Q.What have all got in common? A. They’ve been vilified by campus thought Stasi
...and, says historian DOMINIC SANDBROOK, we’re witnessing the death of free speech itself
With this month marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, i spent the weekend re-watching the film the Lives Of Others, which is set during the final years of East Germany’s Communist regime.
in case you haven’t seen it, this moving masterpiece tells the story of an operative for the Stasi, the East German secret police.
An expert at bugging dissidents, he begins to have doubts about the morality of his own side.
it is a powerful portrait of a society in which free speech was ruthlessly suppressed, and in which making an ill-judged joke could mean losing your job or ending up in prison.
For those of us who remember the Cold War, films like this offer a nightmarish, Orwellian vision of total conformity, with an intrusive government policing what you say, what you write and even what you think, and with informers, bugs and even police surveillance vans at every turn.
But in today’s world, the real threat to free speech comes not from a totalitarian government. it comes from — of all places! — the university campuses that are supposed to be hotbeds of debate and disagreement.
And if you doubt it, just look at the chilling findings of a poll of British students by the think-tank Policy Exchange.
Almost incredibly, fewer than half of students consistently support free speech. A staggering 44 per cent thought Cardiff University was right to ban the feminist writer Germaine Greer after she questioned whether transgender ‘women’ were really women, while just 35 per cent thought it was wrong.
Similarly, 41 per cent thought Cambridge was right to withdraw a fellowship from best-selling conservative Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who divides opinion with his views on topics such as masculinity, political correctness and the gender pay gap, while only 31 per cent supported him.
PErhAPS most damningly of all, more than one in four students think the Commons leader Jacob rees-Mogg should be banned from speaking on campuses, simply because they object to his socially conservative politics.
in some ways, the poll’s findings are depressingly predictable. in the past few years, barely a week has gone by without some new example of student intolerance, from protests at visiting speakers to the banning of fancy-dress costumes on the grounds they are ‘racist’ or ‘cultural appropriation’.
Even so, this is the first time a survey has produced hard evidence of the new narrow-mindedness in Britain’s universities.
it’s true not all students are equally intolerant. But as anybody familiar with our universities knows, it is the loudest, most extreme activists who set the tone, dominating student unions and shouting down those who disagree.
As in Communist East Germany, nobody is safe. Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter tatchell, who was beaten up by thugs after protesting against the views of Vladimir Putin, and of robert Mugabe, might have assumed he had banked enough credit with the Left to last him several lifetimes.
Yet when tatchell was booked to speak at Canterbury Christ Church University, activists tried to get him kicked out on the grounds that he had dared to defend Ms Greer’s right to speak.
No parodist could have invented a more bizarre scenario.
to older readers, all this may sound demented. Some may recall the free speech controversies of the Sixties, when thousands of young people at U.S. universities staged sit-ins in support of their right to debate whatever and with whomever they wanted. Yet if you ventured on to campus today and made that argument, student activists would almost certainly condemn you as a racist, sexist, homophobic dinosaur.
As they see it, the priority is to protect their ‘safe space’. And if even a handful of students find your views offensive, then you have no right to utter them. Where on earth does this come from? Well, it’s tempting to suggest many of today’s students are spoiled, entitled, ignorant brats who have no tolerance, no humility and, perhaps above all, no sense of history.
But even if that’s true — and let’s be honest, it’s not entirely false — it’s not the whole story.
Sad to say, many academics have effectively colluded in this culture of intolerance. think, for example, of the disgraceful bullying campaign against Oxford’s regius Professor of Moral theology, Nigel Biggar, after he had the temerity to suggest the British Empire wasn’t entirely bad.
Or take an even more deranged example from just a few days ago: an academic campaign to rename the Anglo-Saxons, the first Englishmen and Englishwomen, on the grounds that the name ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has become synonymous with ‘white supremacy’.
Never mind that, say, Alfred the Great called himself an Anglo-Saxon. if you use the word, the academics say, you are exposing your own racist wickedness. But it would be a mistake to treat all this simply as a joke. this is our history, and if we’re not careful, we’ll end up losing it to Left-wing bigots. And it’s worth noting that this kind of strident, sanctimonious narrow-mindedness is not confined to Britain’s universities. Only yesterday, novelist Alice O’Keeffe wrote a disturbing article for the Guardian about publishers’ refusal to ‘reach out beyond the cosy pro-remain bubble’. A senior figure at publishing conglomerate hachette, employing the pious cant that has become so tiresomely familiar, said he would refuse to take on anything that didn’t uphold ‘social justice’ or that ‘went against our inclusive ethos’. And the managing director at publisher Profile even said he would not publish anything that appealed to Leavers: ‘What would we be publishing? Fantasy histories of a Britain in which servants doff their caps?’ i hardly need to point out how unimaginative, arrogant, blinkered and downright ignorant such views are.
SAd to say, though, liberal intolerance is becoming increasingly common, and is all the more insidious because it comes from people who see themselves as the only true free thinkers.
the very idea of a frank exchange of views is becoming endangered. thanks to social media, young people, in particular, just want to hear their views repeated, their prejudices echoed.
When you suggest that they might enjoy hearing somebody they disagree with and, even more shockingly, that they might learn something, they stare at you as if you have just come out as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
So what to do? Policy Exchange suggests that universities should employ ‘academic freedom champions’, answering to individual vice chancellors. But that sounds like just another bureaucratic non-job to me.
When the disease is cultural, the solution must be cultural, too. the only way to fight for free speech is to keep insisting on it.
No platforming, safe spaces and snowflake culture should be taboo. And when students say they’re offended, university authorities — and other students — should tell them to grow up. that means, of course, that we all need to tolerate views we disagree with. But nobody ever really suffered from listening to contrary arguments.
indeed, isn’t robust argument the lifeblood of a democratic society? haven’t we all learned from somebody we never expected to agree with? And what’s the alternative? A 21st-century East Germany in which conformity is enforced, not by government, but by the shrieking of a twitter mob? A world in which the wrong joke can get you sacked?
We’re halfway down that road already. it’s not too late to turn back. But if we don’t fight for free speech now, it will be gone before we know it.
Under fire: From left, Germaine Greer, King Alfred and Jacob Rees-Mogg