The End of Free Speech

I used to know everything. That was when I was 16. Now I’m all grown up, I realize that I know fuck all about anything really, except my own rather narrow specialist subject and some other stuff I’ve learned over the years.

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One of the things I’ve learned is that disagreement can become vicious, especially when there’s little at stake! It seems that the more trivial the subject matter of the quarrel, the more hotly it’s contested. Rational argument most often rapidly deteriorates into frustration, then anger, then hatred. On a larger scale, disagreement can escalate into conflict and before you know it, books are being burned and people are being rounded up and put on cattle trucks to special camps.

Which is why we must value places of learning, where rational debate can be heard, examined, discussed and given moral and historical perspective. New ideas migrate into universities and colleges where they are discussed, analysed, challenged, modified… before they seep back into society and eventually into the mainstream.

But if our best universities don’t get the balance right, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

Feminists, sexual orientation campaigners, religious recognition and special interest groups and societies are all fighting for small scraps of ground in the pursuit of social, cultural and racial justice. All well and good when ideas get a fair hearing before the many, but scary indeed if rational debate is silenced by the demands of the few.

We value the right to exercise free speech, even if the idea is wrong, because we had to fight long and hard for it. There are too many places in the world where fee speech can result in imprisonment, or worse, torture and execution. That’s why the right to free speech must be protected at all costs. No one in their right mind would want a society where people were silenced or punished for their beliefs, political, religious, or otherwise. Women’s rights, gay rights, religious rights – the list goes on – are part of our collective liberalism, as indeed they should be.

But banning speakers from universities because they might offend the sensibilities of special interest groups (precious students) or the immature (precious students) is idiotic. Recent incidences of ‘no-platforming,’ where speakers have been prevented from lecturing at universities, is a trend which is a cause of consternation and concern for grown-ups. Germaine Greer, a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights and Peter Tatchell, a lifelong campaigner for gay rights, have both fallen victim to the ‘no-platforming’ brigade, made up of youngsters in their late teens who are exercising unreasonable censorship simply because they can! This is wrong, and it reminds me of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China, where the youth (some as young as 12 and 13) were given a free hand to depose, imprison and punish communities’ more experienced and knowledgeable elders.

Cancelling a Mexican themed evening, complete with Tequila shots, tacos, burritos and sombreros – ostensibly because it stereotyped Mexicans – goes beyond political correctness. It is the work of childishly immature pretend revolutionaries. Likewise, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, designed to ensure the removal of a statue of the great colonialist and late 19th century diamond magnate that adorns Oxford University’s Oriel College, an institution built and financed by said benefactor. [Rhodes was also gay, but attitudes were very different 120 years ago, so I’m wondering if the kids who are so vociferous in bringing about his 21st century downfall may have once supported his persecutiuon!]

The anti-Rhodes campaign was instigated by a black South African student, Ntokozo Qwabe, ironically, the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. Equally ironic is that Mr Qwabe recently racially abused a young white waitress in his native Cape Town – he described the incident as “so black, so beautiful.”

Some of these tactics are reminiscent of 1930’s Germany where small and piffling complaints could lead to arrest and a one-way trip to a special treatment centre.

Universities in both the US and UK have responded to this new trend with diversity training for staff, special facilities for the slightly different and ‘safe spaces’ for those of a particularly delicate disposition. Self-segregation for trans or gender-fluid students has been proposed which will insulate them from the harsher realities of the real world. Therein lies another irony – any kind of segregation, self-imposed or not, is still segregation by any other name and does nothing for the cause of integration, acceptance or understanding. One group’s experience should not be inaccessible to members of another group.

The whole point of free speech is that people with different views and beliefs can understand one another. Where would philosophy or literature be without free speech?

But I admit I’m confused. I always thought university students were among the most liberally minded persons on the planet. It seems to me that students are now asking for more, and more complex, rules – certainly a change from the days when they wanted less of them!

For university authorities to give in to the increasingly bizarre demands of their students is to pay lip service to the assumption of the supremacy of their opinions – kids with no experience of the real world and insufficient knowledge of history and culture. It seems as though the lunatics really have taken over the asylum, and it has to stop!

