May 12, 2017
By Alexandra Tompson*
Alternative facts are causing outrage across the Atlantic. Triggered by an exaggerated description of Trump’s inauguration crowd numbers, even the dictionary stepped in. Merriam-Webster tweeted ‘a fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality’. And while the American debate rages, Europe is experiencing a lockdown of alternative views.
The reason is troubling: the fear of causing offense. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a ‘view’ as an opinion or judgment colored by the feeling or bias of its holder. One would think that the very nature of an opinion invites debate. Apparently not anymore. Europe is suffering from a culture of silence. Examples abound.
Take campus censorship, the sharp end of the growing trend to censor unpopular speech in Britain. The stifling of free speech by British student unions is currently so prevalent that it has caused governmental concern. Last month, the Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson instructed UK universities to uphold freedom of speech as a legal duty. Student union bans include that of un-PC newspapers, songs, sports clubs, and societies. Students are basically no longer trusted to express themselves freely.
The issue is not restricted to Britain. It was only a few months ago that Stephane Mercier, a visiting lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium described abortion as ‘the murder of an innocent person’ to a first-year philosophy class. Since philosophical theory is predominantly based on the free exchange, and conflict of ideas, one would have thought that the students would relish a passionate moral argument. Not so. The campus feminist group felt hurt. Chillingly, their subjectively hurt feelings not only overruled free speech but deprived Mr. Mercier of a job. No matter how backward, or how offensive the opinions, the “liberal” preference for censoring opponents as a response ultimately hurts us all. I fail to see anything progressive about it. Instead, I see an unashamed “you-can’t-say-that” mindset undermining the whole purpose of education. Aren’t minds sharpened by fighting ideas with ideas?
There is no limit to censorship fueled by fear of causing offense. In France, the free expression of people with Down syndrome was trumped by women’s serenity. In a video entitled ‘Dear Future Mom’, several young people with Downs from all over Europe teamed up to reassure an expectant mother that her baby with DS has a great life ahead. A heart-warming response to a worried email, asking ‘what kind of life will my child have?’ It was broadcast for several days on French TV until it was ordered to be taken down. The youngsters with DS featuring in the spot asked for their basic human right of free speech to be upheld. The Court, however, rejected their plea, claiming that their happy depiction is likely to disturb the conscience of women who had made different choices. Ironically, the commercial was for the UN-recognized World Down Syndrome Day. Not quite the ideal timing to censor DS people to silence.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, recognized under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It ought to be heralded as one of our society’s proudest achievements, and defended at all costs. Without free speech, so many other rights fade away.
While the end of sparing other people’s feelings may be admirable, criminalizing alternative views does not come without a cost. Paradoxically, that cost is tolerance itself. In Erasmus’s timeless words, ‘In a free state, tongues should be free too’. Let’s do our society justice and stop walking on eggshells.
* Alexandra Tompson is a Legal Analyst for ADF InternationalADF International