By Eric Heinze*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
A few years ago, a fellow academic told me about a surprise homophobic moment in her workplace. It happened while she was teaching an undergraduate tutorial, and the assigned topic was gay marriage.
A student raised his hand to speak out against it, declaring that homosexuality violates religious and moral values. Caught off guard, my friend fired back with a predictable stock of politically correct boilerplate: Britain is a multicultural society, we all need to think carefully before making these types of statements, it is important to consider the feelings of other class members. In short, she stopped the discussion.
On these sorts of issues my friend usually takes broadly left-of-centre views. She had taught the course for several years with no hitches, so, being caught off guard, she panicked. She later felt comfortable enough to tell me this story because I have always been “out” and had published a fair amount on gender and sexuality. I seemed like someone she could confide in.
Imagine her shock when I told her she had handled the class all wrong. I told her that she should not have cut the discussion short. She should have let it continue.
What? Allow a student to blurt out homophobia? In a university classroom? In London, a city proud of its values of openness and pluralism?
For lack of any subtler way of answering these questions, I will summarise my response as follows: Yes. That is precisely what she should have done. She should have allowed the student to spout homophobia. Of course, this was not the response that I, a gay male working in British academia, was supposed to have.
“Just let the student carry on speaking,” I explained. “That way you hand the problem back to the class and let them work it out on their own. Just ask the other students what they think.” Otherwise the dissident student was not having gay rights explained to him, but was merely being shamed into accepting them.
My friend was not convinced: “But then what do I do if they just sit there without saying anything?” Of course, group silence may mean many things. It may mean that the students understand the complexities of an issue, which would be a good first step. One of the biggest mistakes we can make in these situations is to equate silent audiences with stupid ones.
But far more likely from my experience, the students may not sit silent. They may talk. In fact, they may talk a great deal. They may come to surprisingly good resolutions without the lecturer ever having to intervene.
Another option would have been to break the students into groups and have them work on the following problem: In a democracy, if some people, indeed even a majority of people, find an otherwise harmless practice immoral, does this mean that the law should give effect to their views by banning such conduct? Surely this is one of those vintage undergraduate debating points. You can easily fill an hour with these types of discussions, which sometimes fire up even the most bored of students.
The most effective way to teach gay rights is to take the risk of allowing students to come to realisations on their own, not to impose dogmas. Tolerance-by-decree and truth-by-fiat are illusions. They are false friends to groups that have experienced social exclusion.
The Streisand Effect
But even if this free speech principle can work within the four walls of the university classroom, does it work in the same way through the anarchy of today’s mass media? Can it resolve the controversies stirring around that ominous watchword of our early 21st century – “cancel culture”?
Even if my colleague had allowed the discussion of gay marriage to go forward, a lecturer is usually in charge of the classroom and can actively guide the discussion in ways often absent in the world of electronic media. So my classroom analogy might seem naïve. Perhaps it places too much faith in an ideal advocated in 1859 by John Stuart Mill. In his famous tract On Liberty, Mill had argued that the freedom to air even wrong ideas would allow them to be put to the test and openly defeated by better ideas. This concept is sometimes called the “marketplace of ideas,” even if Mill never actually used that phrase.
Admittedly, there are plenty of problems with this marketplace ideal. For example, while responding to my friend with some confidence, I was certainly in no position to offer guarantees that the students would leave the classroom with better ideas in their minds than those with which they had entered.
Indeed, what if my friend had encouraged the discussion to continue, only for the homophobic student to end up prevailing, which might well have happened if he had been a sufficiently skilled debater? More importantly, this is not just a classroom risk. The risk seems greater outside the classroom in the wild west of today’s online media, where—in the words of another grandee, Jonathan Swift—“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”
That concern has sparked even more panic around what in recent years have become ubiquitous controversies, namely, about trans rights. Many trans advocates refuse to engage in any kind of organised debate about their rights. They insist that they cannot engage in a fair or rational debate with rivals who deny their very humanity, insofar as gender identity remains integral to individual personhood and dignity. They add that once they can be dehumanised in this way, it is a very short step to their facing immediate violence. Given the small numbers of trans people, this concern is understandable.
Yet here again: I dissent – though I certainly appreciate the plight of trans people. What we need to recall is that many groups, such as women or members of racial, ethnic, religious or national minorities that are often vastly outnumbered by the majority, have had to fight for essential rights. These fights have at times prompted open debates that have seemed futile or humiliating for militants at the vanguard.
By definition, if a group is fighting for fundamental rights that have already long been enjoyed by the more privileged strata in society, then in some sense those group members too are fighting against an assumption of their inferiority. To state the point simply: An assumption of lesser humanity is not what blocks the debate, rather it is what the debate is all about.
The sooner we realise this, the more candid and productive the debate will be. Yes, there is still plenty of room for further progress but, at least in the West, no one can doubt that conditions for many traditionally excluded groups have considerably improved since, say, the mid-20th century—at least if we look at statistics on education, employment, and other basic life contexts.
In other words, Mill’s ideal is not as naïve as it might at first seem, even if things do not always run as smoothly or in the linear way that he sometimes seems to suggest. It is a process that runs in fits and starts. Perhaps for every three steps forward we fall two steps back, but that is still a step achieved, which is more than we get when discussions are halted entirely.
Even when censoring hurtful speech seems morally right in some circumstances, it is often far from clear that this tactic achieves its supposed aims, and frequently backfires. Countless controversial speakers, like shock journalist Milo Yiannopoulos or the far-right agitator Richard Spencer, both in the US, have gained vastly greater fame, not less, through others’ efforts to silence them.
