Are we sliding into a new totalitarianism?
When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, the poet CH Sisson said: “I can’t understand how we can rejoice over the end of this tyranny in the Soviet bloc when we’re building up something very much like it in Western Europe.”
I recalled his words when I read the shocking reports about Felix Ngole who was sacked from his MA degree course in social work at Sheffield University for expressing support for Kim Davis, the American county clerk who was jailed for refusing to license homosexual marriages.
Sheffield University tried to justify Ngole’s dismissal in a statement saying he had “transgressed boundaries which are not deemed appropriate for someone entering the social work profession.” Quite apart from the fact that anyone who uses language like that should be told to go away and wash his mouth out, how dare the university expel a student for exercising his right to free speech?
It gets worse. The disciplinary panel concluded: “Ngole is entitled to his opinions but there was a danger that publicly posting those views would have an effect on his ability to practise as a social worker.”
What variety of double-speak is it to say that he has a right to his opinions but he is not allowed to express them?
Ngole is a Christian who disapproves of homosexual marriage. He is powerless to repeal the law – either here or in the USA - which introduced homosexual marriage. But in a democracy that enshrines the principle of free speech, he would be permitted to express his disagreement. What this proves beyond all doubt is that we no longer live in a country where free speech is allowed. There is a name for this sort of country – our sort of country, the new, modern Britain – and it is totalitarianism.
Totalitarian regimes do not improve and mature over time. Rather they intensify their intolerance and sheer nastiness and they broaden the scope of issues to be declared forbidden. Then they increase the severity of penalties for those deemed to have “transgressed.” Sisson was right.
We see symptoms of burgeoning totalitarianism in what we might have considered the most unlikely places. For example, the luscious Grande Dame of feminism, Germaine Greer, was due to give a talk at Cardiff University on the subject of women and power. But she was “no-platformed” – or, as we lovers of ordinary English say, disinvited. Why? Ms Greer is a radical leftie, the sort of person who usually appeals mightily to our lumpen intellectuals. What had she done wrong? She had written that men who have sex-change operations do not become women.
Notice, she did not say that men should not be allowed to have these operations. In fact she explicitly declared: “Go ahead, you’re doing nothing wrong.” She merely pointed out that the recipients of such surgery never can be women in the full sense.
Universities nowadays express concern for students’ “mental safety” – meaning they must on no account be exposed to opinions and arguments that offend the canons of the new progressivism. This is a disgrace.
Universities, the pride and joy of European intellectual life for a thousand years, are now afraid to expose students to ideas they might find challenging. But the whole point of a university education is to teach young people to be discerning – that is to tell one thing from another; in short, to think. By banning subjects and speakers who offer affront to their prejudices, our universities are failing in their primary task to teach thinking.
This new fashion for institutionalised political correctness, and the raising of the habit of taking offence to the status of an art form, becomes too daft to laugh at. For instance, last September the students’ union at the University of East Anglia boycotted a local Mexican restaurant for its giving out sombreros to diners. They said that white people wearing Latin American costume is “racist.”
Again, the writer Brendan O’Neill recounts how he was prevented from speaking about abortion at Oxford last year. The students claimed that having “a person without a uterus” speak on abortion would make young women feel “mentally unsafe.”
This stuff has been around for a long time. When I was a country parson in Yorkshire in the last century, I went to York University to hear the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. Only, the rentamob brigade of undergraduate oiks wouldn’t let him speak. They kept up a barrage of noise and vile abuse until Scruton was obliged to step down from the rostrum and the talk was aborted – if I’m allowed to say that, not having a uterus. The irony was that the subject of his talk was “free speech”!
It was worse than catcalls and abuse: Scruton was threatened with physical violence and, if he had not been led out quickly by a side door, he would have been harmed. Of course the university authorities were spineless. I wrote to the Vice-chancellor and asked him what he intended to do about this disgrace. He wrote back: “What could I possibly have done?”
Well, he could have disciplined the students involved. Better still, having been warned there was going to be trouble, he could have attended the talk himself, mounted the rostrum and, when the unpleasant behaviour started, rebuked the perpetrators.
The problem is that this sort of rabid intolerance is not recognised as bad behaviour. Intolerance is now regarded as a sign of virtue, of the new higher righteousness. It is nothing of the sort. It is government by the Thought Police, the death of free speech and the abolition of liberty. In a word, totalitarianism.
Germaine Greer was ‘no-platformed’ at Cardiff University