In Search of More Generous Listening

Home Affairs
Sunday, August 28, 2016
Jonathan Morris


“To break the oppositionality with which activists view their struggle, we would do well to take off the riot gear and join them in the crowd so that we can hear their points, find common ground, and generate solutions that help to preserve the environment that has allowed for free thought to flourish so well in our universities.”

-       Jonathan Morris

The Bow Group today releases its 'In Search of More Generous Listening' research paper, proposing active listening and engagement with protesters responsible for the current crisis of censorship on university campuses in the UK and USA.

Activists in the UK and USA have threatened universities’ ability to play host to ideas from all quarters by violently and nonviolently refusing speakers a platform from which to speak, defunding or banning unpopular publications, and creating “safe spaces” which exclude opposing viewpoints.

The paper argues for a close inspection of and engagement with activist arguments in order to create open dialogue about the state of free speech at our universities so as to bilaterally develop policy that reflects our values of free and open inquiry.


The paper's author, Jonathan Morris, believes that partisanship and failure to engage across controversial issues has intensified free speech crises at British and American universities and that a more generous approach should be undertaken to develop more effective policy.

Key Points:

  • Free-speech is essential for the practice of academic inquiry, and its sanctity at British and American universities is at the heart of their success
  • Protest movements have erupted in the UK and USA which seek to disrupt the expression of certain ideas, particularly those seen as marginalizing women, people of colour, and member of the LGBT+ community
  • Activists do operate under the clear and intelligible rationale that they are campaigning for underrepresented or repressed ideas, albeit by closing down conversations in other areas


The paper recommends paying careful attention to the arguments that student activists put forward to explain their actions. Through active listening on the part of opposition, a conversation can begin that brings all parties to the table in search of solutions that ensure the long term health of university free-speech.

The paper's author, Jonathan Morris, said:

“Although the actions of activists rankle with many, myself included, it is important that we approach this crisis of censorship with open minds so that we don’t drive the ideological split between students and administrative faculty even wider.

Activists see themselves as fighting for the very cause they seem to be threatening, giving voice to important ideas. If we listen to their arguments, we find that they are chiefly concerned with forgotten voices: those of women, people of color, and LGBT+ persons who have not benefitted in past from an environment of open-mindedness.

Rather than growing frustrated at their shouting, the time is overdue for us to listen closely and turn protests into a frank conversation about how we approach the presentation of ideas from across the social and political spectrum and recognize that, foundationally, academic discourse is not a zero sum game.”