'Diverse societies should not curtail free speech'

14 August 2015 | Story Abigail Calata. Photo Michael Hammond.
Kenan Malik spoke of the importance of free speech in diverse societies at the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom.
Kenan Malik spoke of the importance of free speech in diverse societies at the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom.

Free speech should not be suppressed in the name of tolerance or respect, in fact in plural societies "the fullest extension possible of free speech" is required in order to challenge power.

This was the crux of the argument put forward by Kenan Malik, an accomplished writer, lecturer and broadcaster, who delivered the 50th TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom on 13 August 2015.

"In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities," he explained.

Malik maintained that while past generations considered free speech the "very foundation of liberty" the idea of free speech "as an intrinsic good" has been increasingly eroded over the last few decades. And in its place a notion that censorship is good has arisen.

"Free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield [while] censorship has come to be seen as more than the norm. For many, censorship has come to be a progressive act, a means of protecting people [and] challenging power."

This statement is underscored by his assertion that in the current age, threats to free speech do not present themselves as such, instead "contemporary hazards to free speech are often signposted as defences of freedom".

Twin threats to free speech

Malik identified identity politics and the emergence of the 'therapeutic society' as the forces behind the erosion of free speech.

Identity politics filled the void left by "the breakdown of ideological politics". He went on to say that while, in the past, identity was "directly linked to the project of social transformation, now the politics of identity demanded recognition as an end in itself".

He described the therapeutic culture as one where "social problems are increasingly regarded as psychological ones and social change viewed more through the medium of individual therapy than collective action".

"The therapeutic idea of the individual as weak and vulnerable has reinforced the tendency ... to perceive all words as threatening and to insist that people need protecting from offence ... in such a world it is not difficult to see how censorship, the means through which to restrain the power of words, can become transformed into a good."

The role of the academy

Malik stated that academic freedom and freedom of speech were intrinsically linked, so that the "ability to defend academic freedom is intimately linked to [the] ability and willingness to defend freedom of expression".

He described the university as "a space for would-be adults to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge, to interrogate power, to learn how to make an argument. A space within in which students can be challenged – even upset or shocked or made angry".

"The reason that academics deal with issues such as racism or colonialism or misogyny is that these are real issues in the real world ... In the real world, all of us are forced, indeed in my view morally obliged, to confront issues such as those of racism and homophobia and misogyny," he concluded.

Read Kenan Malik's full speech.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.