Choose your hearers

Recently, the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) at Goldsmiths College, London University held a meeting to which they invited Maryam Namazie to speak.  She has established a reputation as an outstanding speaker and organiser on Muslims, women-related issues and the need for secular governments, not religious ones.  Her title on this occasion was “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of Isis”.  This was a public meeting.

Before the meeting was held, the Goldsmiths Islamic Society (ISOC) called for the talk’s cancellation.  Although the meeting went ahead, it was interrupted by thuggish hooligans and death threats made to Maryam Namazie and another speaker.  ISOC deny that they had instigated the thugs’ behaviour.  But whether they did or didn’t is beside the point.

ASH, like many individual and bodies in these confused day have raised the notion of ‘Free Speech’ to a high level of abstraction that cannot be contradicted. I don’t believe in free speech.  In reality none of us practise it.  To remain peaceful and productive when speaking we always moderate what we say — content and emotionality — according to the intelligence and experience of people we are talking to.  What’s much more important than free speech is the freedom to choose your audience.  The ASH society was silly to host the event, especially when they’d been given what amounted to a warning by ISOC.

Every culture believes it and it alone is superior to all others and changes of view can only take place marginally and over generations.  The Oxford Union of old — which ASH was no doubt trying to imitate on this occasion —  could invite the most controversial speakers but they and their audiences were still only of one culture (and largely of one class within it). Whatever frisson took place at the OU it would only be intellectual. not anything that involved deep cultural emotions. There was no chance of that at the ASH meeting.

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