Speakeasy – Dialogue is Dirty Work

Two topics came together over the weekend. I’ve been reviewing the recent UK Human Rights Commission guidelines on freedom of expression (FoE) in higher education, and this morning I picked-up on a piece by Jacob Kishere reviewing his Rise of the Intellectual Dark Web a year on. Coincidentally the latter edited by Angelos Sofocleous who himself “fell foul” of use of free-speech recently and has been talking on the topic.

I’ll come later to some specifics in the Human Rights guidance. But for now, I welcome it, if only for the fact it turns out to be a quite large and complex document – 54 pages as a PDF. It’s consistent with the fact that the comments I’ve seen from the free-speech zealots complaining that it’s unclear, despite all the verbiage, when it comes to detailed rules beyond the basic freedom. But this is my recurring point, that the rule may be simple, but the exceptions are neither simple nor objective. No amount of logically objective detail resolves the fact and that makes the exceptions more important to understand than the basic rule. Rules are for guidance of the wise, not for application by logicians 😉 So as I’ve said, that’s promising.

As well as the subjectively indeterminate complexity of valid limitations to free speech – of which I’ve written much more – the key problem boils down to “offense”. No-one has the right not to be offended, and anyone may offend by their free-speech, but there is no open-ended obligation-free right to offend. Apart from the enormous upsides of communication of and about any and all ideas, the negative aspects boil down to this issue, and the fact it can never be definitively defined.

When causing offense, you need to be seen to care about the offended, and you inherit a duty to resolve any offence. Which is where, however self-aggrandising the name, IDW comes in. Life’s too short to conduct every dialogue in public, with the maximum potential for uninvolved bystander offence – or misunderstanding – to be clarified, justified and resolved. Sometimes you have to be able to “speak-easy” with people who already understand the context of, and have skin in the game of making progress in, the particular discussion being had. This way progressive dialogue is possible. Conducting dialogue in controlled circumstances is caring about those potentially affected by it. Reassuringly Jacob’s latest piece is entitled “IDW – A Prelude to the Future of Dialogue” and right from the off is identifying the lack “willingness to do the dirty work of dialogue” amongst those who lament limitations to progress in their SJW agendas.

Pretty much everything I’ve written under my “Rules of Engagement” banner is about achieving constructive dialogue. Anyone providing a platform or a “safe space” for conversation has the right – an obligation – to enforce such rules, though as ever, every decision to enforce is balance of values between the upside and the potential offense and limitations. No matter how much we emphasise the upside, it never gets any easier than that. Totally open and transparent platforms – like social media – are distorted by no end of psychological games, bubbles and biases, as Kishere notes.

Reading the whole of the FoE Guidance, I find only mild disagreements of emphasis. One quirk, for example, is that for the overarching principle it refers to the European Court of Human Rights, where I would have though the UN Declaration would have carried more universal weight and less irrelevant European distraction.

Whilst it correctly and repeatedly identifies the values of respect and tolerance at the root of handling exceptions, all the explicit guidance on limitations are legal references. In a sense, I guess they would have been criticised as overstepping their authority if they weren’t, but these legal instruments arose from cases being set by judgement. Since the rules (laws) covering exceptions can never be definitive, it is important that the principles are understood. All future cases will depend on judgement and meta-judgement – judging whether judgment had been applied by organisers, speakers and participants.

Dialogue is dirty work and we need people prepared to do it. It comes with rules that require effort to understand and apply. Opinions are ten-a-penny, but progressive dialogue is a precious commodity.

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