DAY 1: THURSDAY 11 APRIL
Registration, welcomes & introduction
18:30 – 20:00 Lecture
From the trial of Socrates to war on hate speech – a history of free speech
In trying to understand the idea of freedom of speech, people often return to the politics of ancient Athens where oratory was central to the idea and practice of Athenian democracy. The word ‘parrhesia’ – frankness in speaking the truth – first appeared in Greek literature around the end of the fifth century B.C. Since the Greeks, there has been an uneasy relationship between the desire among people to read freely, publish without censorship and criticise openly and the impulse of the authorities to suppress criticism or otherwise control the terms of public discussion.
Nonetheless, perhaps it is possible to identify certain common tendencies in the varied history of free speech. More often than not, it is the masses calling for the right to speak openly and the elite seeking to restrict the scope of expression. Likewise, ‘speaking truth to power’ has been a vehicle for important social changes throughout history, from religious freedoms to the fight for universal suffrage. In contrast, freedom of expression is now understood as a means to marginalise the less powerful – censorship of ‘bad’ ideas is considered to be the right way to enact social change. What, if anything, can we learn from the history and key proponents of free speech? And by drawing on the resources of the past, how can we make sense of contemporary debates and issues – from Twitter trolling to ‘deadnaming’?
DAY 2: FRIDAY 12 APRIL – INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETY
09:00 – 10:00 Lecture
What is autonomy?
Autonomy is understood as an individual’s capacity for self-determination or self-governance, and is realised when a person engages with the world as an active, reasoning and conscious individual. A morally autonomous person decides for themselves what is good and bad and which of their inclinations and tastes they chose to follow. Moreover, they take responsibility for those choices, actions and lifestyles.
This lecture explores key thinkers and historical shifts that underpinned the emergence of autonomy. From the idea of self-mastery in Greek philosophy, to the increase of political and individual liberty associated with the modern world, setting the scene for the Age of Enlightenment, what were the key intellectual and practical drivers of autonomy? For the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, moral autonomy was ‘the basis of the dignity of human and of every rational nature’. So how does autonomy relate to concepts such as tolerance and free will? And given autonomy has in recent times been criticised as a problematic ideal – promoting a pernicious model of human individualism and atomisation – how does autonomy fit with the quest for collectivism and solidarity?
10:15 – 11:15 Lecture
The rise of the fragile-self
A recent survey of UK students reported “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, and substance misuse. Nine in 10 said they struggled with feelings of anxiety, and over half reported thoughts of self-harm. It’s become so popular to identify as ‘vulnerable’ or in need of a ‘self-esteem-boost’ that even members of the royal family – once famous for its stiff upper lip – have won praise for speaking out about mental health. But while we put a lot of emphasis on the self – finding yourself, being true to yourself – this doesn’t necessarily translate into an enthusiasm for self-rule. Whether its panics about addiction, obesity or selfish impulses, our belief in trusting ourselves is at an all-time low.
Are we witnessing the death of the idea that individuals should be self-determining and capable of making their own choices? What if, hypothetically, evidence proved that our genetics or the power of our emotions are barriers to making rational choices and moral decisions? What if even our choice of politics and religion are claimed to be the product of brain structure? Is individual autonomy an outdated myth? And in a complex world of multiple choices, what is wrong with people seeking help to make informed decisions? Do we need to return to that Enlightenment sense of the self – as autonomous, rational individuals?
11:30 – 12:30 Expert Seminars
Group A: Understanding Safe Spaces
In late 2018, the comedian Konstantin Kisin went public with a ‘Safe Space contract’ that a university society had asked him to sign as a condition of his performing (unpaid) at a charity gig. The ‘behavioural agreement’ stipulated that ‘all topics must be presented in a way that is respectful and kind’ to create an atmosphere where ‘love, joy and acceptance is reciprocated’. The agreement mirrored phrases that are common in campus Safe Space policies, and reignited a discussion about the nature and development of such policies. In fact, it also highlighted the somewhat slippery nature of campus censorship – the students’ union in question denied enforcing such policies, and the student society claimed it never wanted to restrict expression.
