Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Reith, Roots, and Representational Art

January 2023.


The title of this blog is a conscious attempt to catch your interest and encourage you to take a bit of time to listen to the online recording of an event on campus in November of last year. And we’re writing this blog because the event was subject to a protest which seemed to be designed to prevent the event taking place and to prevent people from hearing what the speakers had to say. A similar protest several weeks before had stopped a campus careers fair from taking place. This protest was only partially successful – the event went ahead but primarily online, with a small face to face audience. The right to protest is important –as is the right to freedom of expression, and freedom from harm. Where these various rights intersect we face some genuinely “wicked problems” but we need to find ways, as a community, of dealing with these difficulties. And we’d both argue that at least part of the solution is learning to shout less, listen more and listen better!

Each of the three elements in the title of this blog illustrates some of the issues and challenges that we face when these rights (to protest, to speak freely and to be free from harm) intersect. And with the current Freedom of Speech Bill looking likely to pass into law, and a new Director of Free Speech to be appointed as part of the sector regulator, these issues are rising both in prominence and scrutiny. But we raise them, irrespective of these developments, because they remain essential if we are to be an inclusive and learning community.

This year’s Reith Lectures were unusual in being delivered by 4 different speakers. The inspiration for the series came from Franklin D Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech delivered in 1941. His four freedoms, fundamental for democracy and yet also the cause of many tensions were the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. The first of these lectures was delivered by Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi and if you haven’t heard it, please consider listening and if you haven’t time to listen, there is a commentary here. We will all form our own views about some of the controversial topics that give rise to challenges to freedom of speech, but it’s hard to disagree with her view that “There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.” Another point she makes forcibly, is that the greatest danger to free speech is that of self-censure as people stay quiet rather than face such forms of criticism. Chimamanda is also a popular speaker on TEDX: one of the most popular is one she has done on the importance of recognising that there never just one story and listening to all of the stories.

"The right to protest is important –as is the right to freedom of expression, and freedom from harm. Where these various rights intersect we face some genuinely 'wicked problems' but we need to find ways, as a community, of dealing with these difficulties."

This feels particularly pertinent to the Roots event which we mentioned in our first paragraph. It was in essence a presentation from a grass roots movement of Palestinians and Israelis working in partnership to address conflict between the two communities and their faiths. They focus on their identities that are based on a shared connection to the land, developing understanding and solidarity despite their ideological differences. The speakers, who were introduced by the Dean of Coventry Cathedral, were a Palestinian former refugee and an orthodox Rabbi who is a passionate Zionist settler. The Roots message is clear “Our work is aimed at challenging the assumptions our communities hold about each other, building trust and creating a new discourse around the conflict in our respective societies.” Some of those invited declined to attend as a matter of principle; others decided to actively seek to stop the event from taking place. But for those who were present it was an opportunity to listen, to learn but also to challenge.

Representational Art – what we might simply describe as art that directly represents people and things – is a source of tension between freedom of speech and freedom from harm. The recent case at Hamline College in the US saw an adjunct member of faculty castigated for showing a Persian image of The Prophet Muhammad from “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318). Described by many as a masterpiece, the painting shows the Angel Gabriel delivering the first Quranic revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. To many, this painting would legitimately be an essential component of a course on religious art, but for some (perhaps many) Muslims, representational art and particularly pictures of God, or other significant religious figures, are taboo and blasphemous. The Faculty member was attuned to this concern and provided a content warning in case some students might be offended (as an aside, this is an example of an instance when such alerts have genuine value); that did not protect them from an accusation of Islamophobia and the subsequent loss of their teaching position. The case has provoked considerable debate and disagreement, but from what is being reported, it’s a case that might benefit from more in the way of shared understanding.

None of these issues are easy; all are complex and contested. And as a community, we will have different views and different perspectives. As the Hamline Faculty member said in her formal apology, “diversity involves bringing contradicting, uncomfortable and coexisting truths into conversation with each other”. That in itself is really difficult but it’s something that we need to learn to do: being willing to listen productively has to be a starting point for that process.

To that end, we intend to arrange a series of talks/debates over the course of the next year, which will look at how we, as a community, deal with the challenges we face when rights such as freedom of speech, freedom from harm and peaceful protest intersect. We need to be able to address divisive issues; we need to explore how we bring “contradicting, uncomfortable and coexisting truths into conversation with each other”, we need to be able to listen better and debate productively.

Chris Ennew, former Provost, and Rachel Sandby-Thomas, Registrar.

Catch up - 'Two Truths in One Land: The Road to Reconciliation'

Find more about our event with Roots here, and watch a recording of the disucssion below.