On Milo and Free Speech in Schools

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The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. JS Mill

This week saw Milo Yiannopoulos banned after discussions with the DfE’s Counter Extremism Unit from speaking at his old school, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, a school from which he was expelled eleven years ago. Apparently the concern was that there might have been demonstrations against him that might have got out of hand and the reputation of the school might be harmed in some way. Meanwhile, in Scotland, (Gorgeous) George Galloway who had spoken at  Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire that morning was later ‘attacked’ (Glitter Bombed) by a group of five people led, according to Galloway by a ‘Trans and an anarchist’, at a speaking event at the University of Aberdeen.

As Galloway said:

Few weeks go by when the ‘identity politics’ crowd don’t strike one campus or another either physically or with their ‘no platform’ demands.

Galloway is right, there are too many people who rather than argue and debate with people wish to close down debate entirely and whether they are groups of demonstrators or state agencies we should do whatever we can to ensure free speech in our places of learning.

Katie Hopkins wrote in the Daily Mail (check your personal triggers at this point) that:

Rather than let the 220 pupils who had signed up to hear him speak, listen, challenge him and make up their own minds, it was decided that exposing pupils to anything other than a liberal viewpoint could be damaging.

Hopkins has a point when she says that too many, so called ‘liberals’ are:

The… champions of diversity who will not tolerate diversity of thought or opinion.

This is an important point. If children in our schools, who can access a wide range of opinions online, are unable to access a range of thoughts, ideas and opinions when at school and are able to see how these ideas stack up under scrutiny then are they being educated properly?

But there is a problem with extreme views, they are not ‘harmless’.

In the Guardian the murderer of Jo Cox MP, Thomas Mair, was described in the following way:

Mair was racist and a terrorist in the making, his home stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia and his mind brimming with a belief that white people were facing an existential threat. “The white race,” Mair once wrote, was about to be plunged into “a very bloody struggle”. His greatest obsession, however, and his deepest bitterness was over those white people whom he condemned in his writings as “the collaborators”: the liberals, the left and the media.

Mair accessed his local library’s computers, looking up such things as the BNP, white supremacists, Nazis and public shootings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen SS, Israel, serial killers and matricide. His hatred fuelled by his reading and his reclusiveness.

If we were to apply Mill’s principles on Liberty to Mair, we would have to make a decision about what point someone becomes a danger to others. This is a judgement call and would also necessitate some form of scrutiny of a person’s private life in order to ascertain whether they might be a danger.

David Aaronovitch pointed out in this week’s Times:

I have yet to come across an example of a public figure murdered by a mad liberal whose home was found to be stocked with books by John Stuart Mill and covered in slogans calling for proportional representation

The centre must hold. There are certain aspects of a person’s views that might alert us to further problems. This is where ‘society’ takes a view but one in which it can overreach itself, Mill, again:

when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its public functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right; or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.  

Those who call for a no platform have a point, we know people have been radicalised  by hate preachers and fundamentalist Muslim extremism and far right extremism are two of the most obvious dangers to our way of life but is that a good enough reason to ban Milo from speaking at his old school?

No. There is considerable difficulty at the heart of Mill’s liberal utilitarianism, but it is not, in his view, for the State to make moral judgements about us unless those actions are going to harm others. The school invited Milo and wished to question him about his views, this is clearly not a school in which pupils will be brainwashed by his ideas and then go on to do harm to others. That his views can be easily found online, often in the context of having little scrutiny means that they would probably have had a ‘safer’ space in which to analyse his thinking than they do now as the talk failed to materialise. The idea that the school which expelled Milo would have some harm done to its reputation is ridiculous and if potential demonstrations are a problem then it’s for the police to ensure freedom of speech is upheld as a principle as far as is possible.

It is the danger of views not being open to scrutiny that should worry us more. The more we can argue with those with whom we disagree the better. That some are a danger to others is not the argument, we know this and these people should be dealt with before they can do harm to others. If only Mair could have been prevented from carrying out his disgusting crime, the better for us all.

If anything, more schools should be inviting the likes of Milo and Galloway to speak to their pupils, however, it might be better that schools forgo the idea of having people  ‘preach’ to their pupils and ensure, instead, that equally eloquent speakers are pitched against them. Debate specific issues, invite these people to make their argument in the context of the topic of your choice and through the discipline of a formal debate so that their views can be tied down and exposed to forensic examination.

It’s the hiding away of views or the exposure to unchallenged platitudes that can foment more trouble.

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16 thoughts on “On Milo and Free Speech in Schools

  1. johnmatthewsg

    Milo is the human embodiment of the Streisand effect: every time he’s censored he doubles in size (both his popularity and ego).

    If this was a uni I would be against the ban but at a school I’m a bit more unsure.

    In 1930s Germany the best educated kids the country had to offer swallowed up Adolf’s message, why do we think we can do any better now?

    We should not be tolerant of intolerance, something the UK has taken a long time to realise in the case of FGM, arranged marriages etc. How does this relate to Milo? We know Milo is a huge Trump fan, he was a surrogate for him. Is Trump intolerant? If so there’s a case for censoring Milo. Either way its a huge mess.

