Two philosophers were front-page news last week. The gender-critical thinker Kathleen Stock was at the centre of a free-speech storm when she spoke at the Oxford Union despite campaigns to no-platform her and a protester who glued themselves to the floor in front of her. On social media Stock was challenged, vilified, and described as a fascist and a bigot, often by people who admitted they hadn’t read Material Girls, a closely argued 320-page book.
Some activists claimed that she denied their existence, and that her views were dangerous for trans people. Those who sided with her praised her courage, calm, and eloquence. Others didn’t commit on the content of her views but pointed out that freedom of speech was what was at stake here. Rishi Sunak even chipped in, stating that whether or not you agreed with her, Stock had a right to be heard.
Then, in timely fashion, the Cambridge philosophy professor Arif Ahmed’s appointment as the government’s first “free speech tsar” was announced. Why someone chose “tsar” to describe this post is a mystery.
The writer Joyce Carol Oates’ reaction on Twitter crystallised what many of us were thinking: “Hmm. Someone tell these people about the history of free speech & ‘tsars’.”
Ahmed’s role is to champion and defend free speech in the UK’s higher education sector. It will be interesting to see how that pans out, especially in the light of restrictions imposed on campus speech by the Prevent strategy.
Ahmed has stated that free speech and academic freedom are vital to the core purpose of universities and colleges, a view I strongly support. He has also said that he intends not to be partisan or be used as part of the government’s culture-war agenda – let’s see if he can resist that pressure.
One aspect of all this that interests me is the use of the term “bigot”. A bigot is someone who is obstinate, prejudiced, and intolerant, and who won’t listen to opposing views or evidence against their position.
Bigots are typically offensive to religious, racial, or other groups. The word is always used as a slur and an insult.
The implication is that a bigot will cling to their beliefs regardless of how things are, and offend people in the process. There is no way to argue with a bigot. They can’t reason about ideas, because their minds are so firmly made up and their ears are blocked to any counter-argument or discussion. A bigot is not a rational person.
It is bizarre, at least on this definition, that Kathleen Stock has so frequently been labelled a bigot. It’s true that she offends some people with her views, and that in part explains this.
But she gives reasons and evidence and has defended her positions repeatedly. She has written articles and a long book arguing for her conclusions and has tried to correct falsehoods about them circulating on social media. She’s doing what the best public philosophers do, engaging in reasoned debate about topics that matter, even when those topics are controversial.
Right or wrong, her stance is not one of unthinking prejudice, though it clearly does anger many people.
The simplest explanation as to why activists have been so ready to call her a bigot is that the term has become a shortcut for saying, “I find your views deeply offensive, and you are obviously misguided.”
“Bigot” used in this way is expressive and autobiographical in the sense that it reveals more about the user of the word than its target. What people find offensive is to some degree subjective, and there are wide differences in this.
And, as we know, views on what makes a woman a woman are polarised – those on either side of this issue think the other side are obviously misguided. No doubt many gender-critical thinkers describe their critics as bigots, too.
Yet even if Stock were a bigot in the conventional sense of being prejudiced, intolerant, and dogmatic, it wouldn’t follow that her views should be shut down. Free speech within the limits set by law is, and should be, for bigots too, uncomfortable as that is.
The alternative is to prejudge the issue and gag those with whom you disagree.
Free speech is for protesters too, of course (though new laws on protest severely curtail this), even for protesters who don’t believe in the value of free speech in higher education. Arif Ahmed will have his work cut out refereeing all this. He’ll probably be called a bigot, too.