On failures to understand what ‘free speech’ does and does not mean: Starkey again

First, a disclaimer. I have nothing against right-winger journalists. In fact, like everyone with a smidgeon of social conscience, I find them fascinating.

Oh, who am I kidding? I find them smug, self-interested curmudgeons who tend to have a worryingly shallow grasp on basic logic. As demonstrated in the Telegraph by one Jemima Lewis. I’m sure she’s generally a lovely warm-hearted woman, as her sneering column about students’ youth (some of my students are considerably older than she is) and their, erm, genderfluidity, suggests. But I read her piece on the Starkey controversy with my eyes more or less continually rolling.

All of this sneering at ‘the youth’ was in aid of Lewis’s bigger point, which was a half-baked defence of something called ‘free speech’. Apparently, we all have the god-and-Dave-given right to speak on promo videos for the University of Cambridge. Any attempt to prevent us from doing this is now to be known as ‘censorship. As my colleagues commented over on twitter, this is a delightful, surprisingly radical offering from the right-wing press: no doubt the same freedoms will shortly be rolled out, allowing me to write Lewis’s column, appropriate her salary, and throw my toys out of the pram if anyone objects. Not so?

Oh, shit, wait, do I need to undergo some kind of process, whereby the Telegraph would actually, like, decide whether or not to publish what I write? Do you think they might even, sometimes, commission me to write a piece and then decide not to publish it after all? Picture me making a Sadface (TM), in the manner of the Young People.

Teasing aside (and it is this truly ridiculously overblown definition of ‘censhorship’ and ‘free speech’ Lewis is working with), what got to me about Lewis’s piece was this claim. Acknowledging that Starkey has overcome obstacles to achieve his current position of considerable privilege, she notes in apparent shock:

“But being gay, disabled and working-class is no longer enough to appease the gods of intersectional correctness.”

It’s good to know the Telegraph is such a bastion of support for LGBT rights (bashing of genderfluidity aside, perhaps).

What Lewis fails to understand is that there is a distinction between a person who speaks as an individual – however rudely or ill-advisedly – and one who is speaking as a representative of a wider group. Starkey has perfect right to express his opinions as a private individual. He has the right to express his opinions as an academic, and I feel fairly strongly that he should be free to do this despite what he’s said in the past about race, gender and class. I’ve written about this issue before. What Starkey does not have is the automatic right to represent the whole university as their spokesman. Patently – and I’m gobsmacked a woman intelligent enough to write for the Telegraph can’t understand this – this is not a ‘right’ that can be interpreted as ‘free speech’, or we’d all have promo videos in our names floating around. If Starkey’s representation seems likely to alienate staff, students and potential students because of the racist and misogynistic views he’s put forward, then surely, we should choose to give that ‘voice’ to someone else?

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9 thoughts on “On failures to understand what ‘free speech’ does and does not mean: Starkey again

  1. You write with such clarity. You are persuasive, of course, and very often extraordinarily eloquent, but, as someone who too often gets to the middle of my argument and then seems to start twirling, and not in an Eleanor Parker tap dancing wonderfully kind of way, I especially prize clarity. Your students are very lucky, and I hope someday, sooner rather than later, they realize it.

  2. I can’t believe she wrote this: “First, a disclaimer: I have nothing against young people. In fact, like everyone over 40, I find them fascinating, with their legal highs and gender-fluidity and the way they never wear socks with their pointy brogues. Don’t their ankles get chilly?”

    I mean if this was baseball, she’s already out.

    You are amazing!!!! look how you and your allies got them blabbing about censorship when they are so spun… I mean, after owning and controlling the voices, oh dear me make room for women and black students!

    And a lot of gay men are misogynistic and so since when does being gay mean representing the voice against patriarchal/sexism?

    I think the snarky write up about the students and teachers petition to off the video-commercial means they’re losing ground and as typical to political form, backlashing.

    Your students are LUCKY to have you yes.

  3. Good job over there!!! I’m glad she wrote this: “The grown-ups in charge of Cambridge University, for example, have just withdrawn a fundraising video featuring the historian David Starkey, after hundreds of students and lecturers signed a letter accusing him of racism and sexism. The letter provided close textual analysis of various “deeply offensive” remarks made by Starkey, including his claim, after the riots of 2011, that Britain’s white working classes “have become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion”.

    I found her pointing Starky’s “club-foot” out a very odd defense of him. What did she mean… that because he is “hobbling about” and just as “crippled” as women and black people, it’s all good?

  4. Pingback: On failures to understand what ‘free speech’ does and does not mean: Starkey again | Girl Power Academy (Girl Soda Atlas)

  5. Pingback: A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail | Jeanne de Montbaston

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