Is free speech at universities more important than political correctness?

18 Mar 2017 |

In multicultural societies, differing points of views can lead to clashes of opinion that cause offence.

Universities have found themselves at the centre of this tension, with academics and entertainers being refused the right to speak over fears of causing offence to various groups.

The most recent and extreme example came earlier this month at Middlebury College in the U.S., where controversial social scientist Charles Murray was protested and attacked when trying to give a speech, and his colleague with him injured.

Some believe that such behaviour is restricting freedom of speech, while others claim universities have a duty to be “politically correct” environments that protect students from speech and behaviour that they may find offensive.

So is free speech more important than political correctness?

These were the arguments made during this Debate Chamber at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017:

For – free speech is more important than political correctness

  1. All ideas must be debated at university

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of modern democratic nations, and nowhere is the freedom to be more treasured than at universities, according to Dr Arturo Condo, President of EARTH University:

Global Education & Skills Forum (@GESForum) 18 March 2017

Dr Condo said that knowledge only progresses when every idea is “fully presented and fully countered with facts and evidence”.

This progression means even engaging with ideas that we find offensive, he added.

“Today many opposing ideas are just expressions of hate or racism that are wrong,” said Dr Condo.

“They are wrong, but they need to be exposed as wrong.”

Dr Angela Redish, Provost and Vice President Academic, University of British Columbia said that it is vital that the students becoming future global citizens and leaders learn how to engage with multiple different points of view.

“We have to be willing to ask the difficult questions,” she said.

“In an age where ‘alternative facts’ can actually be a phrase that exists, the key skill our students need to learn is how can we examine arguments and experience different views.”

  1. Political correctness can turn into censorship

Those supporting a level of political correctness over freedom of speech emphasise the importance of respect in debate.

Condo said that while he absolutely understood the importance of respect, political correctness could sometimes “turn into censorship”.

“What we refer to as political correctness is really social convention that prevents certain topics being discussed… being rude, harassment, or hate speech is not acceptable,” said Condo.

Indeed, Redish emphasised that in many countries, including her own, offensive language was a legal issue and did not need to be policed by political correctness.

“Hate speech and inciting violence is illegal in Canada,” said Redish.

“That’s not an issue of political correctness, that’s an issue of legality.”

Against – free speech is not more important than political correctness

  1. Political correctness creates safe environments

For Gloria Blackwell , Vice President of Fellowships, Grants, & Global Programs, American Association of University Women (AAUW), political correctness has an important role in addressing inequalities and protecting minority groups on campus:

Global Education & Skills Forum (@GESForum) 18 March 2017

She said that university leaders had a duty to “foster a learning environment that is welcoming to all.”

“Free speech is interpreted by some as giving people licence to intimidate and harass others on campus,” she added.

“Political correctness at its most basic form is simple human decency. People should be treated with dignity and respect.”

  1. Political correctness engenders the respect necessary for meaningful debate

For Alif Ailaan Campaign Director Mosharraf Zaidi, the lively debate and exchanging of views championed by supporters of free speech can only really occur when there is a respect for differences on both sides.

Global Education & Skills Forum (@GESForum) 18 March 2017

Zaidi said the idea that “political correctness restricts debate” was “ludicrous”.

“The thing that allows respect is political correctness,” he added.

“We can disagree to the end of time, but as long as we keep talking there is room for movement, but we can’t do that without political correctness.”

Which side won?

The audience was polled at the beginning and end of the Debate Chamber on its attitude towards freedom of speech versus political correctness at universities.

In the initial poll, 67% of the audience were for the motion that freedom of speech at universities was more important than political correctness, 14% were against, and 19% were undecided.

After the debate a second poll was taken, revealing a decisive shift in attitudes in the room: 47% were for the motion, 47% against, and 5% undecided.

Debate chamber chairman Mina Al-Oraibi, Journalist at The National, declared those Against the motion as the winners, with Blackwell and Zaidi having successfully won over more of the audience during the debate.

If you missed out on the chance to cast your vote, just go to the GESF app and choose “Voting”.

You can watch this Debate Chamber in full here:

The Global Education and Skills Forum is taking place on 18th and 19th March 2017 in Dubai, UAE, with the theme of “How do we make ‘real’ global citizens?”