Freeing Speech: Free Speech, Milo, and the University

A few weeks ago, before more recent events, I wrote an article on the subject of the current struggle for free speech, which has just been published over on Mere Orthodoxy. Within it I argue that the focus of the struggle for free speech upon figures like Milo Yiannopoulos is unhelpful and that the struggle we face is far wider ranging and deeply structural than we typically appreciate. The greatest obstacles to free speech are not so much illiberal individuals as our poorly designed and compromised institutions and platforms.

It is common in discussions of freedom of speech to seek to apportion blame to particular parties who are supposedly attacking other people’s negative liberty of speech. There are occasions where such blame is largely merited. However, one of the purposes of my argument here is to discourage such a rush to judgment. What I have attempted to show is that a great many of our problems of speech arise neither from malice nor from direct opposition to freedom.

Rather, they are a product of weak institutions, of poorly designed technologies, of disordered societies, and of the unchecked power of the market. While exacerbated by various parties and individuals, they are, at their most fundamental level, systemic problems. As such, they will only properly be addressed on a systemic level. Social justice warriors, so-called Millennial ‘snowflakes’, no-platforming universities, ideologically conformist academics, and also the trolls and professional provocateurs are all merely players in a perverse game. It is upon the reforming of the game that our efforts must primarily be expended.

Read the whole piece here.

Photo: Newtown Graffiti

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Guest Post, In the News, Politics, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Freeing Speech: Free Speech, Milo, and the University

  1. Ian Miller says:

    Perhaps oversimplifying a bit, but it sounds like you’re weaving your modelling of social media as Meryton with a thread I’ve seen often that “free speech has to have a positive, not merely a negative, definition, or mob rule will stamp out free speech”, and advocating for more focused, intentional, interaction prioritizing listening and concentration.

    • Those issues are definitely key elements of my argument, although it goes further than that. The structural threats to free speech in the academy, for instance, largely arise from different dynamics.

      • Ian Miller says:

        Okay, I reread the parts about the academy – it seems like, though it’s a very complicated situation, stressed by economics particularly, the biggest threat you see is the ideological bubble? But that hardly seems like a new issue, since the academy has been a refuge and recruiting ground for the variously mutated forms of Marxism since the exodus from the Nazis, and their employment in training the GI-bill returning soldiers.

      • No, I wouldn’t say that the ideological bubble is the chief problem. The larger problem is that the university can no longer serve its telos as a formative institution. The colonization of the university by certain ideological interests is everywhere strengthened by the economic, social, and political functions that the institution has become harnessed to. Fix those and much else would change.

  2. Geoff says:

    Free Speech:

    From your summary of your article

    1 “the struggle we face is far wider ranging and deeply structural than we typically appreciate. The greatest obstacles to free speech are not so much illiberal individuals as our poorly designed and compromised institutions and platforms. “

    While some institutions may have a legal corporate entity, they are entirely human creations with a history, memorandum, and articles of association, reason(s) for creation and existence setting up structures, systems to further those purposes. Systemic failure is failure of humans who operate the system, which is not amorphous or abstract, but practical.

    Those humans do not live in a corporate, institutional bubble, though may live their lives as if they do, as if they breath the recirculated air of the of the academy oxygen tent, with each cycle purportedly refreshed by the excellence of research, if not by the quality of each new generational intake of students and teachers, both of whom will be influenced by the teachers of teachers and parents and peers. So institutions do not stagnate, are not caught in the doldrums and are refreshed but without the ballast of original design or blueprint they will disintegrate into flotsam and jetsam with every social sea change.

    I attended a leadership course: one of the speakers was the skipper of a yacht a round the world race, He was starting to come out with stuff about the relativity of everything. In a break, I said to him that I knew nothing about navigation, but presumed it relied on fixed points. He agreed. Universities need those fixed points of original purposes.

    2 “Rather, they are a product of weak institutions, of poorly designed technologies, of disordered societies, and of the unchecked power of the market. While exacerbated by various parties and individuals, they are, at their most fundamental level, systemic problems. As such, they will only properly be addressed on a systemic level.”

    I repeat the comments made above and comment further.

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Weak institutions, technologies, or disordered societies…I’d suggest a reverse order.

    Your answer is to be “properly addressed on a systematic level” YBH. Yes but how. I’ d suggest your answer is too abstract.

