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The free speech wars

In universities and the media, a new type of liberal is arguing that offensive views should be locked out of public conversations. When Ian Buruma was forced to resign from the New York Review of Books, this cultural clash claimed its highest profile casualty yet.

For nearly two centuries, the standard liberal position on freedom of speech and publication has been that of John Stuart Mill in 1859’s On Liberty. “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Of course, liberal democratic governments do silence some opinions, such as those that deliberately insult on grounds of race or sex, or deny the fact of the Holocaust, or betray state secrets, or are believed liable to cause civil disorder. These are not without challenge from civil libertarians, and states differ on what to ban: Britain does not criminalise Holocaust denial, though France, Germany, Italy and many others do.

But the standard liberal position – that everything not deemed too extreme can be said or published – is now strongly challenged by liberals who see themselves as more radical, more truly liberal, than the rest. It is one of the major cultural shifts of our times.

The view that freedom of speech furthers understanding, broadens the mind and sharpens, modifies or even changes one’s own beliefs is now opposed by another view, often militantly expressed. This holds that institutions of all kinds have a responsibility to protect people from opinions they find odious because people will sustain psychological damage from exposure to them. It is a matter of sensibility, and it dictates that the person or group who would cause such harm should not be given any kind of platform – in person, on the web, in print.

American university campuses have become the most contested sites in this new war on words, and much of the controversy centres round the accommodations their administrations make in response to demands from some students. At Harvard – which, as a private institution, is not bound by the US Constitution’s first amendment, protecting free speech – applicants who posted comments considered offensive on social media were denied places in 2017. A columnist in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Zimmerman, criticised the decision as “reinforc[ing] the idea that students shouldn’t offend one another”.

In Princeton, a professor, Lawrence Rosen, cancelled his course on “cultural freedoms” after he used the “N-word” in class, asking (according to a report in the campus newspaper): “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n****r?”.

Challenged on his use of the word, he said he employed it because he thought it was “necessary”. The cancellation appears to have been his decision only: the chair of the anthropology department, Carolyn Rouse – herself African American – strongly defended Rosen, writing that he was “fighting battles for women, Native Americans and African-Americans before these students [in his class] were born” and that the course was designed, in part, to move beyond the impulse to ban words or arguments “because it made me feel bad”.

Rouse’s focus on a sensibility that seeks to ban speech and speakers defined – by anyone – as offensive goes to the heart of the issue. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that this mindset is “setting up a generation for failure”. In an interview with American Interest magazine, Lukianoff said that those who cleave to this view “aren’t just arguing that someone was bigoted, but that in some way it could be deeply psychologically hurtful just to have that person on campus”. Haidt told a story he had heard, concerning a student who had exclaimed to colleagues that she was “starving”. One of the group chided her for being offensive by using the word idly while “there were people who are really starving”.

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The British left is now having many of the same discussions. In March 2018 Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, wrote about the Home Office’s decision to ban four far-right speakers from Britain. One of them, from the anti-immigrant group Pegida, had planned to address a “free speech rally”. In this context, she wrote, “freedom of speech is no longer a value. It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates… aided by the group I call useful liberals – the ‘defend to the death your right to say it’ folk.” She condemned “the delusion that freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social bias”.

Again, universities are often the site of the most intense discussions. In October 2015, a petition on Change.org argued that Germaine Greer should not be allowed to speak at Cardiff University the following month because she had “demonstrated… misogynistic views towards trans women”. Greer had told Newsnight that month that while she supported gender reassignment surgery for transgender people, it “doesn’t make them a woman”. She added, in a statement given to the Victoria Derbyshire show: “Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman.”

Cardiff University insisted that Greer’s lecture could go ahead. More recently, however, some universities and students’ unions have adopted practices similar to those in the US. In 2017, Sussex University’s free speech society was told by the Union that its first guest must submit the text of their lecture for vetting. The society said that this, in effect, made hosting their planned speaker, the Ukip MEP Bill Etheridge, impossible.

The same year, Kings’ College London hired “safe space” marshals, who were empowered to take “immediate appropriate action” to police events. One of the events at which marshals were required was a talk by the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Without the five safe-space marshals working tirelessly, I definitely couldn’t have listened to Rees-Mogg without having my feelings seriously hurt,” wrote one student sarcastically on Facebook afterwards.

