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Bigotry is not free but costly

What matters is the assumptions that lead people to tolerate the intolerable, writes Melanie Phillips.

    The recent conference at Cork University questioned Israel's right to exist
    The recent conference at Cork University questioned Israel's right to exist (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, via Wikipedia)

    The antisemitism crisis rolls on. Ken Livingstone has doubled down on his remarks about Hitler and Zionism. Members of the National Union of Students have been outed for sending offensive tweets about Jews. Campus meetings regularly spout hideous lies and libels about Israel.

    Many of us are horrified that these things are being allowed to be said at all. They are racist, prejudiced, bigoted, offensive and hurtful. Views like these should be utterly beyond the pale.

    Really? At the same time, many of us are horrified at the way points of view are being shut down.

    There have been violent protests against conservative speakers at several American universities. In London, there have been protests aimed at stopping this week’s planned talk by Israel’s UK Ambassador Mark Regev at SOAS.

    Such attempted censorship is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. In a liberal society, free speech is a sacred value. Universities in particular must encourage the unrestricted exchange of ideas. Dubious speech must be permitted and should be countered by other speech.

    Really? Like the recent Israel-bashing conference at Cork university where speakers talked of Israelis creating “death zones” and treating the Palestinians like “untermenschen” — and where one audience member claimed Zionist parents deliberately starve their children of affection to make them callous enough to do what Israelis do to Palestinians?

    And what about Jewish schools? Should they invite as speakers Holocaust-deniers or Islamist Jew-haters in the interests of exposing pupils to all points of view? Of course not; Jews shouldn’t be expected to subject their children to those who threaten the security of the Jewish people.

    Really? So what about Yachad, or Jews for Justice for the Palestinians? Not the same at all, you may cry. But for some parents these groups do indeed pose a threat to the Jewish people and such parents are furious if their children are exposed to what is deemed these groups’ propaganda.

    And that’s the problem. All this is so subjective, it’s extraordinarily difficult to settle on criteria that apply to all situations. What is offensive or hateful to some is fair comment to others. So should all views be tolerated equally?

    Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. It is restricted in some circumstances by law. Even in a place of liberal education there is no obligation to provide a platform for every viewpoint under the sun.

    The purpose of a university or school is to foster the exercise of reason, encourage intelligent thought and promote the dissemination of knowledge. So bigotry has no place there as this denies reason and is inimical to thought and knowledge.

    Anything based on evidence or truth cannot be bigotry, which always rests on malicious fabrications. Sometimes truth is difficult to establish; evidence may be ambiguous or contested. But demonstrable untruth has no legitimate claim on public debate.

    A school or university has no obligation to spread proven lies or group libels any more than to host members of a brainwashing cult.

    At the same time, institutions of learning should not censor what is thought to be false. There have been countless examples of views which go against received wisdom but which turn out to be correct while received wisdom is shown to be wrong.

    But schools and universities do have an obligation to enable a range of views and evidence to be made known and for demonstrable falsehoods to be robustly countered. The main problem is that such a range of views is too often absent.

    The root of the antisemitism problem on campus is not “Israel apartheid weeks” or Cork conferences. It’s the group-think among faculty members who are indifferent towards, or even endorse, such views because the faculty itself promulgates a twisted and false account of Israeli society or Middle East history. If places of learning were true crucibles of reason and knowledge, it wouldn’t occur to those in them to stage such malevolent presentations.

    Jewish schools all too often also leave their pupils woefully ignorant about Jewish history and identity. If Jewish children aren’t taught about their own people’s historic and unique claim to the land of Israel, they, too, will be vulnerable to propaganda based on falsehoods that they will fail to recognise as lies.

    There can be no hard-and-fast criteria about what speech should be tolerated and what should not. What matters is the assumptions that lead people to tolerate the intolerable. It’s the mind-set, stupid.

    Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist

     

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