shut up

Last week, Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla Corporation, the technology company that, among other things, is responsible for the Firefox browser, resigned after it was revealed that in 2008 he had given a $1000 donation to Proposition 8, the Californian campaign against gay marriage. Mozilla decided that his views were incompatible with its core values of ‘diversity and inclusiveness’. This week Brandeis University in America withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the campaigner against female genital mutilation and a fierce critic of Islam, after outrage from critics who described her as an ‘Islamophobe’. ‘We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values’, the university explained.

Welcome to the world where only people with bland, mainstream, uncontroversial views are deemed acceptable for public posts or academic honours. And in which ‘Inconsistent with our core values’ has become a new euphemism for ‘we’re caving in under pressure’.

Many people have applauded both Eich’s resignation and Brandeis’ snub to Hirsi Ali. The resignation of Eich, they insist, was a matter not of censorship but of good business practice. Eich had to resign, wrote James Ball, the Guardian‘s special projects editor in the USA, because he no longer possessed ‘the ability to build and maintain a diverse coalition of supporters is absolutely integral to Mozilla’s prospects’. Brandeis University, many insist, should never have awarded Hirsi Ali a degree in the first place because the award was, in the words of the university’s Muslim Student Association ‘a personal attack on Brandeis’ Muslim students’. In fact what the two cases reveal is how censorship has become such an automatic, almost reflexive response to ‘unacceptable’ ideas that it is barely seen as such.

Consider the claim that Brendan Eich’s resignation was not an issue of free speech. And perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we were talking not about the CEO of a tech company who holds views that many find odious but an academic author who has written a book that many find offensive. And suppose her publisher decides to pulp her book, because not to give in to the campaign against the book would be bad for its business. How should we respond? Should we simply say, ‘The publisher pulped the book for business reasons, so this is not a matter of free speech’?

Or imagine that a British Muslim parliamentary candidate tweets a cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed to illustrate the fact that, as a Mulism, he finds nothing offensive about it. And suppose that many people take offence at his action and launch an international campaign to have him deselected. Should we just say, ‘His party has to take a decision on his candidacy on political grounds; it is not a matter of free speech’?

j&m offence

We don’t, of course, have to perform thought experiments. These are both real cases. Earlier this year, Penguin India agreed to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History after Hindu hardliners objected to it. And Muslim hardliners tried to force the Liberal Democrats to deselect Maajid Nawaz as a prospective candidate after he tweeted a Jesus and Mo cartoon.

Penguin was driven by a desire not to promote censorship but to protect its commercial interests. Campaigners against Nawaz insisted that they were not attempting to restrict free speech but pushing the Liberal Democrats to take a political decision about the kind of candidate it should field. Yet few would deny that at the heart of both cases was the issue of free speech. Censorship is not simply a matter of the state imposing restrictive laws or of the authorities silencing writers. It is also about the culture of discussion and debate, about the willingness to listen, engage and allow divergent views and beliefs to exist. As Jon Lovett, former speechwriter to Barack Obama, put it recently in an essay about free speech in America:

‘The right to free speech may begin and end with the First Amendment, but there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us—by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools… that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s okay to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.’

The trouble is, ‘protecting the vast middle’ is precisely what we are not doing. On the contrary, whether in America, Europe or India, we have been busy creating what Lovett has aptly called ‘a Culture of Shut Up’. It is a culture of ‘you can’t say that’, in which the starting point of any debate is the avoidance of giving offence, a culture of conformity in which only certain views are deemed legitimate or acceptable in polite society.

In announcing Brendan Eich’s resignation, Mozilla insisted, without a hint of irony, that ‘Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness… Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public’. Nothing could better illustrate the unreflective character of contemporary censorship than the fact that Mozilla could, with a straight face, portray the removal of Eich as a means of promoting ‘diversity and inclusiveness’, of maintaining a ‘culture of openness’,  and of ‘encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public’. Diversity has come to mean diversity for my views, inclusiveness to mean inclusive of non-dissenting beliefs, openness to mean openness to ideas that I already accept.

In this spirit, Christian Rudder, the founder and president of OKCupid, the online dating agency that led the campaign against Eich, insisted in the New York Times that Eich had to go because ‘Opposing gay marriage is selfish and wrong’. I am a supporter of the campaign for same sex marriage. I have been highly critical of those who have opposed it. But I certainly do not wish to create a society in which the only acceptable views for public figures are ones that I like, where no one can hold, even in private, views that some may find objectionable, and where diversity means the filtering out of unacceptable views.

ayaan hirsi ali

Much the same can be said about the debate over Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s withdrawn award. Hirsi Ali is a hugely controversial figure. Born in Somalia she grew up in Holland and became a fierce critic of Islam which she has described as a ‘destructive, nihilistic cult of death’. She wrote the screenplay for the 2004 anti-Islamic film ‘Submission’, whose director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, shortly after the film’s release. She now lives in America and is affiliated to the rightwing American Enterprise Institute.

I know Hirsi Ali and I admire her courage. I also trenchantly disagree with many of her views. She has, for instance, opposed Muslim immigration to Europe, supported the Swiss ban on the building of minarets and declared that ‘we are at war with Islam’. Such views I find deeply objectionable. But equally objectionable is the insistence that her anti-Islamic and pro-Israel views are of themselves reasons to deny her an academic award.