This is sometimes called the “Streisand effect.” After an internet user posted aerial photos of the legend’s home, she took legal action for them to be removed. Well, guess what happened? Suddenly, information that had at first sparked only moderate interest become the hottest item on the net.
Media – open and closed
And then a funny coincidence occurred only recently. This time it was in one of my own classes, and that stubborn topic popped up once again: equal rights for gays. One of my students put forward the time-honoured claim: If everyone were gay, then humanity would die out!
Should I have felt piqued? Incensed? Raging mad?
I confess it was more a sense of nostalgia that hit me. By the time my student days were behind me, I never thought I would come across that old chestnut again. But the first thought to hit me was: “No need to panic. Just let him talk.” The dumbest thing I could have done would be to shame him in front of the group by hinting that he was hateful or ignorant. Nor did I think he was either of those things. He was an undergraduate in a phase of asking questions, which is better than going through life without asking them.
Instead, my response was that I felt grateful to him for opening up a discussion that still needs to take place in many places around the world. Nothing bores me more than a roomful of students who dutifully agree out of fear of disagreeing.
The first thing that happened was that half the room groaned at the student’s remark. In fact, a student who teaches Islamic jurisprudence to young people in his spare time was the first to roll his eyes in disbelief.
Still, I did not want our speaker to feel censored. “What you’re saying is very interesting,” I responded. “So if I understand correctly, your view is that a limit can legitimately be placed on individual freedom if humanity would become extinct as a result in everyone indulging only in that freedom. Correct?”
His face lit up. I had made his point sound intellectually elevated. I continued: “And therefore if everyone only engaged in homosexual conduct, then humanity would die out, so a government can legitimately place limits on such conduct. Correct?” I confess at this point I was sounding just a wee bit patronising.
Yet by now he was nodding triumphantly, seeing in me an unexpected ally. I carried on: “So for example, it would be legitimate to ban sugar, because if all people only ever ate sugar then humanity would die out. Correct?”
He stopped nodding. “In fact, even broccoli would kill us if all of us ate nothing else. So it would be legitimate for governments to ban broccoli, given that humanity would die out if everyone ate only broccoli?”
By this time he had got my point. He even chuckled and greeted me sunnily a week later in the corridor. In other words, I never needed to silence him, let alone to embarrass him. Of course, I took a risk, since this outcome was never certain. The student, who had been raised in a country where state-sponsored anti-gay propaganda is common and often vicious, might simply have tuned me out, or might have grasped at straws for any other anti-gay arguments he could concoct.
And then came MDI
These kinds of risks, be they in the classroom or in the mass media, never come with guarantees of success, and will sometimes backfire. But they are worth taking.
I have long believed that diversity in the media, no less than in the seminar room, means expanding voices and perspectives, and arming people with rational arguments instead of clamping down on provocative ideas. This was why my ongoing collaborations with the Media Diversity Institute always seemed like an obvious match.
When I travelled along with other MDI members to a Brussels meeting on cyberhate in 2016, I very much appreciated the fact that Milica Pesic actively encouraged me to challenge the common knee-jerk instinct to devise penalties. I preferred MDI’s attempts to promote pro-active strategies of education and awareness rather than overly relying on penalties, which, as we see every day, can never be applied in consistent or even particularly coherent ways. The organization’s Get the Trolls Out! project was – and still is – certainly an innovative step in this direction, particularly aimed at young people who will have grown up with electronic media from infancy.
It was a joy for me to continue exploring these channels through MDI’s countless other activities. In 2020, after Donald Trump had been kicked off Twitter and Facebook, and as his re-election campaign was heating up, MDI’s brilliant intern, Mikhail Yakovlev, contacted me for a long interview about the emerging far-right Parler platform. The year after, Mikhail interviewed me for MDI website on the related theme of “cancel culture” in democratic society.
In 2022, MDI’s involvement in MEDIADELCOM, a research project focused on deliberative communication, allowed me once again to engage in a deeply probing discussion, this time with the Estonian media expert Dr Urmas Loit. In a podcast, Dr Loit and I examined controversies surrounding hateful expression and cancel culture within the context of deliberative democracy – once again seeking means that would be not only more politically legitimate but also more pragmatically effective than imposing bans. The Swedish expert Professor Lars Nord added to that podcast a commentary of his own.
That same year, MDI affiliate Hannah Ajala was kind enough to host me on her Twitter Space for a conversation entitled “Does the diversity movement have a glass ceiling?”. We discussed the fact that in many countries the most basic non-discrimination norms continue to be violated, for example with respect to women and LGBTQ+ minorities – and unsurprisingly in such places freedoms of speech tend to be severely restricted, both officially and informally.
I could add many more items to this list. But for now, I aim only to illustrate how my contacts with MDI have enriched my own research, teaching, and writing on the complexities of free speech, and I shall look forward to many more years of cooperation.
*Eric Heinze is Professor of Law and Humanities at the School of Law Queen Mary, University of London. He has made numerous contributions in the areas of legal philosophy, justice theory, jurisprudence, and human rights. He has also contributed to the law and literature movement, and is Executive Director at Centre for Law, Democracy, and Society . In his most recent published book, The Most Human Right, Professor Heinze explains why global human rights systems have failed. International organizations constantly report on how governments manage human goods, such as fair trials, humane conditions of detention, healthcare, or housing.