Germaine Greer has recently hit the headlines because of her comments regarding transgender women, specifically her view that transgender women “are not women”. As a consequence people have petitioned Cardiff University, where she was going to speak about women in the twentieth century, and as a result Greer has been uninvited. I have said in a previous post how I would want to campaign alongside the transgender community in order to remove stigmatisation and make society more inclusive, but I am also angered by these self-righteous people who are fundamentally misunderstanding free speech and the purpose of universities.
Before I begin, I would like to point out that I am not endorsing comments of Greer; this article is not about her comments, it’s about the response from the outraged masses. After her comments went viral people who claim to be liberals were calling for her to be silenced because she was offensive, and it is this that I find both offensive and dangerous, especially given that she was going to speak at a university.
Universities were designed to be open forums of academic discussion so that people can assert their viewpoint, have it challenged and then debate in order to convince the crowds of their viewpoint. The whole point of academic freedom and free speech is to think about the world critically and challenge people’s expectations about certain topics. This can be done in a variety of ways but causing offence is a way of shocking the audience into thinking differently.
For example if a racist was talking about his own personal views at a university and said the phrase “I don’t think black people are really people”, the audience would be horrified and the racist would try and convince them of his view. The rebuttal, from say a biologist, would be to invalidate the argument of the racist and the audience would judge for themselves who they deem to be right. Furthermore, in this situation, the racist, upon hearing the biologists points, may admit that he was wrong, thus making the world a more tolerant place. The lack of understanding, often from students of the university itself, doesn’t annoy me, it angers me. People who say they support freedom of speech but then want to ban people they are offended by or who they disagree with from talking don’t understand free speech.
The excuse often given by these people is that the speaker was ‘inciting violence’ or was committing ‘hate speech’, but not only does this not apply to Greer, these concepts are very abstract. In the case of Greer she specifically says that transgender people should have the liberty to undergo reassignment surgery and that she would use the pronouns of that persons’ choice out of courtesy. If Greer was ‘inciting violence’ I don’t think she would be so blasé about other things surrounding the transgender community. Furthermore the incitement of violence is totally subjective. If David Cameron stood up and said that Britain should invade France because the French were scum, many people wouldn’t call it hate speech, even though, when not said by national leaders, the same statement would definitely qualify.
‘Hate speech’, I would argue, is when you are encouraging people to hate others and the reason ‘inciting violence’ of often intertwined with this is because that hate can be cultivated into justifications of violence against a set group of people. What Greer said wasn’t hate speech because it didn’t encourage others to be prejudiced against the transgender community. Her speech was unpopular, but that is why it must be protected. If nobody with an unpopular view is allowed to speak in public then how can us non-prejudiced people challenge them? Rather, by stopping certain views from being openly challenged, that view is given a mysticism that people think somewhat legitimises it.
To conclude, what this debacle has shown is that many people have been convinced or have come to the Orwellian view that people who offend them or disagree with them shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public. This is dangerous because when these voices are put in isolation, they go unchallenged, and when they go unchallenged people can be convinced that they are accurate. We have seen this with the example of religious extremism on university campuses: radical Islamists gave talks at universities and these views were challenged by the students and their professors, which is how it should work. When these preachers were restricted or banned from campuses, they went to the internet to spout their particular brand of crazy bullshit, and were able to sex it up with colourful imagery and rousing music.
Universities should be places where bad ideas are challenged in an open forum, not places where students who are offended by someone’s comments cast them out. We cannot get to a place as a society where people who offend us are not allowed to speak because otherwise nobody will be able to be critical of any other person, which would be unbearable. If you are offended by Germaine Greer’s view on transgender people, as I am, there’s a very easy way to coexist with her: ignore her. If a university provides someone with a platform, it doesn’t mean that that university supports that person’s viewpoint; if that were the case then debates wouldn’t ever take because, by that logic, the university would support both sides on every debated issue.
Nobody agrees with everybody else on every topic and this is why universities and free speech are a good thing. Attempting to silence people who disagree your specific viewpoint, even if the person you disagree with is spouting bigoted nonsense, is frightfully authoritarian and I would very much oppose any apparent ‘liberal’ who attempts to do so.