The campaign against Hirsi Ali for her anti-Islamic and pro-Israeli views ironically echoes campaigns against academic awards or posts to those seen as supportive of Islamism or critical of Israel. In 2012, Frankfurt awarded the prestigious Adorno Prize to American feminist and academic Judith Butler. Jewish and pro-Israeli groups launched a furious campaign to strip her of the award because her criticisms of Israel and support for sanctions. The German Jewish Council condemned Butler’s ‘moral depravity’ and lambasted as ‘shocking’ Frankfurt’s decision to honour her. Similarly, many opposed the appointment in 2004 of Tariq Ramadan as professor of religion at Notre Dame University in America because of his Islamist views. Ramadan was, in the end, unable to take up his post because the US State Department refused him a visa. Two years earlier Harvard University had cancelled a lecture by academic and poet Tom Paulin after protests about his anti-Israeli views (the university later rescinded the cancellation). It is one thing to question whether Butler or Ramadan or Paulin or Hirsi Ali are academically fit for a particular honour or post. It is quite another to suggest that their political views should bar them. As Judith Butler herself has rightly observed:

Such charges seek to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance. It is a silencing tactic: this person is unspeakable, and whatever they speak is to be dismissed in advance or twisted in such a way that it negates the validity of the act of speech. The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.

The irony is that many of those welcoming Brandeis’ snub to Hirsi Ali were outraged at the campaigns against Butler, Ramadan and Paulin. Many of those who campaigned against Butler, Ramadan and Paulin are outraged at Brandeis’ treatment of Hirsi Ali. For both sides, those who disagree with your political stance must be ostracized. Welcome to the Culture of Shut Up.

Embed from Getty Images

There is, of course, a major objection to my argument against shutting people up. Many ideas are odious and obnoxious and should be shunned. Most of us would agree that the world would be a better place without racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia or hatred of Muslims. I would not want such ideas banned by the state. But I have long campaigned against all these hatreds. I would want through campaigning and social pressure to create a society in which fewer and fewer people are racist or homophobic, or hostile to Jews or to Muslims. Isn’t this an argument for shutting out certain ideas?

The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.

There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.


The cartoon is from Jesus and Mo.


  1. The work for which (I understand) Hirsi Ali would have been honoured has a closer connection with her anti-Islam views than Butler’s academic research has with her anti-Israel pronouncements. If Hirsi Ali had been a composer or mathematician then her political views would have had less bearing on whether or not to award her the degree. I’m ambivalent about withdrawing the honorary degree, but there is a pretty big gulf between her statements on Islam and Nawaz retweeting Jesus and Mo, and I certainly understand why Brandeis’ Muslim students weren’t happy with the original decision.

  2. Sarka

    “I certainly understand why Brandeis’ Muslim students weren’t happy with the original decision”…
    But presumably to understand is not to endorse a decision based on the feelings that you understand.
    I can “understand” why certain Muslims tried to get Nawaz deselected (it’s not unintelligible to me!), I can understand why
    these Brandeis Muslim students didn’t want Hirsi Ali awarded a degree and would have similar objections to awards of an honorary degree to Salman Rushdie, (or V S, Naipaul, or Richard Dawkins or Bernard Lewis). But the point of Malik’s piece is that we should not be creating an atmosphere in which some group’s feelings of offence – however “understandable” – are allowed to dictate the limits of acceptable debate. Yes, there are and should be limits to acceptable public opinion – whether at legal level or at institutional level (e.g. university own policy), but these cannot be related simply to a criterion of offence dictated by the offended.

    • ‘Understand’ is indeed a rather problematic word in this context. I am a lot nearer to endorsing those students than I am to endorsing those campaigning against Maajid Nawaz. In the latter case I actively opposed those trying to get him deselected. But, as I said, her harshest words are miles away from what Maajid Nawaz has said and done. What she says is well within the limits of acceptable debate, no question, but that doesn’t mean she has to be given an honorary degree. I might, to different degrees and for different reasons, feel uncomfortable about my university honouring Tariq Ramadan, or Gilad Atzmon. I might also object to someone who was very antifeminist, or to someone who thought atheism, or socialism, was evil and needed to be crushed. I know we’ve all got used to thinking of ‘taking offence’ as a synonym for trying to impose blasphemy taboos, but there are reasonable grounds for people to worry about certain people being singled out for honours. Someone on Twitter was saying she should be allowed to criticise an ideology and of course she should, and of course Islam is not a race, but free speech, secularism, and democracy are also ‘ideas’ and I wouldn’t want to honour anyone who attacked them. Obviously I’m not personally attached to Islam, as I am to those ideas, but at her most vehement (her more recent words are milder) she seems to view Islam, in all its forms, as a disease to be stamped out.

      • Sarah, I’m not saying that Ayyan Hirsi Ali should have been awarded an honorary degree. What I’m questioning is the decision to withdraw the award because it caused offence. I don’t buy the claim that Brandeis did not know about her views on Islam prior to this. I see it rather as part of the broader culture of not wishing to cause offence.

  3. Ashley

    Assuming Eich did resign, and was not pressured to leave/thrown out then surely it was a practical decision on his part? There are most likely a number of homosexuals who work for Mozilla. How can he be an effective leader of (innocent) people when it is now openly known that he disproves of them for who they are and that he would act to deny them the rights that others enjoy?

    If he did not voluntarily resign, I admit that changes things a little. But it doesn’t change his ability to be a respected and effective leader, which is required of his position.

    • The idea that there was no pressure on Eich is disingenuous. He did not simply wake up one morning and decide that his views on gay marriage precluded him from being an ‘effective leader’. The logic of your argument appears to be that only people with nice liberal views make effective leaders. Given that that is a highly illiberal view, perhaps those who hold it don’t make effective leaders either. As I wrote in the post, diversity is meaningless if it simply means diversity for my kind of views, inclusiveness empty if it is only to embrace non-dissenting beliefs.