So who is to blame for this topsy-turvy state of affairs? One could blame their parents for wrapping their kids in cotton wool, or should we blame the government’s ‘elf ‘n safety jobsworths? Todays students seem such a fragile lot – so different from when I was at music college – a hot bed of preciousness if ever there was one! But today’s educational elite harbour a sense of entitlement that borders on narcissism. Maybe it’s because the easy and instant access to information that comes with the IT age has caused students to get used to, and demand, immediacy. Certainly student’s attitudes today are very different from what they were in my day.

Dissenters are branded as cyber-bullies; incidences of anti-semitism on university campuses have increased markedly in the last 12 months. In another widely publicised incident, a young student was ostracised by his supposed peers because he refused to attend an ostensibly voluntary fresher’s week ‘rape awareness’ seminar – his hopes, future and career now in ruins. Is this sort of mass bullying really justification of the marginalization of freedom of choice?

A new phrase has entered the fragile world of the delicate mind. ‘Micro aggression’ is the buzzword applied to even a hint of non-compliance with the manifesto of the new mollycoddling Stasi.

Of course activists are entitled to protest – that is the essence of freedom of speech – but to claim that counter-arguments are a form of violence is not only wrong, but represents an new and insidious form of censorship, pure and simple. Prejudice must be proven by impartial adjudication, not just alleged and taken as read. Tutors, professors and university officials must not be put in a position where they are made to feel in fear of their jobs.

Universities are so nervous about the possible ructions of their students that some are taking the precaution of putting in place ‘trigger warnings’ in case anything in a textbook offends or upsets the precious darlings. This is understandable if there is a passage about a violent rape or murder, but ridiculous if the text is about historical fact.

It has been said, and oft repeated, that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Vigilance is what is needed right now in the face of this new and stealthy form of creeping intolerance. Universities must not be allowed to become centres of prohibition and censure.

Surely the main purpose of going to university is to prepare for the world, with all its unfairness, injustice and disappointments, not wallow in a fantasy version of what you think it should be? Maybe the precious darlings are suffering from a child-like delusion that all their problems can somehow be spirited away forever and ever. Bad news I’m afraid – life is not Narnia! Neither is university, and nor should it be.

Free speech? There are too many examples in history of people not exercising their right to speak up, despite being able to do so without fear of reprisal.

I first read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago when I was in my mid-twenties.

The book was a devastating indictment of the Soviet system and the forced labour camps it spawned. It was not that long ago the Soviet thought police arrested with impunity, imprisoned, tortured and executed millions of ordinary Russians. These included poets, musicians, artists, teachers and scientists, in fact anyone who uttered even the slightest criticism of the state, told the wrong sort of joke or was discovered to harbour the wrong sort of opinions. Children were encouraged to denounce their parents and teachers – the slightest suspect or ambiguous remark would result in immediate loss of employment, public debasement, peremptory trial and Draconian punishment.

During the Cultural Revolution in China, the young, filled with revolutionary fervour, were also encouraged to denounce the old, leading to mass arrests, public humiliations, imprisonments and the forced political ‘re-education’ of countless millions of an entire generation.

In the West, we were safe in the knowledge that sort of thing could never happen in a free society. And yet, a mere 30 years after the Wall came down, thought and speech is now more free in Russia than it is in the West. The virus of totalitarianism, once confined in the East somehow mutated and escaped to thrive in a West that is ever more obsessed with the minutiae of political correctness. Again, it is youth and inexperience acting as its host.

One victim of the new fanaticism is Nobel prize-winning scientist Professor Sir Tim Hunt, shamefully driven from his position at University College London. His crime was making a silly joke about women scientists at a conference. Sir Tim found himself caught up in a frenzy of persecution that resulted in the loss of his job – a wholly disproportionate punishment for such a minor slip. Likewise, Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, has recently been forced to resign for having the temerity to suggest that not all women want to get to the top because some women might hold children and family more important than a career in advertising. What a bastard!

It doesn’t matter if you disagree with someone else’s opinions and beliefs, but it does matter that they run the risk of being severely punished for expressing them. Destroying the careers of people once so respected, and with it the loss of reputation and income is disgraceful.

We are living in a very dangerous time – one in which we are forced by fear of consequence to self-censorship, where one careless or unmeant word can ruin your life.

The PC Stasi are already at work implementing compliance, enforcing silence, promising public humiliation and indulging excessive punishment with fervour of Bolshevik proportions.

The Gulag is only one short step away.

 

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Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.