OSFD founder Maya Thomas on free speech at Oxford

Interviews Profile

“Our main aim is to help Oxford disagree better”.

Maya Thomas on the founding of Oxford Society for Free Discourse and free speech issues in Oxford.

So, how did you start the Oxford Society for Free Discourse?

When I first came to university as an ideologically confused fresher, was very excited to have discussions with people whose ideas, regardless of how much I disagreed with them, would force me to reevaluate and reconstruct my own. Turns out that even at Oxford, deviance from an unspoken “status quo” is enough to get you labeled as a “fascist” or “snowflake”, depending on your circles. This kind of snap-judgment hardly seems conducive to constructive discussion, and, I feel, instills a sense of fear that prevents people from putting the exact nuance of their own views out there to be challenged.

Between dealing with Jenni Murray’s deplatforming during my time as Secretary of the History Society, and hearing about many cases of informal censorship throughout the university, my frustration about the state of free discourse at Oxford kept growing.

The tipping point was when Steve Bannon was invited to the Oxford Union, and some groups organized a no-platforming protest in response. (I actually hate how someone as awful as Bannon is implicitly part of our origin story, but hey…) While I’m already on record saying that I think Bannon is a twat, I was disappointed that given his political relevance at the time, such a vocal group refused to hear him. Some friends and I organized a counter-protest aiming to be a physical reminder that there are still Oxford students interested in constructive discussion. We held up signs reading “Challenge, Don’t Silence!” and made a point of not yelling or chanting, but simply chatting to people on a one-to-one basis.

The protest was pretty terrifying. Somehow, people managed to conflate defending Bannon’s right to speak and supporting his views. Some protestors on the “other side” completely refused to talk to us. Questions like, “why are you protesting?” were met with “shut the fuck up you fascist.” I was spat at, called a “race traitor” and a “self-hating woman”. Ironically, these things were said to me by white men to whom it appeared incomprehensible that I might be both pro-free speech and black; separate from their perception of how someone like me should be. That’s when I realized that free speech gives us the opportunity to express ourselves as individuals, not just as part of some demographic monolith. The most poignant example of the importance of free speech to minority communities came when I spoke to a Muslim girl who told me that she had written questions for Bannon about the Muslim Ban. Her immediate family had been affected by it, and due to the no-platforming protest, she was denied the opportunity to personally confront the man who prevented her family from moving to the US.

Sorry, I’m going off track a little bit… For all the negative response, there was a lot of support too. Throughout the demonstration, we were asked what society we were with, so that’s when we decided to formalize. We decided to name ourselves the Oxford Society for Free Discourse because, despite being a bit of a mouthful, it emphasises the conversational nature of our goals more than something like “Oxford Free Speech Society”.

What do you see as the future of the society? What are your priorities now?

The main priority now is getting the word out. We want people to know that OSFD is a community in which people with polar-opposite views can have a constructive chat. We’re also aware that any society is at risk of becoming an echo-chamber, so we are actively trying to encourage those who support things like no-platforming to come to our events. Our main aim is to help Oxford disagree better, so we’re looking to expand our committee to take on new people with a fresh and diverse range of ideas.

Logistically, the bulk of our efforts lies in creating productive events for our members. Rather than inviting people for the sake of controversy, we only invite those who we believe are happy to enter into a constructive discussion. This Monday of 5th Week, we have Douglas Murray coming to speak about his new book, and have purposefully split the event 50-50 between interview format and Q&A.

Another thing we are trying to do is monitoring. If people feel censored, whether this be formally or informally, we try to record it. Over time – and this is a very long-term goal – we want to create a kind of database of censorship that Oxford. While our committee feels that there is a free speech crisis at this university, we would be foolish to stand by this notion without evidence. We also feel that having a list of incidences will help demonstrate the scope of the problem to people who might be on the fence about our cause. Many often don’t realise that marginalized communities, including people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community can be affected negatively by well-intentioned enforcements of the modern notion of “political correctness”, so revealing this would be very constructive.

So you think there is a free speech crisis in Oxford. Do you think most people are genuinely pro no-platforming or do you think people who are against it are just more low-key?

Hm, “crisis” is an intense term. Apologies for using it earlier, I’m prone to hyperbole. North Korea has a free speech crisis. Oxford has a free speech problem, the biggest of which, to me at least, is the culture of fear. I have spoken to many students and even academics who are afraid of mentioning alternative ideas and testing them against the views of others, because today’s climate is one in which ideas, even if expressed hypothetically and in a respectful, academic context, are immediately linked to your entire identity and value as a person.