      • Ashley

        I was referring to Eich’s ability to be an effective leader in this particular circumstance. I was not calling into question his formal qualifications. I was making some assumptions in my comment; that his support of Proposition 8 meant he was anti-gay; that his work as CEO requires him to motivate and lead groups of people who work for Mozilla and that some of those people are probably gay (not to mention innocent people who have caused Eich no harm) and many more of them gay-friendly. As it is openly known that he potentially despises some of the people who work for him I was suggesting that maybe he couldn’t be a respected and effective leader to them? In which case isn’t resignation a responsible decision?

        I apologise for being disingenuous in implying that no pressure was involved in his resignation. Of course there would have been pressure, but it was pressure from people utilising their own freedom of expression to respond to his own actions. But it is clear that I lack a lot of knowledge about the case – the true nature of Eich’s opposition to homosexuality and the precise nature of his role as CEO and relationships/interaction with the rest of the staff, for example – and thus am unable to make too informed a comment, so perhaps I should not have done so at all.

        On a personal level, I couldn’t care less if my views are liberal or conservative. I care about how they comport with reality. The reality appears to be that homosexuality isn’t a disease, isn’t unnatural and isn’t a social ill, that love, intimacy and marriage between people with mutual consent are not different depending on the combination or lack thereof of genders involved, and that gay people have the same human nature as everyone else. Those who do not accept this can, for all intents and purposes, be considered wrong on the matter. In light of that, I have no problem with gay marriage, and consider those who are anti-gay and/or against gay marriage to be the real social menace. I will alter my views on this matter accordingly in the presence of contrary evidence. I will not alter them because they do not fit neatly with preconceived “liberal” or “conservative” critera.

  4. The subliminal magic of antagonism is it brings attention to its contradiction. Sartre commented in “The Words” that recognizing the absence of something is equivalent to recognizing its presence. It enters our consciousness. Freedom of speech allows the consideration of all points of view, enabling us to make more enlightened decisions. Therefore, an appreciation of Islam can only occur in the presence of it’s negation, and so forth.

  5. I wasn’t expecting to visit Mondoweiss today.

    This is a good piece and I agree with the thrust of your argument completely.

    I did, however, wince at your mention of Judith Butler. The way you frame the argument, her situation applies; I find Butler’s views on Israel/Palestine to be both poisonous and dishonest, but I agree this should be no bar to honouring her for her unreadable gender theory.

    The difficulty is that, in spite of her undeniable clarity and eloquence on the subject, she makes for a singularly poor free speech martyr. I say this not because her views are objectionable but because her defence of unrestricted speech and academic freedom is offered in the worst possible faith.

    In an address at Brooklyn College, she had this to say on the importance of the latter:

    “I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered. In other words, you come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear. These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

    These words, stripped of their immediate context and taken on their own merits, are laudable and noble.

    But, as it happens, they were uttered at a conference dedicated to the support and advocacy of BDS. This recommends, not just the sanctioning of the State of Israel as your post suggests, but also the boycott of and divestment from Israeli academic and cultural institutions, which Butler has justified like this:

    “[T]he academic and cultural boycott seeks to put pressure on all those cultural institutions that have failed to oppose the occupation and struggle for equal rights and the rights of the dispossessed, all those cultural institutions that think it is not their place to criticize their government for these practices, all of them that understand themselves to be above or beyond this intractable political condition. In this sense, they do contribute to an unacceptable status quo.”

    Two things about this:

    Firstly, the clear implication is that her opponents are complicit in the systematic denial of equal rights to the dispossessed and that their disagreements are therefore unworthy of consideration. So she seeks, in her own words, “to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance”. She enjoins others to listen (to her), but she has no interest in listening to others. She speaks of a plurality of views but only within the bounds of what she considers to be acceptable discussion. Butler too is in the business of conformity and not transformation.

    But, more seriously, it is on the basis of this hypocrisy that she demands the application of additional coercion which constitutes an explicit attack on the very principles of academic freedom itself. To wit (from the PACBI website):

    1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
    2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
    3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
    4. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
    5. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

    The question this raises for me is not whether or not it is right to honour an academic for her apolitical writing when she holds repellent political views. Rather:

    Is it right to honour an academic whose political activism violates academic freedom, both in principle and practice?

    • amie

      Endorse entirely the point you and Sarka make. The equivalence by Mr Malik between Butler and Ali fails on the grounds you argue; afaik Ali has never campaigned to silence others. Unless one ascribes to tit for tat, this is not a basis to silence Butler either.

    • I have written of my disagreements (intellectual and political) with Judith Butler. However, if only those who held unimpeachably liberal views on free speech were to be honoured, then honours would be in short supply. And Amie, as for Ayaan Hirsi Ali ‘not wanting to silence others’, she has argued that radical Islamic preachers should be banned, that Muslim schools should be closed down, that Muslims should not be allowed to burn flags or effigies, etc. She also supported (in the name of ‘tolerance’) the Swiss ban on the building of minarets. Doesn’t seem very liberal to me.

      • Sarka

        Butler’s inconsistency is egregious because she is an academic who is a high-profile supporter of specifically an academic boycott.
        Meanwhile, there is definitely an argument to be had on whether demanding a ban on radical Islamic preachers, closing down Muslim schools etc…makes Ali inconsistent in quite the same way. Like most liberals, I am not a libertarian, and recognise that there are situations in which limits on freedom of expression (or other freedoms) may need to be imposed to protect liberalism-freedom – the primary question always being which situations and what limits – on which question there is always a lot of disagreement even between pretty liberal people. I might well want to argue with Ali about some of the suggestions she has made (I myself think Muslims should be allowed to burn flags or effigies – as so too should non-Muslims, including Muslim flags or effigies – provided there is not a situation of dangerous civil turmoil).

