October 13, 2021   4 mins

On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to chair a public event on “Hate, Heresy and the Fight for Free Speech” in London. I expected it to be a lively discussion; I’ve made two radio series celebrating the importance of disagreement. But I also expected it to be civilised, with respect shown for people, but not for bad ideas.

What I did not expect is that I would have to start the event by reading out a statement from one of the speakers because she had been advised that it might not be safe for her to leave her home and appear in person.

The speaker, as you may have guessed, was Kathleen Stock — a Professor of Philosophy who has been subjected to a campaign of harassment by anonymous trolls claiming to be students at Sussex University, where she teaches Philosophy, demanding for her to be sacked for her alleged views on transgender rights.

I say “alleged” because I have read her recent book, Material Girls, and it’s hard to see how it could be described as transphobic. “Trans people are trans people. We should get over it,” she writes. “They deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma, and to have exactly the life opportunities non-trans people do.” Certainly the book hardly amounts to “transphobic shit”, the term written on stickers that were recently plastered across Stock’s university building.

At the Battle of Ideas event, we did achieve an exchange of reasonable views about free speech and hate speech. Some contributions were critical of Professor Stock, and some were critical of the idea that more freedom of speech is always a good thing. Those on the panel and in the room who asserted that untrammelled debate is generally positive were forced to justify their views.

It would have been better, of course, if Professor Stock had been able to take part in the debate, rather than send a written statement. I think the people who attended in order to criticise her views felt somewhat cheated by her absence, as well as those who were more sympathetic to her position.

Since the campaign against her gathered momentum last week, University of Sussex has issued statements in support of academic freedom of speech and expression, and of challenging one’s own ideas by listening to others. Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell said the university would not tolerate harassment and intimidation, or be pressured by calls to sack Professor Stock.

But not everybody has been so quick to defend academic freedom, free expression or the right not to be fired for holding unpopular views. Sussex University Students’ Union has issued a statement saying it does not support the University’s stance, and expressing disappointment “that our Vice-Chancellor is lending support to views which have been causing severe distress to students, and that the University did not reach out to our trans and non-binary community.”

In today’s climate, perhaps we should not be surprised by the decision of yet another student union to disavow the importance of academic freedom. What was striking, however, was the decision of the Sussex branch of UCU — the trade union representing academics in the UK — to follow suit. Yesterday, it issued a “statement In Support of Trans And Nonbinary Communities at Sussex”, in which it called on the university to enshrine “the dignity and respect of trans and nonbinary staff and students”.

“We urge our management to take a clear and strong stance against transphobia at Sussex,” it warned. It later clarifies its authors “oppose all forms of bullying, harassment and intimidation of staff and students” — and that they “do not endorse the call for any worker to be summarily sacked”. The statement then goes on to endorse the Students’ Union support for the protesting students, who by Stock’s account have been largely menacing.

It is, of course, important to defend the right to protest, though harassment and intimidation of individuals — as experienced by Stock — clearly goes beyond the free expression of dissent. Freedom of speech, after all, is important precisely because it underpins all other freedoms: without being able to say what you think, freedom of thought is impossible. In Professor Stock’s words, which I read out on her behalf: “Young people are frightened to say what they think. In a weird reversal of the suffragette motto “deeds not words”, on campus and in middle-class life more generally there is an intense corrective emphasis on words not deeds.”

But the union’s statement was not just a defeat for free speech — it was a stark sign of how far union politics has fallen in recent decades. Like freedom of expression, employment rights were won by centuries of collective action. Because most of us need to earn a living, there is generally a power imbalance between employer and employee, and joining together in a trade union is a way to counteract that imbalance. It’s easy to replace one unruly employee, but not so easy to replace an entire workforce who have walked out in support.

Solidarity, then, is a very simple idea. But it seems to have gone out of fashion — or, even worse, been forgotten. The point of defending a fellow employee’s right to keep their job is not that you agree with their ideas, or that you like them. The point is that you have more power by standing together than as individuals. You will, you should, differ from your workmates in all sorts of respects — sex, gender identity, race, age, political views, tastes and habits. What you have in common is a shared interest in protecting each other from abuses of power by those who have power over you.

And so UCU’s behaviour, in refusing to side with Stock, is a tragedy in itself. What you lose by calling on employers to discipline or sack your workmates for their opinions is power. Suddenly, something that unions were created to deter can be used against those whose views are deemed intolerable. Once you have handed over the control to decide which opinions may be expressed, or even thought, not just in the workplace but on social media or perhaps in private, it will be near-impossible to reclaim.

It used to be a maxim of union politics that dignity and respect cannot depend on handing more power to those in power. At best, the prize will be a constrained respect from your peers, policed by fear of punishment from above. At worst, it will end in the indignity of powerlessness, and the shame of knowing that you willingly chose that dependency on the powerful, because you preferred it to solidarity with those such as Kathleen Stock whose ideas were different from yours.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.