As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Peaceful Disagreement and Passionate Doubt (February 2021)

This half term I’ve been thinking about free speech. Some other things as well, of course, but for this morning let’s stick to free speech. In the US, free speech is guaranteed under the first amendment to the constitution – part of their bill of rights – and in the UK we have a right to freedom of expression under Common Law (subject to some restrictions); it also comes under one of the British Values – Individual Liberty. Freedom subject to some restrictions is the British way of doing things – Common Law basically says you can do what you like if there’s no law against it – but there are laws against a lot of things, there are a wide range of restrictions on what you can say. It is on these restrictions that I’ve been musing this week and I’d like to share those musings with you. In doing so, I shall be treading carefully – talking about things you can’t say without saying the things that I can’t say – it could be tricky, but I think it’s important.

The idea arose because of two news stories this week – you may have seen them. In the first, Gavin Williamson declared that there wasn’t enough freedom of speech in universities – that people with certain views are unable to express them; that students, academics and visiting speakers can be silenced. The government is bringing in a law to force universities – including students’ unions – to protect free speech following their manifesto commitment to protect the rights of individuals. Williamson said “For every Ngole, Carl or Todd whose story is known, evidence suggests there are many more who have felt they had to keep silent, withheld research or believe they have faced active discrimination in appointment or promotion because of views they have expressed.” If you can lose your job – or miss out on promotion – because you have expressed your views then your freedom of speech has been eroded; that individual liberty that we value has been censored by the government, by the employer, by society, by the group.

I’m going to go on to undermine this idea and hopefully leave you perplexed and thoughtful, but right now I want you to get behind this concept – this principle that the freedom to express ideas that are counter-cultural or unpopular without persecution is an important one. Without that freedom we have groupthink – a surprisingly common disfunction of teams where dissenting views are squashed, not because they are wrong, but because they are dissenting. Without that freedom we don’t see society change, develop, improve: without that freedom we wouldn’t have women’s votes, or gay rights, or available abortion – it is because I believe in these things that I should defend the right of those who disagree to argue with me. The view of the majority isn’t always the right one. And I want to go back to that last sentence – it is because I believe in these things that I should defend the right of those who disagree to argue with me: I think these things are correct – I think I will win the argument – I say that if you think I’m wrong then you should bring it on: let’s discuss, debate, and if we can’t convince each other we can find a way to disagree peacefully. I don’t think I need to silence you, I don’t think we all have to think alike – we’re not enemies, we just disagree.

But now we have the twist, because Williamson talked about Ngole, Carl and Todd and perhaps it would help you to know that Felix Ngole was expelled from a university social work course after he said that God hates homosexuality and that gay people are committing a wicked act. Selina Todd was an Oxford professor who had been invited to speak at a conference on feminism but the invitation was withdrawn due to her association with the group Women’s Place UK which is either a group dedicated to protecting women’s rights or a transphobic hate group depending on who you ask. Noah Carl was a researcher at Cambridge who was sacked because he published far right views that sought to legitimise racial stereotypes. Some of the views Williamson is explicitly seeking to protect are quite unpleasant – as well as my right to be right he would protect the rights of others to be colossally wrong or even worse, in my view, to simplify complex problems beyond usefulness.