        One whole problem here is that while we may try to argue cases like this one in an abstract way (pure liberal principle), or else in a sociologically generalised sort of way (as you did – and I think very well and insightfully – identifying tendencies across different specific issues), undoubtedly we (also) have here a political situation that cannot be wished away via abstract or general considerations. I.e. between those who believe that Muslims are vulnerable, insulted and injured and denied rights de facto given to everyone else and so deserve – under the terms of liberalism – to be accommodated and protected in ways that – it is alleged – are really only those already accorded to everyone else, and those who believe that on the contrary Muslims are being specially accommodated and protected – among other things from liberalism and at the expense of liberalism. It makes it even harder that an intelligent observer might consider that there was something in both positions! Especially given the general shut-up tendencies you describe – but also, of course, – which you don’t describe – the extremely irritated and actually vocal counter-tendencies (never has there been such a cacophony of people claiming that they are being “silenced”!), there’s absolutely no way that any e.g. academic institution can “act bewildered” about the politics of choosing e.g. any person with strongly profiled views on Islam for some award.

        I therefore find Brandeis’s behaviour odd. Unless an institution opts in the present situation for extreme caution (as many do – understandably), I would assume that any controversial decision it takes is taken in full knowledge
        – and if not as an endorsement of – here – Hirsi Ali’s views, then as – in a way – an endorsement of the acceptability of strongly anti-Islam views – the Ali kind, not the Westboro Church kind – as part of dialogue in the public realm. To this extent the
        Muslim activist response – CAIR alerting the Brandeis MSC to the need for a campaign – was entirely logical (and would no doubt have been the same had Brandeis decided to honour e,g, Taslima Nasreen). But what is illogical
        is Brandeis’s immediate but at the same time shame-faced cave-in – the shame-facedness is obvious from the
        strange lie told about how the decision had been made after discussion with Ali (there was no discussion, she was simply informed). Brandeis should either have taken a firm stand like McGill last year over the Butler honorary degree, or never made the proposal in the first place. So whatever you think of Ali, it has sent the worst possible signal, which is that substantial debate on an important but highly sensitive subject can legitimately be replaced by “no platform” politicking.

  6. Step Left

    I look forward to shrugging my shoulders when prominent pro-choice activists are hounded out of employment due to an organized campaign of pro-lifers or employers with strong pro-life ethos says, ‘you are pro-murder, that is inconsistent with our anti-murder values, goodbye, it makes business/ethical sense.’

    I am pro-choice by the way and pro-SSM, but if these people want to escalate politics to some Schmittian game where principles are thrown out the window and the glove are off, join us or be destroyed, then I am happy to stockpile ammunition, and supposedly political kin will be on the list for liquidation too. If that is what they want to play then I think they should understand where it will lead.


  7. Sarka

    That is an excellent point Jacobin. Like you I don’t think Butler should be denied a platform (or even the honorary degrees she regularly picks up these days) because of her views on Israel, but for all her fine words on freedom, it is worth pointing out that she is openly identified with the cause of denying other academics a platform as well as being in that case indifferent to the distinction between political views and professional achievements/field.

    This leads on to another general point. How we regard these various attempts to get a person denied some platform and/or position or honour on grounds of unacceptability of views [so now I am not talking of legal sanctions but of lesser sanctions in civil society], has to include consideration of the content of whatever it is that is thought objectionable in their views, and where relevant the relationship between whatever their main activity is and those views…as Sarah says (though I honestly think it’s a slightly diversionary point here), a mathematician or musician with some possibly objectionable political or social views is different for these purposes from someone famous for – possibly objectionable political or social views – though the distinction is tending to be eroded these days. BUT it also must involve the question of the person’s general relationship to ideas of free speech. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has written impassioned root-and-branch criticisms of Islam but as far as I know she has never championed the notion of driving Muslims and those that view Islam differently off public platforms – she is always very willing indeed to debate opponents (many of whom do themselves no good in the eyes of intelligent observers by refusing to debate her) and does so with considerable civility. The same cannot be said of Butler, which means not that we should seek to “silence her” but that she herself has rather less genuine cause for complaint when anyone else tries! The same can be said of numerous – though of course not all – Muslim pundits and publicists and spokespersons who often use various public and civil-society platforms precisely to argue FOR restriction on freedom of speech and whose views can be characterised as very much lacking the dimension of liberal reciprocity.

    To describe what Kenan is talking about in other terms, sometimes I fear that we are seeing, in civil society, a disintegration of some basic psychological-social assumptions necessary for free speech (however necessarily restricted at the edges) to flourish. One is the assumption that grown-ups can and should be able to cope with the “distress” caused by the expression of views that are very much counter to their own and so unflattering to them. Another (less often discussed) is that there is no simple equation between views and behaviour – and/or that views are usually complex…e.g. it is actually perfectly possible, and in the west more or less normal, for persons who are strongly critical of Islam, or Christianity, or gay marriage [or whatever – insert], to behave justly with Muslims/Christians/gays etc etc…in personal and professional life – the reason not being simply that they may be nice people with no desire to cause distress to individuals, but also – and crucially – because they embrace the liberal principle that disagreement with someone’s beliefs or lifestyle cannot be a reason for treating them unjustly. BTW, it is actually far more important that we all agree more or less on this liberal principle than that we should all be forced to mouth approval of beliefs or lifestyle on pain of social exclusion.

