Mad Marx: “Free Speech” and Academic Freedom

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

In recent months, news has come out that Dolores Cahill was removed from the registry of employees at UCD. Neither side has commented on what happened - if Cahill jumped ship or if she was pushed. However, the development comes after a protracted campaign by members of the public as well as some students and staff to demand the college administration take action. Regardless, there isn’t much point in speculation. 

Dolores Cahill is a far right activist who peddled Covid-19 and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has engaged in a campaign to undermine the public health effort, campaigned against masks and other health measures, and so on. Her presence in public life has undoubtedly been harmful, and her anti-scientific views were, in reality, incompatible with being a member of faculty in the UCD School of Medicine. 

For many, the story starts and ends here. An individual who has obviously abandoned their critical faculties should not be in a position to teach students, nor given the authority of being on the payroll of a relatively prestigious academic institution. 

I believe that attitude reflects a healthy instinct possessed by the vast majority of people, that those doing harm to society should not be tolerated by it. This extends beyond questions of just Covid-19 and vaccine conspiracism and out towards questions of race, gender, sexuality etc. For the vast majority of students, it is intolerable for them to be taught by odious bigots or grossly ignorant individuals, and certainly in that regard Dolores Cahill is far from alone in Irish academic institutions, with lecturers such as Mark Humphrys in DCU being perceived by many as a far right Zionist and Islamophobe, defining himself as “anti-communist”, “anti-Islamic law”, “anti-Corbyn”, “pro-West”, amongst many other things. He goes as far as defending the immoral imprisonment of the likes of Nelson Mandela for his crime of resisting the vicious South African apartheid state, and eagerly downplays the campaign of inhumane torture carried out by “democracies” such as the US and UK at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. 

Should Humphrys be criticised for his inane and idiotic views? Yes, certainly. Kept a million miles away from any history, politics or religion classes? Certainly. Should he be fired? While, hand on heart, there would be real schadenfreude at the prospect, I would have to settle on “No”. 

I use Humphrys here as a specific example to make a more general point. There is a wide array of people in society with views most people consider to be unacceptable and intolerable. Many consider my “extreme” Marxist views to be intolerable, and what goes around comes around - at least, in the long run. Censoring individuals for their political views establishes precedents, and excessively focusing on minor figures such as Cahill misses the actual “dangerous ideas” in our society.

No better example is provided than our past two years of pandemic. Since the beginning, I have been an advocate of a public health policy that would go on to become known as “Zero Covid”, i.e. a policy of eliminating Covid-19 on this island, allowing us to get back to our normal lives. In my opinion, had we pursued that approach thousands of lives would have been saved and we would not have gone through that hellish lockdown for the first half of this year. 

But we did not take that approach. Not because of Dolores Cahill and her band of merry idiots, but because of Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, and the lobbying from the likes of the Restaurants Association and Vintners’ Association. They all got together in winter last year and decided that instead of pursuing a policy of elimination, which we nearly did in summer 2020, we would all have to just “live with COVID” so that the heavily subsidised, low wage, exploitative hospitality industry could start making money again. And here we are, a few thousand more bodies in the grave and a political and media establishment eager to make everyone forget about it. Over two thousand people died in the space of two months this year and there is not a word about it except from the so-called “looney left”. I suppose wanting accountability for avoidable deaths truly is an act of lunacy in modern Ireland. 

The people, and people like them who preached a “moderate” and “balanced” approach to public health have done incalculably greater damage to our society than any far right gang. These are the people who are in power, who make the decisions, who have the power and influence to declare all alternatives to be “impossible” or “irrational”. At the same time, these are the people who stand over a regime which places huge restrictions on the media and general public through defamation laws that exist first and foremost to protect the wealthiest and most powerful people in our society. 

While fighting against the ideas of the far right is a fundamental necessity, I would worry that in doing so we lose the bigger picture and forget that, at the end of the day, none of us “ordinary people” are really in control of who is and is not subject to censorship. It was not too long ago that now-mainstream political parties like Sinn Féin were banned from Irish airwaves entirely, and the Irish state is more than eager to make “emergency measures” a permanent fixture (remember the Special Criminal Court?). It is not ordinary working and middle class people who own most of the papers and news channels across the state - it is millionaires and big business, the very people the government represents. 

Free speech is essential to challenge those in positions of power, which is why those in power put great effort into owning every outlet that could be used as a platform for it. I am no “free speech purist”, but rather than risking what little we have to shut up someone who can’t even get 200 votes in a by-election, shouldn’t we be fighting to take it back from those who are actually in power?