About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (a bad wordplay on Orwell's "double plus good" and old machismo - I'm the realest after all) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear' or 'Unripe language'), the umbrella of several literary projects in Dutch.

This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Why is this in English why everything else in Dutch? Because I want to gun for a much wider audience here. Also, my literary English isn't good enough, otherwise I would always write in English.

Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The "free speech" pushback

In the past year, I've seen numerous pieces appear on a common topic: how identity politics is supposedly erasing free speech. The tone of these articles is ostensibly "progressive but concerned". Basically, these articles' concerns boil down to how the demand for inclusivity and safe spaces is harming public debate and censoring free speech. Never mind that if you run a cursory Google search about the incidents mentioned in these articles, the authors blow them wildly out of proportion, there's something weird about casting a bunch of protesters as a minority powerful enough to get people sacked and change university curricula.

This isn't to say that activists never go overboard. I, too, have seen people with only rudimentary understanding of progressive politics froth at the mouth over what is an inconvenience at worst. I, too, have rolled my eyes at the insistent demand of radicals to fire such and such when the facts are still coming out. But here's the thing: caving in to these fringe elements betrays a lack of understanding on the part of the (supposed) offenders, too. It rerouts the debate back to empty signifying of political correctness and avoiding any sort of meaningful debate.

Let's discuss a few examples. Yale University became a hotbed of tension around Halloween after administrators didn't want to censor students in how they'd dress up, responding to concerns about cultural appropriation or offensive costumes. Some students demanded these types of costumes be banned. I would personally disagree with a ban, but Yale could at least have cautioned students and asked them to consider other people when dressing up. For instance, it wouldn't be illegal for me to dress up as a child molester at a party where survivors of sexual abuse are present, but it would probably not be a move in good taste. Adult people should have freedom of choice, but that doesn't mean that consideration for others should be tossed out of the window.

Another example is the resignation of scientist Tim Hunt after some comments about women in laboratory settings that were most likely jokes in poor taste, and not indicative of any sort of deep-rooted hatred of women. Instead of defending himself, listening to what others had to say about it or entering a debate, he just quit. He could have said: "My joke was bad and I recognise why it has offended some people, no matter how unintended it was." There. Is that so hard? I don't understand why some people caught in the crossfire of controversy feel the need to capitulate to the most radical and emotional demands first.

A third recent example is the demands of trans activists that Germaine Greer be denied speaking slots at feminist events because of her notoriously transphobic views. Once again, I do not think that if an event is not specifically or tangentially about trans matters, that Greer should be outright denied the opportunity to speak. But I do believe that free speech advocates are doing a stupid when they argue people with wrong and regressive ideas should be offered a stage at an event that seeks to engender meaningful discussion. Nobody in their right mind would argue for a KKK representative to speak at an antiracist rally, or for the Westboro Baptist Church to be allotted a speaking slot at a gay event. Or, to take it one step further, why would you invite a creationist to an evolutionary biology conference?

What sort of "debate" are these free speech advocates hoping for, really? Are they really interested in listening to concerns about how university professors probably shouldn't be endorsing sexist, racist or otherwise discriminatory practises and worldviews? Or do they merely want to brush off others' concerns as misguided and shallow? I don't think it's a coincidence that all authors of pieces arguing for the continuation of bad form and bad habit are white, cisgendered and heterosexual. At the same time, these authors are keen to downplay the factor of social context and cast "privilege checking" as a weapon to silence them. It's not a weapon. It's truth. It is well possible for a white person to say something meaningful about racial oppression of non-white groups, but their position is always one of historical power. It's easy for the non-oppressed to say that content matters more than who is bringing that content because it's a consideration they usually don't have to make.

Isolating concerned groups to their most extreme elements and casting it as a mere clash of emotions undermines the broader issues. In a vacuum, of course it doesn't matter if a white person dresses up in blackface or if a man makes an ironically sexist remark. But we don't live in a vacuum, and ignorance is no longer an excuse to do or say stupid things. Insisting that people should be able to do and say as they please or that "their side" ought to be heard as well, is simply a retreat into privilege, highlighting form over function and not contributing in any meaningful debate to an ongoing process of emancipation.

"Free speech" is one of the most misunderstood civil rights in the Western world. At its core, it does mean that you're allowed to say whatever is on your mind. But it doesn't mean that what you say is true or that the words you say don't have impact on others (indeed, why say them at all if they don't?). People with weak arguments will all too often resort to claiming critics are "censoring" and "silencing" them when they're merely being proven wrong. Free speech doesn't mean your opinion matters or is valid - a bitter truth to swallow for a lot of people.

In closing, here's another consideration. The authors of think pieces concerned about the sound and fury that sometimes comes with identity politics often explicitly see themselves as progressive people. Allies who indeed recognise that racism is bad, sexual violence is evil and that we still have ways to go to create an egalitarian society. So I'm not going to say these people have a hidden conservative agenda. But, as in the controversy around Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Belgium, it's not that every proponent of Zwarte Piet is racist - every racist is a proponent of Zwarte Piet. Similarly, not everyone who defended Tim Hunt was a sexist, but sexists and misogynists of all stripes unified behind Hunt. There does a come a time when the "free speech" advocates need to ask themselves what kind of friends they truly have.