'After Charlie Hebdo we must teach students the importance of free speech, however offensive'
Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, and a former FE teacher, writes:
After the barbaric assault on the staff of French magazine, Charlie Hebdo my Twitter time line has reflected some educators’ angst about how teachers, especially RE teachers, should respond to the atrocities committed "in the name of religion". One tweeted: “Good luck to all RE teachers who will be trying their very best to shine light on what happened in Paris yesterday. Our job is not easy” (Daniel Hugill). RE Online has a feature by Andy Midwinter who says events will have “a significant impact upon our task as RE teachers” and welcomes “any suggestions on exactly how we should approach this issue in the classroom”.
There’s a danger here of getting into a defensive tangle. There is really only one lesson from these horrible shootings: that pupils should learn to tolerate views they find offensive. And that in itself is a challenge. Because, let’s be honest, many of today’s pupils can be particularly thin-skinned and easily offended: reared in a ‘you can’t say that’ censorious culture, encouraged to be offended by adult society.
Although #JeSuisCharlie is trending and free speech has had an international surge of support in the wake of the Paris murders, actually arguing for the right to be offensive is deeply unfashionable today. From hate speech legislation to language codes, today’s orthodoxy demands bans more often than it defends free expression. A particularly shrill PC intolerance can lead to thoughtless assaults on press freedom, with knee-jerk demands that loud-mouths such as Katie Hopkins are gagged by TV and newspapers; that Page 3 is banned, lads mags covered up; the Exhibit B art exhibition was recently shut down by anti-racists. On university campuses (full of students fresh out of school) NUS No Platform policies have recently been extended from specific political groups to individuals and even pop songs accused of using discriminatory language.
All this might seem a far cry from the Islamist violence on Paris streets. But it is important to recognise that the desire to silence hateful images or speech, whether because it offends a religious group or upsets little Johnny, is driven by the same impulse: To put offended feelings on a pedestal above the freedom of thought and expression.