Last month, Universities UK, an umbrella organization representing institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, published guidelines for how colleges could host controversial speakers on campus in a way that respects both free-speech and anti-discrimination laws. Among their case studies was the hypothetical example of a fundamentalist religious speaker who wanted his audience to be segregated by gender. Shockingly, Universities UK concluded that such a demand can and should be agreed to, as long as the men-only and women-only seating areas were side-by-side and one wasn’t in back:
On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.
…Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief.
Yes, you read that right. Universities UK really did make the “separate but equal” argument that’s long been used as to prop up all kinds of vile bigotry – for example, the Jim Crow-era racists who argued that laws against interracial marriage were fair because they restricted the freedom of whites and blacks in the same way. They even hinted, none too subtly, that preventing a religious group from imposing gender segregation at a public event might be considered an infringement on their free speech rights. Polly Toynbee said that the policy “give[s] the sexist eccentricities of some religions priority over women’s rights”.
And this isn’t a hypothetical problem. In the U.K., there have been a few well-publicized examples of religious zealots trying to enforce gender apartheid at their events, including one case in which the atheist speaker threatened to walk out of a debate until the organizers relented. This has mostly been a problem with Islamist speakers up till now, but we could easily imagine it happening in other belief systems as well, like ultra-Orthodox Jews (who also ask for gender apartheid in public) or Quiverfull Christians.
After a firestorm of protest, including criticism from Prime Minister David Cameron, this week Universities UK caved in and withdrew this bad advice. But segregation still has its defenders, including some well-meaning but badly mistaken liberals, as I found out on Twitter:
@DaylightAtheism I am also an atheist – but why is it ridiculous to segregate? I think that lanugage plays into extremists hands….
— Alastair Sloan (@alastairsloan) December 13, 2013
The argument seems to be that the only way we can defeat extremist views is by engaging them in debate; but if we won’t bow to the extremists’ demands for a segregated audience, they won’t debate at all. Therefore, the only way we can confront and refute them is by giving in to any conditions they set to grace us with their presence.
To be clear, I agree that the proper way to defeat extremists is to engage them in debate. (I was in favor of Columbia University inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak in 2007, so that his repugnant, ridiculous opinions on gay people and the Holocaust could be roundly mocked.) However, I disagree fiercely with the idea that drawing them out is so important that we have to accede to any sexist or racist demands they make.
In a free society, everyone has the right to speak their mind, even if their views are repugnant to the majority. But no one has the right to control the composition of their audience. If bigots want to speak at private, invitation-only events, they can set whatever rules their hosts will abide. But if they want to take part in a forum that’s open to the public, they have no right to dictate who can attend or under what conditions. If they won’t participate unless they can make up their own rules, then they just won’t participate, and that’s absolutely fine with me. I have no sympathy for those who cry that their freedom is being silenced when they can’t enforce bigoted, freedom-limiting rules on others.
If we conclude that we have to allow religious groups to discriminate so as not to prevent them from speaking their minds, we’re plunging down a dangerous spiral. What if a fundamentalist speaker would only agree to appear if no women were allowed to speak anywhere on campus that day? What if he demanded editorial control over any press coverage of the event? The only place to cut off this slippery slope is at the beginning: to declare firmly that the public sphere is open to everyone and that no one has to accept unjust treatment as the price of participating in the marketplace of ideas. Neither religion nor any kind of belief entitles anyone to walk around in a bubble of special rules which they can enforce on everyone they come into contact with.