Kisin’s experience revealed the degree to which debates about free speech on campus have evolved. Safe Spaces were initially deemed to be specific areas where, in the language of the NUS, ‘students can be themselves’, but have since expanded to apply to the whole tenor of campus life. Under the guide of making the entire university a Safe Space, songs have been banned, fancy-dress costumes have been restricted and speakers have been disinvited (often, ironically, from discussions about free speech). Supporters of such policies argue that it is only fair for people to feel safe from hatred on campus, and that, at any rate, concerns about a ‘crisis’ of free speech are either overblown or an attempt by the far-right to legitimate racist, homophobic or transphobic speech.
It’s obvious that there is a debate to be had about free speech on campus. But how did Safe Space policies emerge, and how did they expand into campus-wide initiatives? What do such policies assume about students, specifically their psychological and intellectual robustness (or lack thereof)? Looking beyond specific bans, what has the culture of campus Safe Spaces done to the wider climate of expression on campus? Or, as many student representatives claim, is this all just a storm in a teacup?
Group B: Genome editing: implications for freedom
The creation of the world’s first genome-edited babies last year (by a rogue Chinese scientist working without the knowledge of his peers who sought to confer resistance to HIV) has intensified a moral debate about this new technology. Elsewhere, researchers have succeeded in editing the genomes of human embryos in the laboratory, correcting mutations that give rise to various debilitating and fatal diseases. These genome-edited embryos have not (yet) been used to establish an actual pregnancy.
What are the implications for freedom with such extreme intervention in the earliest and most fundamental aspects of our biology? Should we embrace this technology, as an opportunity to free ourselves from disease and the constraints of nature? If we are going to support such innovation – who should make that decision? Individuals, the state or international bodies? Or should the history of eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries, where the pursuit of human health and perfection by scientists and others had lethal and dehumanising consequences, give us pause for thought? What lessons can we learn from what has happened in China, and where should we take this technology next?
12:30 – 13:30 Lunch
13:30 – 15:00 Panel debate
Social media and censorship: where draw the line in the online public square?
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. During its short lifetime, a proliferation of channels and social-media platforms dedicated to content-sharing, networking and community-based interaction has prompted claims that the online world has morphed into the new public square.
Increasing numbers of us getting our news from Facebook, YouTube, having debates on Twitter and organising our lives through WhatsApp, has prompted a growing concern about the dangers of these largely unregulated spaces. As concerns have grown over hate speech, fake news or harmful videos, the clamour has increased for new laws and tougher protocols. Some have argued that tech corporations need to take more responsibility for banning or moderating content. But with public figures such as Tommy Robinson and an array of alt-right (and sometimes leftish) individuals now banished from many platforms, is there not a whiff of political censorship in the air?
Where should we draw the line on controls over the online world? And how much responsibility should private companies take when it comes to hateful or potentially harmful material carried on their publicly accessible platforms? For many groups, the internet affords a space of freedom – like persecuted intellectuals or individuals exploring stigmatised sexualities. Others take a darker view, pointing to numerous instances of self-harm like the death of Molly Russell, a schoolgirl whose suicide was linked to viewing suicidal images on Instagram. Perhaps the case of the Momo challenge (a hoax viral game shared via YouTube which wa said to goad children into violence or even suicide) suggests that the real problem is adults predisposed to panic. Nevertheless, many are convinced that threats to vulnerable groups are genuine – with that in mind, should the right to legitimate speech be balanced against the need for legal protection? Or do opponents have a point when they argue that censorship simply drives activity towards the darker side of the web, outside the reach of mainstream? Can society thrive with a totally free web, or should governments and corporations step in to protect the citizens they serve?
15:00 – 16:00 In conversation
The Peterson effect – search for morality or illusion of responsibility?
Jordan Peterson, a hitherto relatively unknown Canadian psychology professor, has been regularly making headlines. He boasts a YouTube following of over one million subscribers, and has become the world’s most-read Canadian author – topping best sellers list with 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos. Like his many videos and podcasts, 12 Rules for Life encourages readers to take responsibility for their own lives and encourages them to strive for some kind of ultimate or transcendent moral good.
Peterson, along with some fellow travellers on the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, seems to have a preference for science and facts over ideology. His arguments use psychology to put the case for sometimes unfashionable truths about human nature. As a result, Peterson has been criticised as a misogynist by some and dismissed as merely a pop-psychologist by others. But why do so many young people seem drawn to what he says? Are thinkers like Peterson popular because young people today are starved of robust truth-seeking and a sense of moral agency? Or does their appeal lie in the fact that they offer the illusion of these things, while simply rehashing outdated and discredited prejudices?
