutting down voices with whom we disagree, we jeopardise the right to free speech.
For there to be freedom of speech we need to take responsibility to allow people to be heard, even when we disagree. We then need the courage to challenge unjust views but also to know when to self-regulate, show awareness of others and to develop simple good manners.