In 2018, Bristol University students’ union backed a proposal to ban speakers thought to hold transphobic views. It came in response to a meeting held by an organisation called Woman’s Place UK, to discuss proposed reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act that would simplify and de-medicalise the process for individuals changing their gender legally. “Will this reform spell the end of single-sex spaces and the provision of single-sex services, such as those provided by rape crisis centres and women’s refuges?” asked the event. The Bristol motion said that such discussions “endanger trans women”.

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These fraught debates have at their centre the issue of “narratives”: the way in which people address, describe or teach other people and the attitudes they bring. They also deeply affect the news media, always at the centre of such arguments, since the media both carries and crafts the messages with which society is now saturated.

An unusually neat contrasting of the two potential reactions to protests pitting sensibility against sense came last autumn. Two editors – the Economist’s Zanny Minton Beddoes in London and the New Yorker’s David Remnick in the US – separately invited Steve Bannon, the former chief adviser to US President Donald Trump and now a freelance booster of nationalist parties in Europe, to speak at their respective festivals, both to be held in New York. (Bannon had already spoken at a Financial Times event, in March.)

At the Economist event, Bannon was interviewed by Minton Beddoes and again by a senior editor, Anne McElvoy. The questions were sharp and critical, putting the American at times on the defensive, and rarely, in McElvoy’s case, allowing him to finish a thought.

Beddoes faced little pushback from her colleagues, but did suffer several cancellations by others invited to speak at the Open Future festivals. She asked some of them to explain why they had pulled out. One, a singer called Emmy the Great (Emma-Lee Moss) wrote: “When I think about the future, and what [Bannon] may come to symbolise, I get scared. I don’t want to live in fear.” Mónica Ramirez, a lawyer and social activist, said she did not want the mainly poor, mainly Mexican American people she works with to have “any confusion about where or with whom I stand. I stand on the side of love, tolerance and justice.”

Two others who did take part also explained why. Julissa Arce, an author, wrote that as an undocumented immigrant she wanted her voice to be heard, believing as she does Bannon’s views to be “racist and vicious”. Andrew McLaughlin, deputy chief technology officer of the US in President Barack Obama’s White House, wrote that he believed the Economist was wrong to invite Bannon, but that since it had McLaughlin wished to attend and “make the case for a renewed norm against normalising racist authoritarians”.

In a statement, Beddoes wrote: “The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate.”

Remnick got much more pushback and many more cancellations. He rescinded the invitation, a decision Bannon pounced upon as “gutless”. The objectors, including the actor Jim Carrey and the director Judd Apatow, expressed relief and appeared. By contrast, two writing stars of the magazine regretted the change of mind. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that he believed “the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party.” Lawrence Wright said that “journalism is about hearing opposing views”.

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The issue of sexual harassment and assault, usually by men against women, also provokes clashes between sense and sensibility. One of the most poignant cases took place at another storied liberal journal, the New York Review of Books. The affair, perhaps the most contentious of these charged issues, started when, towards the end of 2017, a man named Jian Ghomeshi was introduced to Ian Buruma, the new editor of the Review.

Now 67, Buruma is one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals. Born in the Netherlands, he spent a decade in Japan and China, speaking both languages. A liberal, he does not endorse any cause or individual uncritically, approaching all with scepticism. (I published some pieces by him when I edited the Financial Times’s weekend magazine.)

Jian Ghomeshi, now 51, had presented widely popular cultural shows on CBC Radio from 2002 to 2014. In 2014, allegations emerged from 20 women that he had used unwanted violence against them: in three cases, charges of sexual assault were brought to trial, where the women made claims of unsanctioned biting and hitting.

 The trial, unexpectedly, produced a judgment that was strongly critical of the women. Ghomeshi was acquitted. His defence team ensured that the women were – in the words of the Canadian Justice William Horkins – “confronted with a volume of evidence that was contrary to their prior sworn statements”. Two had sought to continue a relationship with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults. The third had claimed that to see him on TV or hear his voice made her “relive the assault”, but had sent Ghomeshi messages after the alleged attack and enclosed a picture of herself in a bikini. Another charge, by a fourth woman, was settled out of court by the signing of a “peace bond” – a promise of good behaviour for a year – with an apology.

The verdict didn’t restore Ghomeshi to his previous job at CBC. He lost everything in his professional life. The women involved, and their supporters, remain outraged that he was found not guilty.

