'Free speech' in academia: between critical imperative and structural inequality

Muirhead tower - Room 121
Thursday 9 March 2017 (17:00-19:00)

Edward Said once wrote: ‘I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for’.

The quote continues: criticism must be ‘constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse’. But what if the second part clashes with the first? We cannot simply insist on the abstract value of generalized criticism, ignoring structural inequalities that place people in very different positions in relation to various speech acts and their spatial contexts. What to one speaker may seem as an example of valuable and even necessary criticism too often turns out to be exactly a ‘form of tyranny, domination, and abuse’ in the eyes of others. Class, race and gender are at the core of this conundrum.

Evidently, academia is not isolated from these problems and, on the contrary, has increasingly become a focal point for such debates on ‘free speech’ and its discontents. At this round table, we will discuss how it may be possible to combine a commitment to critical imperative with a clear awareness of structural inequalities and violence inherent in them. What is the role of gender, especially at the intersection with other identities, in the politics of speech in academia? How can university be a safe space for critical but equitable debates? How should we approach the debates around ‘no platforming’, claims about silencing of particular speakers, ‘safe spaces’ and other vexed topics at fore front of the ongoing debates on free speech in academia and beyond? What can we do right now to address the persistent problems of symbolic violence, exclusion, under-representation and inequality in academia?

Join us on Thursday 9 March to discuss these and other related questions with Chloё Lund (BRIHC Development Officer), Mo Moulton (Lecturer, Department of History), Saima Nasar (Teaching Fellow, School of History and Cultures), Kate Skinner (Head of Department of African Studies and Anthropology), Polly Stoker (PhD student, Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology), and Simon Yarrow (Director of BRIHC). Moderator: Naomi Standen (History).

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