The future of free speech: will tackling ‘radicalisation’ mean the death of debate?

Tuesday 8 November, 19.00 - 20.30 , Hallmark Midland Hotel, Derby UK satellite events


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The government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy sees the sudden psychological ‘radicalisation’ of vulnerable children and young people as the cause of terrorism. Its supporters claim the aim is to prevent terrorism in all its forms including that of the extreme right and of individual fanatics, but its critics often condemn it as ‘Islamophobic’ for targeting Muslims. More generally critics protest that it has turned teachers and lecturers into spies looking out for signs of ‘radicalisation’ including unusual behaviour and mental illness.

But is the idea behind ‘Prevent’ ineffective because it is essentially passive? Watching, waiting and hoping are hardly inspiring activities. Arguably, it is the more positive celebration of freedoms - of fun and the enjoyment of life - that will really challenge the tendency to nihilistic, misanthropic and often self-hating acts of violence. Instead of such an active assertion of values, however, lecturers and teachers are required to create an Orwellian climate of suspicion and fear. Some even welcome their community safety roles and go about seeking out supposed signs of radicalisation. For others, though, a duty to report suspicions to the police and other authorities leaves teachers and lecturers in a morally shameful state. Their only real weapon in response to the challenge of narcissistic and nihilistic extremism is to use the one ability that any teacher or lecturer worthy of the name has, the ability to discuss and debate every issue, however ‘sensitive’ or ‘offensive’ it may be. That includes the necessity to debate ‘Prevent’ and its implications without looking constantly over your shoulder.

Is Prevent a worthwhile strategy, or at least a necessary evil? Or does it condemn teachers to live in fear and even spread fear? Should they instead encourage pupils and students to speak freely? Or is free speech too dangerous to be unleashed in schools and universities?