Buruma was intrigued by Ghomeshi’s story: without judging his actions, he was interested in having a voice in the magazine of someone who saw himself a victim of the #MeToo moment. He commissioned an essay from the former radio host.

It was a radical choice: Buruma had already sensed that many among the small editorial staff were becoming critical, even suspicious, of his choice of subjects and authors. Buruma was “a libertarian among puritans”, as one observer put it. His staff was, in the main, “woke” (an African-American word, now much in use, meaning staying on guard against injustice). I was told by one close to the magazine, speaking anonymously, that they were on the constant alert for material that was dismissive of others’ experience of offensive behaviour or attitudes and felt it right to change it. Indeed, mainline handbooks on editing now share that view: Copyediting & Proofreading For Dummies, by Suzanne Gilad, asserts that “political correctness is here to stay… writing shouldn’t offend people”.

This approach has been greatly strengthened by the many revelations of sexual assaults, bullying, blackmail of (mainly) women by (mainly) men, and the widespread feeling that those made public are a small part of the whole.

None of the Review editors would talk to me, or return my calls. One person, close to the magazine and sympathetic to the editors’ views, told me that they were dismayed that Buruma did not much discuss the pieces with them and often left them to edit without direction. Buruma says the opposite, arguing that unlike the magazine’s previous editor Robert Silvers – “a benign autocrat” – he sought their views.

Another anonymous source gave a further reason for the gulf between editor and staff: “The Review isn’t in the business of giving dissenting views. The idea of giving someone space to write in favour of the Vietnam War, for example, was unthinkable – even if, as many pro-war people were, they were liberals.” The source added, “Of course, the Me Too movement can be criticised, it can go too far. But you don’t charge at it”, and that Silvers “would have been very careful about Me Too. He would have found ways round it. He would have got a feminist to write on it.”

As it happens, Buruma had got a feminist to write. Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor, supports much of what the Me Too movement does. One of her Review pieces featured a book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take your Power Back by the former Fox host Gretchen Carlson. In the piece Kipnis gave Carlson credit for forcing the resignation of her former boss, Roger Ailes, in 2016 on grounds of sexual harassment. Kipnis told me: “I was quite radicalised by Carlson, learning what appalling behaviour went on.”

 But Kipnis also turned a sharp eye on Carlson herself. In Be Fierce, the TV anchor wrote that a cameraman spent a car ride talking about how he had enjoyed touching her breast while fixing a microphone under her blouse; she felt “sheer terror”. “But what stopped Carlson from just telling the cameraman to shut up?” wrote Kipnis. She says that the editors had given Buruma a phrase designed to soften the criticism and asked her to insert it: thus, following the “shut up” came: “True, she was a young woman in her early 20s, and recently hired. And he was out of line.” Kipnis explains: “Ian asked me to put it in, and I did. He said, look, it will help me if you do this.”

In this climate, “Reflections from a Hashtag”, the piece filed by Ghomeshi, appeared on the Review’s website in September last year. It describes a life ruined: the presenter had suffered torrents of abuse, loss of income, loss of friends, days of self-hatred, thoughts of suicide. Girlfriends who had promised to testify to his good character backed off; “friendly” celebrities said they could say nothing for fear of damaging their own careers.

He confessed to being “emotionally thoughtless” and that many of his actions were “part of a systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity… Some women I cared about went along with things I wanted to avoid my disappointment or moods.” He had come, he wrote, to the “trite” conclusion: “We learn from our mistakes.”

As soon as the piece was out – on the web days before the printed edition – the magazine was flooded with texts, emails and letters, the very large majority objecting to the decision to run Ghomeshi’s essay. The lead response was from Joanne O of Vancouver, who wrote that she had been “personally victimised” by Ghomeshi. “The choice to publish Ghomeshi’s piece was also a choice to remind all of the women he has victimised that his story is worth more than ours,” she wrote.

Linda Redgrave, the founder of Coming Forward in Canada, wrote that the piece was a large bid for sympathy, but that Ghomeshi was now “in the court of public opinion” and “we are trauma-informed judges”. Liam Lacey from Toronto pointed out that while “contradictions in the accusers’ stories caused their case to unravel”, still “at no point were they contradicted in the allegations that they were assaulted”.