Anyway, based on OSFD’s efforts to speak to as many types of Oxonians as possible, I’d guess that most roughly agree with our core principles, (controversial speech is okay, hate speech and incitement to violence are not) but are too afraid to say so out loud. Sadly, the label of “free speech activist” carries negative connotations. As for the last part of your question, I do think it’s true that people who are in favour of no-platforming tend to be louder. Campaigning for silence is certainly less complex than campaigning for nuanced, potentially unpleasant debate.

People who are pro no-platforming they often say that if an institution such as the Oxford Union invites speakers, they are giving them a platform and it gives greater credibility to their views. What is your response to that?

I think that this argument was certainly valid before the internet age. Nowadays however, people like Bannon (it’s really annoying how he’s the go-to example) do not need institutions like Oxford. The internet provides echo-chambers in which even the most hateful people can build a legitimate following. The narrative of mainstream or institutional exclusion pushed by many such people is actually reinforced when we pretend that controversy doesn’t exist. To me, no-platforming (politically) relevant speakers is like sticking your head in the sand. It doesn’t solve the problem, and actually validates their narrative. The best way to discredit unsavoury ideas is to verbally deconstruct them. While obviously a 19-year old Union member won’t change Bannon himself, good arguments that are filmed and put online can prevent the radicalization of a peer halfway across the world. The best we can do as Oxford students is to present reasonable arguments – that’s the most credible thing of all.

Some would say that some speech is so hateful that it doesn’t justify the need for free discourse. Do you have a personal boundary where you would not tolerate an opinion because it’s too much in the hate speech zone?

In the case of societies, we have the responsibility to make sure that our speakers are open to a constructive debate. Inviting controversy for the sake of it is less than productive. But I assume you’re asking me about this in a non-society context? Everyone’s boundary is slightly different, and while I’m not quite a free speech fundamentalist (incitement to physical violence and the making of credible threats are where I draw the line), I generally think that everything besides that should be (and often is) protected by law. I do feel that those on the opposite side of the censorship spectrum are well-intentioned. We’re all just trying to make the world a better place. But if we can’t discuss ideas (including hate speech) openly, then we risk driving them further underground. You can’t fight an enemy you can’t see (or hear).

Also, something to consider is that the word “hate” is becoming increasingly colloquially ambiguous. The broader question is, “does free speech include the right to offend?” I think it does. “Offended” is the word used to describe the feeling when someone makes a nasty comment about your haircut. But we use the same word to describe how we feel when someone questions the validity of our sexual identity for instance. Obviously these two things are very different on the scale of emotional harm, but that’s exactly the point. One person may brush off the haircut comment, but feel cripplingly upset at the second. Someone else may be able to shrug away the sexuality comment, whereas long-term insecurities about their physical appearance cause them to break down at the haircut remark. Once we start to place hard boundaries in this foggy sea of subjectivity, we begin to encounter censorship. Also, it’s so important to remember that in satire, critical art, activism and so many other positive fields, offensive speech can actually be a constructive tool!

One last thing, all speech has context. While it should be perfectly valid to criticize someone’s religious beliefs, doing this during a time of mourning for instance, may be legal, but is also just insensitive. I think that a general standard is just trying to be as respectful as possible when possible – pretty basic!

So, do you think the Racial Hatred Act etc. are enough?

Yes, I think the laws we have are pretty good. But what frightens me is when people try to informally enforce their own laws. We’ve all heard about the polarization of ideas, but something I feel isn’t addressed enough is the polarisation of the very vocabulary we use to discuss free speech.

Last summer I spoke to a friend who mentioned that they had witnessed violence against the LGBTQ+ community at university. Obviously, I was horrified, and wanted to know more. The examples my friend gave were all of verbal attacks. As someone accustomed to the more traditional definition of “violence” as physical, my friend’s choice to use this word to describe the terrible events they had witnessed was fascinating. Indeed, I found that increasingly, speech and violence are equated. Language is fluid, so I’m not saying my definition of “violence” is any better than theirs. The key thing to me is that this difference in perception blurs the very discussions we have about notions like “incitement to violence”. This, in turn, blurs our ability to discuss the exact limits to free speech. To me, the only way in which we can bridge this gap is through open dialogue. Only by reconciling what exactly we mean when we talk about “violence”, “harm”, or even “incitement”, can we avoid misunderstandings and make sure we’re all speaking the same language on the same page.