On Saturday, I attended the Academy of Ideas’ ‘Open For Debate’ event at Church House in Westminster. It was an exciting day, where a few hundred people all packed into a room to listen to, and engage with, a series of panel discussions on important topics – free speech, the Sewell report, levelling up, and academic freedom. The event was civilised, though not without moments of disagreement and even anger. We did not have to wear masks, but anyone who wanted could do so.
Opening the event, Baroness Claire Fox told us ‘you will be offended’, and we were. One speaker found himself in a room full of people who disagreed with him about institutional racism, but when a member of the audience commended him for being the lone voice of dissent, the audience agreed and applauded. We engaged in conversations over lunch and breaks about different issues and found staunch disagreement with our fellow attendees. It was fantastic.
We’re back having these discussions more and more now that restrictions are easing. We can no longer just block people who we disagree with and pretend they do not exist, because we have to engage outside our bedrooms. Face-to-face conversations do not suddenly stop because of poor internet connection, and you cannot put offensive speakers on mute so that the rest of the hall, or the pub, is unable to hear them.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as open to free conversation as the attendees of the Open For Debate event. Coming out of your bedroom and speaking publicly brings with it its own difficulties. The slow and, in some cases, reluctant return to universities will inevitably bring up the issue of no-platforming again, even with the government enacting legislation to stop it. Much worse than this, the Sunday prior to the Open For Debate event, a woman wearing a Charlie Hebdo t-shirt was stabbed in the face on Speaker’s Corner – that place where people can supposedly say anything.
A key takeaway from the event was that we must engage in vigorous debate because the alternative is violence. However, when speech is equated with violence, meeting it with actual violence becomes justified. That is how we end up with a woman being stabbed in the face, with a teacher and his family going into hiding in fear for their lives, and with a world-famous author being threatened with a pipe bomb. Words have been redefined as weapons, so they can be met with other weapons.
It is time to dispel this notion that speech is violence. Speech is the alternative to violence, arguing is the alternative to a beating. Slurs are not nice, but they are not knives. We are back in the real world where we encounter people in person and not through a screen, so those who are scared of nasty words have got to grow up and accept that the return to normality means the return of ideas you do not like from people you cannot shut up.
This is an opportunity to reinvigorate public debate. We can stop cancelling people for offensive tweets from a decade ago. We can disagree civilly by questioning each other’s views rather than shouting them down. The culture of self-censorship can be replaced with a culture of free expression if we go back to the old mantra – ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. It’s much better than the current mantra – ‘sticks and stones will break your bones if your words ever offend me’.