This brings us onto the second story – Ken Loach had been invited to speak at St Peter’s College, Oxford, and had that invitation withdrawn. It was quite a coincidence that this happened in the same week – and even more that Ken Loach was the subject of three bonus questions in University Challenge – and so I spent some time looking into this. Ken Loach is a film maker – you may have heard of “I, Daniel Blake” which portrays, through fiction, the hardship caused by universal credit. He also directed “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” which portrays, through fiction, the struggle of the Irish war for independence; and from longer ago “Kathy Come Home” which portrays, through fiction, the experience of homelessness. Basically he makes hard-hitting films that explore issues of social justice. You might not think there is anything wrong with that – you might even have come across his work and support his approach to improving the world. I was similarly perplexed and I found out it wasn’t these films that were the problem but a play called Perdition, from 1987 that he was due to direct but which was cancelled at the last minute. The play portrays, through fiction, the Hungarian holocaust, and centres on a leading Zionist Jew, Dr Yaron, who is accused, along with the rest of the leadership, of facilitating this horror. Horror it was – Germany occupied Hungary (one of the Nazi’s allies, but one that had protected rather than slaughtered Jews) on 19th March 1944, at which point there were 825,000 Jews in the country. Between 15th May and 9th July 1944, over 434,000 Jews were deported on 147 trains, most of them to Auschwitz, where about 80% were gassed on arrival. In total, about 225,000 of the 825,000 are thought to have survived. The questions of how and why this genocide took place have puzzled historians and inspired this play. The problem with fictionalised dramatisations is that whilst the audience knows that the characters, Daniel Blake, Cathy, Dr Yaron, aren’t real, we assume that the background is – we assume that the world in which the story happens is true: and in Perdition it just isn’t. Not only is Yaron fictional, but so is the wider conspiracy he’s meant to be part of – the reality isn’t Jewish leaders saving themselves and their families by collaborating with the Nazis, but Jewish leaders, and their families, being murdered as they tried to protect their community.

So – are you allowed to make up stories about real groups of people in which some of them behave badly? Can you freely libel the dead who cannot be hurt further but cannot defend themselves? Can you contribute to an antisemitic narrative that suggests both that Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves and are part of a conspiracy to change the world for their own benefit? Is a play that people will go to see, and think they have learned something about history and about the world but will only have learned lies and hate something that should be protected? And then, different question, is someone who worked on that play, who defends it and says that its cancellation was due to a powerful Zionist lobby – is someone like Ken Loach a fit person to speak at a university? Should they, 35 years later, be allowed a platform to talk about their other works and views or should we send them packing in case they spread more lies, or should we bring them in and ask them hard questions to unpick why they think, or thought, that Perdition was a reasonable story to tell?

These are hard questions – free speech is hard and so we come to us, at Harris Westminster. We don’t agree on everything. Some of you think I’m left wing, pandering to a woke lobby. Some of you think I’m a right-wing reactionary, defending the status quo. Some of you think I’m a dithering centrist with no real views on anything, looking for an easy life. I’m ok with the political disagreement and I want you to be ok with that, but I’m not ok with the pandering, the defending, the dithering, the character judgments. I want us to have a community where we can disagree – about really important things – without falling out, without having to cancel each other, without applying prejudices. Before half term you had a day off whilst the teachers got together for training – and one of the things we talked about was how we could enable peaceful disagreement. We talked about the difference between dialogue and debate and the importance of the former – earlier I said that I thought I would win an argument: actually in most of these areas of deep disagreement that’s the wrong way to think about things – it’s not a debate to be won or lost – not an argument where we score points and make the other person feel small; it’s a dialogue where we seek to understand better both what they think and why they think it, and also what we really think. We need to talk about hard things so examine our own beliefs – and if you think you understand your own beliefs, you know what you think, then I’d like to suggest that you may be being a little arrogant – it takes more than 18 years to work through the complexities of faith and freedom and equality and competing rights and if you stop reflecting, stop examining your own position then you stop growing, developing, becoming better. I’d like us to embrace the qualities of passionate doubt – that we can think something important without being absolutely certain what the answer is – and the more we doubt, the more we should be passionate about reaching the right answer, and the more passionate we are the more we should doubt that the answer has already been reached.

I’ll leave you with six rules we came up with to frame our dialogue, to enable us to talk about hard things, to disagree peacefully:

1. We’re not enemies – we just disagree.
2. Your first job is to understand why they think what they think.
3. Actually, that’s your second job – the first is to understand why you think what you think.
4. Listen to what is said – don’t tell someone else what they are saying.
5. Discussion is not about numbers or loud voices – it’s everybody’s job to make sure nobody feels marginalised.
6. We can disagree heatedly about important things – this doesn’t make us enemies.