    Systems are notoriously difficult to change. In the UK the NHS, the largest employer on Europe (I think) while having numerous reorganisation, based on ideas and political policy, rather than evidence – the evidence is that reorganisations don’t succeed- systematic change has generally been at organisational structure level, while it has not overcome the competing professional culture and hierarchy within. As some business expert said, “(organisation) culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    For a quite detailed paper and work on culture and how it affects the non structure provision of services within Mental Health Services in England and Wales here is a link to a PDF entitled “Whose Values?” a “Work book for values based practices in Mental Health.”

    It considers Values base within a structure, including its relation with an evidence base, with mental health service users and sometimes competing various professions values.
    http://www.nwppn.nhs.uk/attachments/article/14/Whose_Values.pdf

    Within the academy “Whose Values?”

    Free speech in general: Some disjointed thoughts.

    Speech is never without a context, nor purpose. It can offend. The good news of Jesus the Christ offend. Jesus deeply offended.

    To be offended is part of being human. What do we build from the bricks thrown at us? Resentment, bitterness? Or self reflection and growth in grace, to be changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, an affronted an offended God.

    Does my speech induce self pride, giving me, a superiority while at the same time diminishing me? Here there is a cost paid by me.

    Does my speech disparage or demean others, at a cost to the other and to me?

    Does my speech show that I regard others more highly than self, thereby lifting them and self up at the same time?

    Does my speech show that I value the other as being created in the image of God, though broken in fallenness? Does it reveal that I am equal before God, ther in my brokenness and fallennes? Not superior.

    Yes, the responsibility and cost of free speech. The cost benefit analysis will be revealed on Judgement Day.

    • Thanks for the comment, Geoff. I agree with much that you say here. The issue with systemic problems is that they cannot easily be addressed on an individual level: they require effective structures of collective decision making.

      In many of these cases, the problems that we face are akin to the prisoners’ dilemma, where the breakdown of effective means for communication, collective decision-making, authority, and punishment of rule-breakers produces a situation where all parties are compromised in their capacity for effective action. Such problems can’t usually adequately be resolved on a purely individual level, but require the establishment of systems and structures whereby effective coordination can occur. Organizational culture is also systemic and can’t easily be abstracted from institutions, technologies, and cultural systems and structures.

  3. Physiocrat1 says:

    Alastair,

    I wonder how you would go about restoring the university to its historic telos? You seem not to like the business model so I wondered if you had any thoughts on the financing etc. At least in England the decline of the University is intimately tied up with government policy to democractise the institution and stopping it being an elite institution; this is a particular hallmark of post-war Labour policy. Though the Tories have the elevation of the polytechnics to Universities on their hands.

    In my view, to fix the university requires fixing the entire education system since university now functions as the capstone and justification for the rest of the system.

  4. Geoff says:

    Yes Alistair, agreed. “Organizational culture is also systemic and can’t easily be abstracted from institutions, technologies, and cultural systems and structures.”

    An organic, creative innovative organisation, has a less formal structure but may have a dominant values based culture, loosely attached to the structure and has an accountability that is primarily focussed within the organisation andand adherence to non negotiable values.

    In the NHS and no doubt the University, the systemic culture is, with seeming intractability and unravelable interweaving of competing and self interested and protectionist professions with their own training and systems and careers with competing values and authority. So its culture is multi- systemic and susceptible to “silo thinking”. The bottom line is that as a structure, it serves Government of the day. One of the shortest careers to have is as a Chief Executive in the NHS.

    An interesting “blue sky thinking day” would be to start with a blank sheet of paper today, which I presume is where the first universities started, with their inception, reason for being. The day would not be inured against the spirit of the age nor, to a greater or lesser extent, to “planning by decibels”, whoever shouts the loudest gets the most” even to voices from outside the institution.

    Again. a simple example. You’d think the NHS is steeped in science, evidenced based practice, but I recall having a conversation with a senior nurse. She couldn’t accept, had a mental block, that there was such a thing as truth and was nonplussed at my suggestion that truth pre-exists evidence for it and exists even in the face of contrary evidence, that it is not invented, but, discovered, revealed and objective. She’d bought into subjectivism and relativism, focus groups and a dominant qualitative based evidence, with all its attendant constructions, with poor peer review.

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