    Now of course, it is true that a strong disapproval of a religion, lifestyle, political and social views can and sometimes does spill over into – express itself – in illiberal behaviour, but we have a legal framework to try to discourage the worst aspects of that, and a liberal society basically can and should do no more about this than trust to the effects of education and debate. It simply cannot succumb to an ethos of unlimited suspicion. E.g. the assumption that it is perfectly intolerable to be in the same workplace/educational establishment – even – at the most absurd level – in the same society, as persons whose views and attitudes are not entirely flattering to one’s own…because, as it were automatically, those unflattering views will quite automatically be expressed in discrimination of all kinds, horrible injustice, probably even massacres in the street – as well as the sheer frightful “distress” of “offence” – the feeling of not being taken at one’s own high estimation of self and group, the feeling of (oh horror), being required to argue about these things at
    debate level, exposed to robust even rude intemperate criticism, questioned about the degree of reciprocity of own attitudes, and all without guaranteed total vindication.

    One reason for this unfortunate tendency towards an ethos of unlimited suspicion is, of course, the development of the notion, represented at high-brow end precisely by persons like Butler, that all
    use of language (attitudes, comments, positions) by anyone other than “victim” groups and their noble intellectual allies, is saturated in the sinister dynamics of power and domination. At the popular end, I also often think of Tocqueville’s comments on America two centuries ago, when he noted that as a society becomes more egalitarian, people become more not less touchy about matters of “respect”. Finally of course, there simply is a major problem with Islam (though not all Muslims)…Islamic societies did not
    traditionally evolve the kind of socio-psychological assumptions that underpin liberal Western freespeech practices – the Islamic integrism so rife in Muslim minorities in the west combines some traditional honour-shame thinking, in which challenge and disrespect to beliefs or community or individual is genuinely
    in many circumstances considered an annihilating threat to selfhood and self-respect even when accompanied by no material threats, with the modern Western tendencies making for an ethos of unlimited suspicion of contrary views.


  8. amie

    “in many circumstances considered an annihilating threat to selfhood and self-respect even when accompanied by no material threats,” Classic case in point is Mughal’s (fortunately failed) criminal case against a tweeter. According to notes taken at the trial (not a verbatim transcript): Asked about his response to the tweets:
    He replied very frightened, it was an attack on my identity…the three messages taken together made him anxious, scared, his identity was under attack but he was also angry as they were “so prejudicial against who I am”..he said vehemently “I do not like to be targeted about my faith period!”

  9. Sarka

    Amie – the Mughal case is an interesting counterpoint to these others. It is different in being a legal case (not a matter of the freedom of civil society instititions to honour or select/deselect persons on political grounds), but as Kennan argues, there is a definite connection between the baseline legal limits of tolerance in free speech and the more specialised limits and criteria applied by institutions by right of some autonomy.. There are plenty of reasons why the latter will be more stringent in one respect or another than the former, but they have a mutual impact on each other over time.
    Mughal did rather comically show his level of sensitivity (also this casts light on his notoriously very generous conception of what counts as hate-speech, hate incidents etc. in his TellMama capacity). I was amused when he told the judge that the offending tweets were the “worst” he had ever received (Firaz baby, you have led a sheltered life!). The tweets were indeed very rude and meant to annoy, but in the judgment I liked the fact that a) the judge made – in this case persuasively – a distinction between angry/rude/insulting and seriously intimidating – either in content or context, and b) that the attempt to drag racism into the case was resisted. For it is precisely via the over-egging of “upset” caused to a person by rudeness about his beliefs and and by claims of racism in areas not obviously involving classic racism that the present attacks on freedom of speech are proceeding.
    I also liked that through the use of the expert, Mughal’s claims to be the exclusive interpreter of religious references in the tweet insults were effectively squished. All of this suggests a heartening movement to pulling back from allowing the complainant about “offence” to dominate argument with his/her interpretation. Obviously, his/her interpretation is an important factor, but it has to be subject to interpretative judgment itself, within a larger framework.

  10. Tec15

    Grossly disingenuous apologia for Ayan Magan’s noxious views under the guise of “free speech”. There is a massive gulf between her views and that of Judith Butler. Butler hasn’t called for a global war to eliminate Judaism, close Jewish schools, cancel the civil rights of Jews, convert Jews to Christianity, etc and it is highly disingenuous to pretend that anything she has ever said belongs in the same plane as the vomitous outpourings of that shameless self-promoting immigration fraud. She is a mere “critic of Islam” in the same way that Julius Streicher was merely a “critic of Judaism” and an unheralded martyr of press freedom.

    Why is she entitled to receive honours solely for her exterminationist views? It sure as hell wasn’t for her “laughable” scholarship shat out as resident affirmative action hire at propaganda outfit American Enterprises Institute (AEI). Brandeis’s only mistake was selecting her for an honorary degree in the first place, but predictably professional atheist offense takers like you are more outraged at the rescindment of her award, than the decision to award her in the first place. Not for the first time either. Softening the rabid eliminationist bigotry of the likes of her and Sam Harris in the name of “free speech” is what you’re best at.

    BTW, if you’re still concerned about “free speech”, your idol Salman Rushdie is campaigning against Yusuf Islam’s inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for remarks he his supposed to have made, yet strangely for some reason, that incident was not thought fit to be included in this sanctimonious, self-righteous bromide. Go figure 😉

    • So, to say that I ‘trenchantly disagree’ with many of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s views and that I find them ‘deeply objectionable’ is to provide a ‘grossly disingenuous apologia’ for her views. Go figure. You are the mirror image of someone like Robin Blick who, in the comment thread following my debate with Melanie Phillips, suggested that I was an ‘apologist for Islam’ for insisting on a more nuanced approach to the debate on the relationship between Islam and violence. You two would get along just fine in your two non-nuanced worlds.