16:30 – 17:30 Lecture and workshop
Moral Maze: dilemmas of privacy
German philosopher Hannah Arendt said that ‘a life spent entirely in public becomes shallow’. Privacy, she argued, is vital for individuals to emerge as unique persons protected from the conformist expectations of the social world. But Arendt also recognised that privacy is controversial because rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness often conflict with the standards of wider society.
Today, maintaining clear boundaries between public and private is proving increasingly difficult. The logic of ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’ has long been used to justify surveillance of private actions and data. Our private lives are now viewed as fair game for the public media, most famously in the exposé of Max Mosley’s involvement in an orgy – which in turn fuelled his campaign for privacy limits on press intrusions. On the other hand, some point out that individuals increasingly welcome the public into their private lives, relentlessly posting private affairs on social media or exposing their souls on reality TV. The recent controversy around Liam Neeson, who revealed he had once wanted to attack and kill a black man, is just the latest example of someone’s innermost thoughts dominating public discussion.
Through a series of case studies, this workshop will explore the implications for freedom in the changing attitudes to privacy. When the lurid WhatsApp ‘rape chat’ conversations of Warwick students were revealed by The Tab, was this an outrageous public exposure of private conversations, or a public right to know about potentially dangerous individuals? What about offensive jokes told within private groups of individuals in a public setting – are they fair game for Twittermobs? What are the implications for freedom in the public versus private debate, and is freedom possible in world without privacy?
17:45 – 18:45 Lecture
Cultural conundrums: can we separate art from the artist?
With lurid allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson, the recent Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has reignited debate over how society should treat cultural figures that offend against ethical trends and moral standards. As some radio stations remove Jackson from the airwaves, what about R Kelly and Ryan Adams songs? And should we cleanse cinemas of Kevin Spacey and Roman Polanski movies? Banish Picasso and Caravaggio canvases from galleries?
Oscar Wilde once argued: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Is Wilde right – that art is essentially an aesthetic pursuit, concerned simply with transcendent beauty and the human condition? After all, as one journalist recently argued, if we expect our artists to be paragons then ‘we are not just going to be very disappointed, we are going to be stuck with a lot of mediocre art’. For others, the moral character of the artist must have bearing on the worth of the art. It is essential, they say, that we should reappraise certain works in light of the questionable behaviour and beliefs of their cultural creators. To do anything else is to demean the victims and risk wider moral standards slipping.
Should we judge public figures (now or in the past) by their private lives and prejudices, or should we rate them instead on their competence and achievements? Do works of art really have the power to influence the behaviour of a malleable public? Should art be policed on the basis of whether or not it is sending the right message? And, if so, what are the implications for artists themselves? Should we cut Michael Jackson from the cultural record?
DAY 3: SATURDAY 13 APRIL – PARTICULARISM AND UNIVERSALISM
9:30 – 10:30 Lecture
Identity politics – finding ourselves or a threat to freedom?
From MAGA to TERFs, toxic masculinity to white privilege, the ethnic diversity of Oscar winners to trans-women competing in women’s sport, issues of race, gender and sexual orientation have been dominating cultural and increasingly political discourse. An individual’s identity often seems to be as important as their words – in fact, identity is now considered to be central to how a person forms an opinion. With these kinds of group identities seemingly now defining us and giving our lives a sense of meaning, are the old allegiances of class or political party still relevant?
Critics argue that identity politics represents the antithesis of liberal ideals, and is a divisive force in society. After all, progressive, political movements historically fought to transcend race, religion, gender or sexuality. For others, the political embrace of the personal is a vital tool in the struggle against oppressive institutions and practices. They argue that, in a world which is still unequal, identities necessarily form political experience.
So what has caused this new identity politics – does it have roots in a longer political tradition? What does the rise of what some have called ‘identitarianism’ mean for individual autonomy and human solidarity? Is the contemporary claim to identity necessarily hostile to more universal political ideals such as democracy and equality? And moving beyond the culture wars, how should we seek to construct a sense of ourselves today?