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    1. Martin Robinson Post author

      It is difficult when it comes to deciding ‘who’ to invite to speak but if the only voices that end up being heard are echo chamber centrist voices that is not good for the political life of the country, nor is it good for understanding one’s fellow human beings. Many of the so-called ‘metropolitan elite’ are currently in shock at the moment as they realise a number of people had a very different world view to the one they thought everyone had, democracy is about listening, conversing and trying to persuade, it does not work though castigating, censoring and trying to ignore.

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  2. Rufus

    I like “the more we can argue with those with whom we disagree the better”. I’m sure I do not have the knowledge or skills to argue well against Yiannopoulos or similar experienced polemicists, so I am taken with the notion that we should “ensure… that equally eloquent speakers are pitched against them.”

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  3. Joseph Dunne

    Whilst I agree pupils should be exposed to ideas that challenge their precepts, I remain perplexed as to why figures like Milo are defended purely, it seems, in terms of the right to free speech. I have struggled in vain to find any critical engagement with the substance of Milo’s arguments. His notion of a ‘post-fact universe’ is bereft of any serious political or sociological analysis and entirely contradicts his commitment to ‘facts’ on gender and race. His tiresome references to studies ‘proving’ the wage gap is a myth and women are physiologically and psychologically unable to thrive in the technology and science sectors, are accompanied by a conspiratorial view of the world that the ‘liberal elites’ i.e. anyone who disagrees with him exist to denude men of authority by making them supplicants of the ‘grievance brigade’. His obsession with ‘policing’ language in schools is not considered in the context of necessary behavior policies, without which bullying would be given an aura of respectability; after all, bullies in this context are just ‘telling it like it is’ if they call someone fat, ugly, smelly, or if they use racist terminology. He elides satire and journalism without pause; a tactic designed to shut down a serious study of his arguments. It also does not follow that because Milo courts controversy he necessarily wants to provoke debate in schools, only outrage. I would expect to see him propose some concrete arguments supported by objective analysis. Instead all I see is a man devoted to causing mischief; nothing more.

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    1. teachwell

      The wage gap is a myth. You are referring to the earnings gap which is over the course of a person’s working life. I am currently contributing to it as a woman who works part time. It is about individual choices and what you have to prove is that it is something else. There are laws that can and have been used to challenge unequal pay if it has been found and the evidence is that women, on average, are out-earning men in their twenties. The fact that women don’t work while on maternity leave, chose to work part-time accounts for much of the discrepancy. That and the fact that they don’t do some of the dangerous jobs that men do. In addition, the idea that one can look at a statistic and assume discrimination is ridiculous – making a correlation a causation.

      I know women who are career minded but have chosen to be the one who works part-time because they want to spend time with their children. It is a family decision and not a freedom I would take away from them for the sake of creating a statistic. Numbers are not worth human experience.

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    2. Martin Robinson Post author

      It’s not about him per se or Galloway, but it is about that ilk of tremendously controversial and articulate voices who could do with being challenged more as their unchallenged voices are extremely attractive and easily accessible. Do their views stack up under scrutiny? If they do then it’s not their personality that should worry you but the quality of the reasoning. If they don’t stack up then that will be exposed.

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  4. Becky

    So if George Galloway is right and the important thing is freedom of speech, then why haven’t we heard the trans activist’s side of the story? Moreover, why did George Galloway feel it important to mention that one person out of a group of six who allegedly attacked him with glitter was trans? If someone were mugged by a group of six people (one of whom happened to be black, the rest white) then wouldn’t you feel that if all the victim could go on about was the fact that one of the attackers happened to be black that would indicate a certain level of pre-existing racial prejudice towards black people on the victim’s part? Just sayin;)

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  5. Becky

    So if freedom of speech is the important thing here, then why haven’t we heard the trans activist’s side of the story? Moreover, why on earth does George Galloway feel the need to make an issue of the fact that one of his attackers was trans? If someone had been mugged by a group of six people and out of the five one had happened to be black then wouldn’t we assume that if all the victim could go on about was the fact that one was black then the victim would most probably be harbouring a pre-existing racial prejudice towards black people? Just sayin;)

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    1. josephdunnearchiveproject

      True, many women don’t do some of the same jobs men do, but it goes both ways. When I worked at a special needs school the majority of teachers and teaching assistants were women. It is a mentally and physically draining job: administering personal care, being hit and spat at daily, helping the children to eat, and earning very little money. Same in the care sector: abysmal wages with virtually no training for a vital profession.

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  6. Andrew Stanley

    Milo was the instigator of a campaign of racist abuse, death threats and rape threats against Leslie Jones, the Ghostbusters actress. He was banned from Twitter for this. He attacks transgender individuals on social media, orchestrating tirades of abuse against vulnerable people. He may claim it’s mischievous. It isn’t. It is potentially murderous behaviour. He has no arguments; he merely asserts. Against such as Milo, liberal values have no answer. Sometimes, and these are those times I suspect, more robust opposition is required.

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