      I did not say that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is ‘entitled to honours’. I objected to Brandeis caving in to pressure from those offended by the award. Incidentally, I made that same distinction with respect to Judith Butler, questioning whether her ‘intellectual shallowness’ makes her worthy of the Adorno Prize but opposing the campaign to deny her the award because of her political views. Of course, as you have already made clear on Twitter, you don’t recognize that distinction. That’s your problem, not mine.

      Similarly, the comparison I drew was not between the views of Hirsi Ali and those of Butler. It was between the two campaigns to deny them awards because of their political views. Again, you no doubt do not recognize that distinction. And again, that is your problem not mine.

      As for Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie, I have long been critical of many of their views, particularly of Harris’. Of course you know that, as you commented on a previous post I wrote in which I raised my criticisms of Harris (though not harshly for you; in your typically nuanced approach to both politics and language you describe him as ‘literally genocidal’). You choose to ignore my criticisms of people like Harris (and indeed of Hirsi Ali) because it does not fit into your black and white world. Why am I not surprised?

      • Tec15

        “Similarly, the comparison I drew was not between the views of Hirsi Ali and those of Butler. It was between the two campaigns to deny them awards because of their political views.”

        You persist in comparing apples and oranges. The prize Butler was to receive was unconnected with the political views (criticism of Israel) which her critics found so objectionable and on which the campaign against her was based. This is not the case for Ayan Magan’s “honorary degree” which is intimately bound up with her political views, or rather her carefully cultivated image of being a “brave truth teller and women’s rights activist”; Not that she is (unlike Butler) known for anything else of course. That image is bullshit and far away from reality, but highly appealing to Western Chauvinist, Anti-Muslim activists, whose prejudices she actively affirms. If Julius Streicher was to receive an “honorary degree” for his tireless activity on behalf of press freedom, that would tell it’s own tell and defenders of that award to him claiming that “it did not provide approval for his controversial views ” would be seen as the disingenuous and mendacious tools they were. Honorary degrees are largely symbolic tokens of approval not awards of merit, and this is not the the first or last time that students at a private university will organize protests against someone their university has decided to honour. Brandeis ultimately recognized that awarding her an “honorary degree” could not symbolize anything but at least a partial (or even full) approval for her noxious views on Muslims (What she’s both famous and celebrated for). If anything, this was a triumph for free speech and the student organizers at Brandeis.

        Finally, you are getting a lot of mileage out of (disingenuously) claiming to be agnostic on whether Magan should have been selected for an award in the first place while claiming that the rescindment of that award is the real outrage and harmful to “free speech”, so let me put it to you like this: In response to the howls of outrage now emanating from the professional atheists, anti-Muslim activists, various right wing thugs, etc who have chosen to “take offense” at a private University’s decision to not confer an honorary degree on someone, Brandeis reverses course. They decide to reinstate her award. Would this now be a triumph of “free speech” or would Brandeis be buckling under to professional “offense takers”? Also I love how you assume that while the rescindment was based on “outside pressure”, the decision to initially award her was apparently free from any pressure or outside bias (say, from wealthy and influential donors).

        At least we can be thankful that Ayan Magan is not now going on a shooting spree targeting scores of school children, in response to supposedly being “silenced”, as that what she thinks is apparently a natural response to being “silenced”.

        • Opponents of Judith Butler insist that because she calls for censorship of other academics, her views are highly pertinent to any award of academic honours. Opponents of Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggest that her award is intimately bound up with her political views and so should be denied (though, of course if that is the case, then it undercuts Brandeis’ claim that it changed its mind because it realized what her political views really were). Each side picks and chooses their own selective reason to justify closing down debate.

          Leaving aside your sneers about ‘professional atheists, anti-Muslim activists, various right wing thugs’ (I realize it must be comforting for you to imagine that only such people could oppose Brandeis’ action), my view is, no, Brandeis should not bow to political pressure either way. There is, however, a big difference between my view and that of a group such as, say, the Brandeis Muslim Student Association. I am critical of the closing down of debate. The Muslim Student Association is critical of debate not being closed down. It insists that Hirsi Ali has crossed the line between ‘free speech’ and ‘hate speech’ and that she is ‘abusing freedom of speech as a way to justify her hate speech’. In other words her views should deny her freedom of speech. For all the insistence that this is not about denying freedom of speech, the Muslim Student Association itself insists that it is.

        • Tec15

          “(though, of course if that is the case, then it undercuts Brandeis’ claim that it changed its mind because it realized what her political views really were)”
          Yeah, they lied to save face after their initial cockup. Big fucking whoop. Strange that you seem to think that it somehow constitutes a winning argument: “Aha, you were caught in a LIE Brandeis, which means by free speech law, you must now be FORCED to honour Ayan Magan forever! No take-backsies, Nyah!”

          “(I realize it must be comforting for you to imagine that only such people could oppose Brandeis’ action)”
          Not comforting, just the facts. No one outside any of those groups is venting their spleen about this. Additionally, it is quite telling that the people “taking offense” at this (And I include you among their number) were either conspicuous by their silence or their strident approval of actual cases of crackdowns on Campus free speech, such as the suspension of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at the behest of wealthy donors. Or off campus, this illuminating incident with an interesting parallel to Ayan Magan: Or even in the case of Saintly Sir Salman’s campaign to block Yusuf Islam’s inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or even…. well, you get the picture. Why are you so excited by this particular case but not by any of those earlier incidents, hmm? I’d say it’s because the professional atheist brigades only get in a high dudgeon about “free speech” when one of their number has to face the consequences (I.e any push back) of their speech.

