Democracy, Diversity, Dissent and Human Rights Necessitate Freedom of Expression and Assembly

At the heart of the moral and political tensions depicted in Andrew Anthony's recent article in The Observer, 'Is Free Speech in British Universities Under Threat?'

is an unspoken issue that merits attention: the tension within the left between liberalism and growing illiberalism and concurrent intolerance.

Increasingly, asymmetries in power in society are understood in an unreflective and unnuanced way by some on the left such that individuals who belong to groups with perceived and actual high amounts of economic, political, and social power are essentialized in a pejorative manner that is reductionist in nature and a betrayal of their humanity.

They are sometimes depicted and perceived as mere expressions of the dominance of a group in society rather than being recognized and honored as persons bearing of dignity intrinsic to their humanity: complex, multidimensional, individuals whose identities, power, life experiences, and access to resources are nuanced and less binary (and indeed, sometimes substantially less privileged) than any unidimensional categorization in relation their skin color, religion, ethnicity, nationality, health status, physical ability, class, sexual orientation and/or gender will allow.

This hostile attitude can lead to ad hominem attacks, character assassination, and impugning the motives of individuals based on unreasonable and unfair assumptions about them, their values, and their political and social commitments and concerns. Increasingly, this is happening on college campuses in both the United States and Great Britain.

Whatever one's politics respect for dissent and pluralism is essential for a thriving democracy and the protection of human rights in their diversity and comprehensiveness. So too are mutual respect, humility, empathy, self-criticism, compassion, generosity of intellect and spirit and the willingness to listen to opposing views and engage with them critically and not only with hostility, even when they are challenging to one's convictions and identity and potentially offensive.

Freedom of expression is not the only freedom in question and at times under threat at universities today. So is freedom of assembly and freedom of information and inquiry. These are not marginal to democracy and respect for human rights, they are fundamental to them.

There are inevitable tensions between principles such as freedom and justice and these need to be discussed and examined continuously in a dynamic way as society, culture, and law develop and evolve and a pluralism of values and perspectives influence social norms and government policies.

For democracy and human rights to thrive we must be able to discuss and debate ethical and political principles without shouting down, denigrating, and demeaning those who have different perspectives from our own and insisting on absolutist stances which often become prejudicial in nature.

Such attitudes, in their dogmatic absolutist certainty and rigidity deny the dignity, humanity, and human rights and welfare of others and undermine our willingness and ability to dialogue across boundaries of difference.

We must resist the urge to create oppressive discursive frameworks that in limiting freedom of expression create dangerous echo chambers that encourage conformity and stigmatize minority opinions that challenge increasingly hegemonic social norms within universities, however well intentioned they may be.

We must reject the intoxicating seductions of self-righteousness that are inimical to freedom, learning, and communication and that undermine our capacity to deepen human bonds of understanding and care across boundaries of difference, real and imagined.