A rare supporter, Shirley Anne Wade-Linton from Courtenay, British Columbia, gave her age as 68 and said she did not “have her finger on the pulse of… culture”. Addressing Ghomeshi directly (as “Jian”) she observed that “you have every right in the world to write an article. No one has to read it for goodness’ sakes if they don’t wish to… I thought it was honest and reflective.”

Buruma had believed that Rea Hederman – the magazine’s publisher, who had fought for his liberal beliefs – supported him. Born into a wealthy Mississippi newspaper family whose papers were openly racist, Hederman was appointed editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, where he replaced bigotry with straight reporting, supported schools integration, hired African American reporters and denounced racist activities. Fired for his liberal presumption, he used his part of the family fortune to buy the New York Review in 1984.

Buruma told me that soon after a broiling post-publication meeting, at which Hederman said little, the publisher asked to see the editor in his office – and with little preparation, made clear he wanted him to go. Buruma, “stunned”, left the office and the Review.

 Buruma told me that he believes Hederman had bowed to pressure from the Association of University Presses, whose members are among the largest advertisers in the Review. He said he didn’t think that was the main reason for his firing – a larger reason was the outrage of the staff – but it contributed to it. He told me he had seen emails from individual university publishers pressing Hederman to rectify the fault of publishing Ghomeshi.

Hederman didn’t return my calls, but he sent me emails strongly denying any capitulation to advertisers’ pressure. He had seen, or heard of, a few emails from university presses expressing displeasure with the Ghomeshi essay – one asking that its advertising not run in the issue carrying the contested piece, none demanding the editor’s resignation. “I made no decisions based on what advertisers would or would not do. I’ve never done that in 35 years at the Review or in a previous ten years in journalism.”

 He also said he’d had no pressure from the staff to fire Buruma: his objections centred on the new editor’s editorial practice, and that “most of the editorial staff was denied the chance to make substantial edits to the piece”. He wrote that a “senior editor resigned because of concern that the Review’s longstanding tradition of editing was not being upheld – the Ghomeshi piece just being the latest example.”

Ghomeshi, for his part, feels betrayed. He would not speak to me either, but a close adviser – not named – told me that Ghomeshi was deeply disappointed by the process in which he had to deal with several critical editors. Above all, he had hated a note put on top of the piece that said the essay “should have included acknowledgment of the serious nature and number of allegations that had been made against the writer… More than 20 women accused him of sexual abuse and harassment, which included hitting, biting, choking and verbal abuse during sex.”

The adviser said this had not been agreed, and that the Review had been chosen not for its circulation – 130,000 – but for its prestige: it would lend the essay dignity, which Ghomeshi believes a sincere effort to come to terms with his actions deserved. The note destroyed that.

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Laura Kipnis holds a strongly individual position. She stepped into this cultural maelstrom in 2015, when she was the object of student protests after writing an article critical of new codes on student-faculty relationships. The students demanded that Northwestern authorities defend them against her “terrifying” ideas. Her experience led her to write a book called Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. It aimed, as the journalist Rachel Cooke wrote in the Observer, “to test the limits of what can and can’t be said about the current situation in many, if not most, American universities”. Kipnis describes a “netherworld of… rigged investigations and closed door hearings”.

I asked Kipnis about Buruma’s experience. She said, “This kind of thing absolutely would inhibit an editor. Any editor coming into the Review would feel it crazy to take the kind of risks Buruma did. The danger is it will become tepid.”

After a pause of several months, Hederman went forward to the past: in late February he appointed a pair of chief editors, Emily Greenhouse and Gabriel Winslow-Yost, replicating the co-editorship of Silvers and Barbara Epstein, which ran from 1963, when the Review was founded, until Epstein’s death in 2006 (Silvers carried on alone until 2017, when he died). Greenhouse and Winslow-Yost had both started their careers as assistants to Silvers: Winslow-Yost was an editor when Buruma was appointed but resigned, citing Buruma’s failure to show him the Ghomeshi essay. Greenhouse is on maternity leave; Winslow-Yost, when contacted, asked me to email him questions: I did, but he replied that “I’m afraid I’m not interested in discussing the previous leadership of the Review, or in commenting on private editorial discussions”.

Buruma said that he had found “an atmosphere in which you must be very careful about offending sensibility. In that, there’s no room for the kind of journalism where a free spirited publication sees it as its job to provoke. All this inhibits any approach to writing frankly. I do see editing everywhere going this way, a different way from how I would edit.”