11:00 – 11:45 Lecture
The liberal aspiration to universalism
In recent decades, universalism has come to be much frowned upon. It is usually interpreted either as an elitist privileging of a ‘Eurocentric’ outlook, or a bland uniformity where common rules, laws and norms are imposed on all people regardless of cultural difference. However, universalism has historically been understood in a more positive light. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that reason acknowledges no limits to its projects. Mankind, acting upon its reason together, across both generations and nations, could potentially create a ‘universal civic society’. In fact, historical liberalism often proclaimed radically universalist principles – most notably, liberty and equality for all.
This debate has been going for a long time. Against the Enlightenment appeal to reason, the conservative Romantic reaction (most notably in Germany) emphasised the allegedly unique spirit of different peoples. Which begs the question – is it not the case that we are inevitably shaped by our geographical, biological, ethnic or cultural backgrounds? Whereas 19th century liberal universalism is often associated with the formation of nation states, support for national sovereignty is now seen as the antithesis of cosmopolitanism. The populist revolt across Europe has sparked a debate about the possibility of true universal cosmopolitanism, versus a manufactured multiculturalism, defined by difference rather than commonality.
What is the relationship of universalism and the nation state, and of particularism and universalism more broadly? What does universalism really mean? Who were the key liberal thinkers informing such an outlook, and what were the important social and cultural shifts that propelled their ideas?
11:45 – 12:30 Expert Seminars
Group A: CLR James – universalism and liberation
It’s just 30 years since the death of CLR James, the writer, historian, anti-imperialist, searing critic of European colonialism – and lover of cricket and the classics. Yet today, James’s ideas and aspirations sit uneasily with some aspects of identity politics. While contemporary campaigners aim to decolonise the curriculum and diversify away from the ‘old white men’, James aspired to master the literature, philosophy, and ideas of Western civilisation. Today, when ‘Black Studies’ departments are all the rage and the Western canon is disparaged as irrelevant to BME students, the admiration that James held for Western culture stands out: ‘In my youth we lived according to the tenets of Matthew Arnold… we studied the best that there was in literature in order to transmit it to the people.’ For Black Lives Matter and similar campaigns, identity is to the fore. But James, a supporter of black liberation, disagreed. Instead, he argued that ‘the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics’.
What should we make of James’s universalising worldview? The writer Edward Said argued that ‘the universalising discourses of modern Europe… assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world’. Is advocating the superiority of Western civilisation simply outdated? Do critics have a valid point that the curriculum today needs to diversify to represent African, Asian and Latin American thinkers? Or has identity politics made the pursuit of knowledge narrow and parochial? Should we revisit James’ views – does a universal outlook hold the promise of liberating us from geography and race?
Group B: The role of the canon
The ‘literary canon’ refers to a seminal body of works, the study of which was historically understood as being core to the meaning of ‘education’ and the foundation of Western civilisation. According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: ‘The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse.’ In the last couple of decades, society has almost drowned in ‘best of’ and ‘greatest hits’ lists. And yet the notion of the canon has proved controversial. Some people say that in the fast-moving world of the internet and satellite television, the concept of so-called Great Books is arcane and irrelevant. Others go further, arguing that it is impossible to be genuinely objective about the standard of quality or merit of a work – that the very notion of a canon is elitist and exclusive.
Some have even argued that the canon and its championing of ‘dead white men’ is a hangover from a racist past. Groups of students and academics on a number of campuses are calling for departments to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ in order to create a modern canon with a more diverse body of authors. Are we suffering from canon anxiety, and do we still require a canon today? If so, how should it be assessed and what can be done to popularise the canonical approach?
12:30 – 13:15 Lunch
13:15 – 14:15 Breakout Workshops
What the papers say
Consumer campaigns; cultural boycotts; panics about technological progress; petitions and open letters against ‘wrongminded’ academics; and attempts to No Platform (allegedly) transphobic feminists – the daily news is awash with an enormous range of stories that raise vital questions about the future of freedom.
Having spent lunch perusing the day’s papers, an expert panel will lead each group in examining the moral questions raised in regards to freedom and liberty.
14:30 – 15:30 Lecture
‘Intersectionality’ is a hot topic – it’s also one of the best known but perhaps least understood terms in the bourgeoning lexicon of identity politics. Advocates, such as new-wave feminists and queer activists, say it helps us think about identity and its relationship to power in ways that ‘resist marginalisation’. For critics, intersectionality is a pejorative term – a nod to the ‘vicarious virtue-signalling’ and ‘privilege checking’ of so-called Social Justice Warriors.
