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

Scottish Daily Mail - - Comment -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.