          “my view is, no, Brandeis should not bow to political pressure either way”
          Really? Then what was the point of this stroppy temper tantrum, dressed up as an article? You do realize that most of your compatriots raising a stink about this, do in fact want pressure brought to bear on Brandeis to make them confer that honorary degree? What do you think Brandeis should do NOW, without the benefit of time-travel?
          In the real world, of course, such decisions are not made in a vacuum by coldly emotionless, perfectly objective beings. But you seem to think that Brandies’s course correction was the problem; that once the decision to honour Ayan Magan was taken, there was no scope for correction to be made and that they had to follow through to the bitter end on their initial decision, lest “censorship”; that Brandeis should have blithely ignored the objections raised by both faculty and students and instead FORCED Muslim students at the University to participate in a ceremony to honour someone who thinks they should be eliminated. Worth noting that Ayan Magan still has an invitation to speak at Brandeis; Just not in a context in which she was being “honoured”

          “There is, however, a big difference between my view and………….”
          Meaningless non-sequitur. But since you are so eager to share your views, can you explain why you got so worked into a lather over this while ignoring all the previous other incidents I have brought up? 😉 Is it solely about “free speech”, or is there something else at work here?

        • ‘Venting their spleen’… ‘strident’… ‘high dudgeon’…’stroppy temper tantrum’… ‘worked into a lather’. Hmm… I wonder if you read your own comment before posting it?

          I have tried as patiently and courteously as I can to respond to your arguments. But if you really that think this kind of response amounts to a useful debate, then I’m afraid I cannot be bothered to take this any further.

          But one final point. Again, I know it must be comforting for you to imagine that I am a member of ‘the professional atheist brigades [that] only get in a high dudgeon about “free speech” when one of their number has to face the consequences (ie any push back) of their speech’. Unfortunately for such a view, I have also defended the free speech of everyone from anti-Danish cartoon protestors imprisoned for ‘inciting hatred’ to Samina Malik , the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’, to Dieudonne to Judith Butler. I have opposed campaigns such as those against All-American Muslim and Park 51 (the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’) and laws against the wearing of the burqa. I have challenged liberal hypocrisy over free speech including over the Danish cartoons. I have many times challenged people like Martin Amis and Sam Harris, (and again and again and again) and what I call ‘authoritarian atheists’; as well as the anti-Muslim tirades of the likes Douglas Murray and Melanie Phillips and Christopher Caldwell. I doubt if any of this will make much difference as you don’t seem to want to allow anything to disturb your black-and-white view of the world. But the facts are there if you ever want to have a look.

  11. An interesting aspect of this discussion is whether withdrawing an honour following criticism is the same sort of thing as not deciding to award it in the first place. I don’t think it is the same.

    Of course a university’s entitled to give awards or not to whoever it likes. A publisher or newspaper can publish (or not) who it likes. And an event can have the speakers it wants.

    But once you’ve chosen to go ahead, then I think “unpublishing”, “uninviting” or “unawarding” someone under pressure is a sort of censorship. It’s gone beyond a straightforward editorial (or academic or literary) decision, and become a political decision acknowledging that someone’s views are unacceptable not just to you, but generally.

    For that reason I’m opposed to what Brandeis has done, and think it should be ashamed. In the same way, I think unpublishing the Wendy Doniger book was a disgrace, as was the Observer’s decision not that long ago to take down from the web an article it had published by Julie Burchill (together with all the critical comments readers had made about it, it’s worth noting), and I think more than one organisation’s recent decisions under pressure to “uninvite” Julie Bindel as a speaker.

    • Sarka

      Certainly agree. An associated important aspect of this is that such forced reversals of awards, invitations etc…and “unpublishings” then become extensively used by the activists of whatever camp achieved the reveral to push the offending individual/opinion further and further outside the realm of the acceptable. Thus the “unawarding” to Hirsi Ali will now be added to the list of routine charges against her…(look! Her views are so hateful that Brandeis reversed her award!)…Not only – obviously – deterring other institutions from giving her a platform, but also becoming a useful instrument for prejudicing the uninformed against her without need for discussion…(like the Russian folklore character I remember dimly mentioned in some Dostoyevsky novel, “Grisha Oteplev, cursed in seven cathedrals!”)

  12. Being a feminist I find it laughable that so many people are debating free speech at all. We have no vestige of free speech in this country if you’re female and speaking out about gendered violence on the streets or in male media. The police take the side of your attacker, you are physically threatened on line by any male that fancies it and quite a number of females too, and when your six year old daughter is sexually assaulted at her school you are told to stop being sexist if you point out that this is a gendered attack having endured four months of this treatment under the indulgent headmaster’s eye. Try telling a six year old that it is not politically correct in today’s neo liberal Nazism to point out facts about the six people that attacked her that socially bond them together against people like her in case it is deemed sexist. That’s like telling the Jews off for pointing out their attackers where German as its racist. We seem to not be able to admit that sometimes people band together for power and to do dark things in this Its All Good dictat.

  13. jameshogg

    Nobody outside of Mozilla can correctly claim they have any business with Mozilla’s internal affairs on the grounds of free expression they do not like. And also, just as it would be wrong for an employee of Mozilla to lose his job or be put under pressure through salary sanctions for expressing opinion in favour of gay rights outside of the company, the reverse would also be wrong (there have also been cases of bosses looking up employee Facebook chat logs in the U.K. that are of no business to the company, finding them express views they don’t agree with such as opposition to gay marriage, and demoting them as a result).