Is intersectionality simply a new woke religion, the political ideology of our time – or a buzzword to be debunked? The term was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil-rights activist and legal scholar concerned that traditional feminist and antiracist policies did not address the predicaments of ‘multiply-burdened’ individuals such as black women. Intersectionality – in this sense, at least – is an analytic framework that creates a matrix of identity groups and ranks them on a sliding scale from privileged to oppressed. This, advocates of intersectionality argue, can be used to highlight where discrimination combines, overlaps or intersects.
While intersectionality has roots in legal thought and black feminist movements, what should we make of the expanding of the term to cover all modern political activism? Intersectionality claims to be the means to achieve solidarity among various disadvantaged groups. But with recent marches degenerating into finger-pointing and the ‘calling out’ of sub-groups such as cis feminists or Jewish gay men, is a focus on difference dividing rather than uniting us? Indeed, the drive to reject a universal outlook among identities has led to some unpleasant situations – most recently when Will Smith was criticised for being too ‘light-skinned’ to play Serena Williams’ father in a new biopic.
Are demands that we ‘check our privilege’ a necessary route to end oppression, or a rejection of freedom for all? Is there a risk that intersectionality traps us in social identity, rather than offering us a way of transcending it?
16:00 –17:00 Lecture double header
Groupthink: the new tribalism
One of today’s most interesting paradoxes is that at the same time that politics is becoming more open, we’ve also seen the emergence of ‘groupthink’ and managed consensus building. In workplaces, universities or institutions, responses to issues like the EU referendum, FGM law or even commercial advertising for razors seem less motivated by politics per se, and instead focus on culture and identity. Why are we obsessed with an incessant stream of retweets and reblogs that encourage us to form echo-chambers? What prompts ‘tribes’ to keep to their own, reinforcing each other’s views and rarely listening to (never mind attempting to) understand the views of others? What does the rise of groupthink tell us about our culture and the way we view the world today?
How to disagree, creatively
Moving beyond the bitter divisions cleaving society is essential. But it seems unlikely to happen if we don’t learn to disagree fruitfully. Getting beyond tribalism, insults and generally thinking the worst of our opponents is vital if we are to reconstruct civic discourse. Advocates of freedom of speech support the idea of having open discussion – but how do you resolve clashing opinions, even if they’re freely expressed? How can clashes of interests, competing moral visions, factual disputes, arguments about strategies and even different personal preferences over which film to watch at the cinema be managed better? In short, what are the best ways to constructively disagree with other people?
17:00 – 18:15 Panel Debate
Human rights – protecting liberty or illusory freedom?
While ‘natural-rights’ discourse developed from the 17th century onwards, ‘human-rights’ only emerged relatively recently, taking shape after the Second World War. The discussion around human rights accelerating during 1990s, culminating in the creation of the Human Rights Act in 1998. The reasoning behind the Act is an assertion that the claimant has a legal right to something from the state. We’ve become used to all manner of claims in the name of human rights – including high-profile debates over prisoners claiming a right to vote and convicted immigrants resisting deportation by claiming a right to family life. While some rights appear narrowly practical – such as a victim’s rights to damages – others intrude on what traditionally would have been seen as political matters. For example, the right to roam, the right to medical and social assistance or a children’s right to be taught about different genders and sexualities.
Some critics object that the Act encourages a litigious culture by codifying dubious entitlements, while others worry that an inflated notion and legal definition of ‘human rights’ results in the courts diluting attention from serious human-rights abuses while talking up trivial ones. And with more political issues being subsumed under the notion of ‘human rights’, discussion of political change is often stunted. For example, those opposed to Brexit have argued that leaving the EU would create ‘significant gaps’ in the protection for human rights.
How has the Human Rights Act contributed to the wider debate about liberty? Has the codification of certain freedoms in the statute books galvanised or restricted society’s idea of freedom? Are critics right to worry that human-rights courts embolden unelected judges to determine the scope of our liberty? As judges assume the role of legal activists, does this undermine the place of political activism? Or should we be more willing to recognise benefits the Human Rights Act, and accept that repealing it might risk the collapse of democratic freedoms and call into question centuries of popular struggle?
Closing drinks reception