Schools and Freedom of Speech

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Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.

 

 

 

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