    It is ultimately none of the company’s business if anyone from the company practices speech that clearly does not represent the company as a whole. People who keep their work life and.. let’s say “rest of life” separate do not really deserve to be called guilty of “workplace discrimination”.

    What I would say though, is that there is a tendency for those who oppose gay marriage to play the “victim” and claim that their voices are being silenced, simply because those in favour of marriage equality are practicing THEIR right to free expression by satirising the opposition’s claims. In other words, it is akin to Peter Hitchens, on a BBC Question Time panel, as public a platform as you can get, claiming that he can’t get his voice heard and that those with conservative opinions will soon be treated with the same “bigoted” cruelty that gay people endured, all because people merely express their views in support of gay marriage. People such as this have no sense of perspective. I hope you’ll agree.

  14. Pregethwr

    In the big picture you are probably right (although there are many views that are now socially acceptable that wouldn’t have been in the past), but equally there is always going to be speech that is not banned but is not acceptable to mainstream society.Your complaint just seems to be that it is changing faster than you are comfortable with

    In Eich’s case if he had been financially supporting a campaign to reintroduce miscegenation laws (as his state did have until relatively recently) or more extreme forms of racial or gender segregation then he would have been sacked instantly. The fact it was his gay employees he wanted to kick out of the hospital rooms of their dying loved ones, or take away their financial security, or break up their families and remove their children etc etc meant it took a bit longer, but not much.

    Unless you support the right of leaders of large shareholder owned corporations to hold any (legal) views without consequence whatsoever your complain ultimately comes down to unease at the speed at which discrimination against homosexuals has become unacceptable. It has indeed been very fast. But unease at fast changing social norms is sadly one of the main symptoms of ageing.

    • Sarka

      You make a good point about the tempo of change in attitudes, but I still think there are problems. For example,
      I have absolutely no idea of the degree of Eich’s opposition to gay marriage, or the nature of the organisation he donated his petty cash to – if I knew I would find it easier to form a judgment. Maybe (like some opponents of gay marriage who are friends of mine and with whom I have had heated arguments) he does not want to kick gays out of the hospital rooms of their dying loved ones etc….and would dispute, with you, that this is the logical corollary of his views. You saying that it is a logical corollary would be something to take up with him, not assumed without further evidence. Although condemning views by their extrapolation to the most extreme possible is nothing new (the hysterical rightwinger insists the moderate leftwinger is a communist, the leftwinger calls the moderate rightwinger a fascist, and e.g. Ilusha of Loonwatch insists that Hirsi Ali’s antagonistic words on Islam means she recommends the genocide of Muslims), it seems to me dangerous to a liberal society if such extrapolation becomes accepted not just as a common aspect of debate, but as a basis for sackings, de-publishing, de-awarding etc etc. ; even accepting that private companies or institutions have a right to impose criteria of acceptability of views that are narrower than the merely bottom-line legal, there is a danger in handing too much power to highly sensitive “extrapolators”…I myself do not believe in the complete sanctity (irrelevance) of “private” views and activities to professional position, let alone public function, but belief in their automatic complete relevance does lead alarmingly to a thought-policing position, which may well not really represent the view of the majority but of highly vocal minorities. I’m surprised that, just because in the Eich case you are on the side of “progressive opinion””, you fail to recognise the danger.

  15. Aloevera

    One issue which continues to stump me–at least here in the US with respect to private institutions of higher education–is: what trumps what?: Does the right to free speech in the US (First Amendment) trump any particular rulings or speech codes that the universities adopt?—or—does the private university–have the right, as an institution which “owns itself”, to adopt speech codes that “channel” what people inside the university can legally say–over and above the First Amendment?

    I refer here not the recent Hirsi Ali case at Brandeis–which is a specific, “invited speaker” matter (although I have criticisms of the way that whole thing seems to have been handled)–but rather to the issue of speech codes in the everyday life of institutions of higher education–where “thought” is supposed to be free. In my (private) US university, there have been countless kerfluffles–some of them quite serious–leading to dismissals, suspensions, and so on–due to breaches of the speech code. There are also occasional workshops given (which are “sort of” mandatory) to guide people on what to say–or how to be civil.

    But my constant question (to which I have never received an adequate answer) is: Isn’t the university *in* the United States? Is it not subject–in some way–the US laws?

    (I have no idea if there are speech codes in UK school and universities–and if so–how these are conceptualized and managed–but it all comes to mind in light of this recent episode in a UK secondary school in which a teacher told a Jewish student who had jumped the school lunch queue that she should get back in line or be sent “to one of your gas chambers”. The student was offended. How does that fit in to all of this?).

    • Derrington

      I think people are confusing free speech with the right to intimidate another. Discussing a concept in a rational manner is different from referencing genocide as an underlying threat. Men in particular these days seem to have difficulty in owning their own aggression or hatred and so disguise racist or sexist intimidation as free speech or banter, without owning their own supremacy agenda.

  16. Noor

    While I certainly see this kind of shut-up-don’t-offend-others culture and I appreciate a culture where any idea can be thrown out and dealt with, during my many years in Indiana, it was more about the insistence to view every position thrown out there as an equally-valid belief or opinion. The modern creationist movement has exploited this to present their ideas as just another valid position in the ‘debate’ over evolution with their “Teach the Controversy”. Apparently ‘evolutionists’ are “demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable”, by wanting creationism completely out of science.

    But then again, perhaps this is part of or a continuation of the same trend – that everyone’s opinions are equally valid, so we should avoid offending them.

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