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Maryam Namazie, Safe Spaces, and Disinvites

December 5, 2015

People tried to dis-invite Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim secular activist, from a talk at Warwick University, and were being disruptive during her talk. This was done in the name of ‘safe space’ (at least according to the Goldsmiths Islamic Society), in order to protect students from harassment and intimidation. The Goldsmiths Feminist Society appears to support the disruption and attempt to prevent Namazie from having her talk (because islamophobes are marginalizing people). This type of thing is a trend and it is something that we need to talk about, and there are a lot of issues involved.

Here are some of my thoughts:

First, it is true that disinviting and being disruptive is not a violation of free speech laws, but I agree that it is a type of censorship. We need to have moral ideals of free speech that go beyond the law. It is true that free speech doesn’t give anyone a platform to be heard, but speech is much more ineffective or pointless without the ability to get a platform. Similarly, banning people who say things you disagree with from a group, or even deleting their comments, can violate the ethics of free speech. These things are not ethically bad to a high degree in my view, but they are often ethically bad.

Second, it is not clear what this idea of a ‘safe space’ is that they have in mind. Of course no one can harass you. That is against the law. No one has to go to the talk anyway. I have no problem with schools having a safe space that go beyond avoiding harassment. Having a place to be at peace is good. But that doesn’t mean the entire school or world needs to be like that, and it seems like they are thinking that is how it should be.

Third, protesters can certainly have a good reason for saying they disagree with this woman being invited there. Not everyone is invited. They can voice their disapproval of the person’s views who is invited. That can be important. We need people to know the invite is not tacit approval of their views or something like that. Protesters also often break the law, even in nonviolent ways, either because they get caught in the moment or as a political tactic. I am somewhat sympathetic to that, but I think they are often going too far.

Fourth, criticizing Islam is not necessarily Islamophobic. Not all criticisms of Islam are true, and it can be Islamophobic when it is judged so much more harshly than it deserves. At the same time there is perfectly reasonable criticisms of Islam or versions of Islam. Maryam Namazie has said some things I find to be over the top, such as her comparison of the hibab to female genital mutilation, but I don’t know a lot about her or how bad her views are. Even so, I don’t think disinvites or being disruptive to her were the right thing to do in this case. Additionally, her views do not seem to be very bad overall based on what little I have heard about her alleged Islamophobia.

Fifth, there are cases when people can harm others using free speech that goes beyond harassment, such as when religious leaders say we should treat a group badly, or (in my view) that being gay is a sin, or that women are inferior to men. Perhaps there are terrible things a person could say that would merit a disinvite. I’m not sure what to think about that yet, but I would not want to invite anyone like that to have a talk at a university.

How exactly we should think about the ethics of disinvites, disrupting public speakers, blocking people from groups, or even unfriending people on facebook is not entirely clear to me at this point. What do you think?


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