Tom Bennett reports from the Spiked free-speech conference, and wonders what part schools have to play in the new intolerance on campuses
In 1940, Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s greatest logicians, was appointed to teach philosophy at the College of the City of New York. After a campaign led by a mother of a student ineligible for the course, his appointment was overturned. He was deemed to be "morally unfit", principally because of his views on atheism and marriage (views that, ironically, would have placed him at the avant-garde of public opinion a few decades later). The dismissal almost ruined him.
Big deal; that was ages ago. The past is a weird Twilight Zone, a funfair mirror of who we used to be. We’re used to cautionary tales about our weirdly conservative ancestors. See: Footloose. But fast forward 70 years, and the new arbiters of probity aren't square old folks any more, banging on about tradition and values. Now it’s the kids they used to harrow. The grandchildren of Flower Power are now at university and many of them would apparently like to patrol public discourse to a frightening extent.
The decline of free speech
It’s easy to wonder if you mixed up your Prozac with your Pez these days, especially when you read that Peter Tatchell, the enfant terrible of LGBT+ activism, has been no-platformed by an NUS executive member for being racist. And Germaine Greer, one of this era’s most influential and brilliant lightning rods of feminist thought, is accused of being a misogynist by student groups who raged at her possible appearance. Or that students at the University of Oregon debated removing a plaque bearing Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech because it wasn't inclusive enough. Or comedian Kate Smuthwaite, who was booked for a gig at Goldsmiths, University of London, but a group from the local feminist society planned to picket her show on the grounds that she was "whorephobic" (she advocates the Nordic model of prostitution, where the John is criminalised but not the sex worker). Or Christ Church College, University of Oxford, which cancelled a debate about abortion because students protested the fact that it was being debated by two men. And on, and on...The stories are still predominantly US-based, but it hasn't taken long for these ideas to land here, like a patient revenge for the arrival of the Mayflower. What is most disturbing about these stories isn't that people could make these claims (which are, of course, open for discussion) but that the response to views with which you disagree should be to refuse to even discuss them.
I spent an afternoon in Holborn to watch a series of panels discussing free speech, safe spaces and no platforming. I say discussing, but only one of the three was anything like a debate. It was also one of the most stimulating days out I’ve had in ages (but then I have two children under 3 so the bar isn't high. Still).
Safe spaces and St George Syndrome
The first, about safe spaces, was a slow burner. Ella Whelan and Naomi Firsht made solid contributions, but the case for was made with less certainty, and at one point one of the speakers nearly dissolved in tongue tied equivocation. The defence has to be full-throated, otherwise discussion can feel muted and polite, and this wasn’t it. I was wondering when the party was going to start, when suddenly a glitter cannon went off, in the form of panel two on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. Panel one was civil and uneven; panel two was a knife fight in a coffin, on amphetamines.
I’ve seen Tokyo threatened by leviathans less formidable than this trio: Barnaby Raine (NUS) deserved a Brooklyn Roar for playing away to a hostile crowd and tub-thumping his brief like William Booth; Sai Englert from SOAS was patient, passionate and in perfect command of his facts. For me, Joanna Williams of Spiked was the pick of the pack, calm, smart and comfortable, and most importantly remembering to defend the principle of academic freedom carefully. Her opponents argued that Israel deserved exclusion on the grounds of their conduct in Palestinian territories since 1948; she simply returned again and again to the point that you don’t change minds by refusing to talk to them. But it was the best example of a panel debate I think I’ve ever seen, and ironically a real example of what is possible when intelligent people of wit discuss feely and openly. Which is kind of the point, I think.
Clicktivism is not activism
Douglas Murray was reliably, excruciatingly witty and incisive. He talked about St George Syndrome; after slaying the dragon, St George has to wander the country looking for increasingly smaller dragons to slay. In the present, we piously imagine that had we inhabited the past, we would have marched and bled with Dr King, Gandhi and the Suffragettes. Denied such barn doors of injustice, there is perhaps a need to turn our sabres on other targets, and imagine we inhabit the same moral spaces as our predecessors. But clicktivism is not activism, and feeling a mild sense of dispute is not the same as being possessed by the moral imperative so strongly as to crusade on its behalf, risking limb and status.
The world shudders to tragedies and injustices, and we spend the few crumbs of time and effort we are prepared to lend to moral action, over to Twitter polls and signing petitions. I’m sure Joseph Kony trembled at the siege engines of middle-class Facebook that rolled onto his lawns in 2012. I imagine they speak of it still in Kampala. In the final discussion, Brendan O’Neil wore his balls on his sleeve and didn’t disappoint, railing against no-platforming like some barrel-chested lumberjack quoting Christopher Hitchens and John Stuart Mill, demonstrating that you can’t say poof anymore by saying it. It was, by all accounts, a powerful, thought provoking day.
Grown, born or self-made?
Michael Merrick, Roman controversialist and contrarian made an interesting point in a recent TES article: if Generation Snowflake has landed on campus, what planet did they come from? Presumably they didn't decide to become dreadful proto-tyrants by themselves, en masse, during freshers week. What was in the water at school that produced such a cohort of china dolls? It’s a very fair point. And Claire Fox would agree: some blame can be laid at the school gates. But can it?
Let me admit, with the candour of a standing man in an AA circle, that I teach religious studies and philosophy. That makes me both the least useful man in a crisis, and also someone who sees students at their most ideologically exposed. On good days, my classes are Petri dishes for ideas; we unpack values and see what makes them work. Students are free, within extraordinarily distant fences, to say what they like, with the sole condition that what they say be their honest beliefs, and they're prepared to defend them.
And my walls have rung with some pretty grisly ideologies. I’ve heard students describe homosexuals as criminals, advocate abortions up to 9 months on demand, ban migrants, encourage euthanasia for the disabled or monstrously old (45 plus, naturally). And I’ve heard students cosplay politicians of all shades and none, thumping the table for Soviet communism, anarchism, the laissez-faire jungle of market economies, and on and on. I’ve heard blasphemies that would make Richard Dawkins wince and call for calm; I’ve heard piety and iconoclasm and heresies and apostasies and confessions and theodicies; justifications and dissemblings and fallacies and, it feels, every shade of indifference under the Moon.
Discerning the probable from the impossible
But no one expired (to my knowledge). It takes all my wit to chair these debates, to channel and direct, to exhort and occasionally, rarely to extinguish. Usually I challenge, becoming the Devil's Advocate to whatever is thought. "But how do you know?" I ask. "But what if…?"
And, oddly in dispute with our emergent understanding of campuses, I find that secondary-age children are unusually robust about the existence of views contrary to their own. It's not that they intuitively inhabit some kind of libertarian ideal space where they applaud the exchange of ideas for their own sake. It’s more that they simply haven’t been trained yet to writhe in outrage. Like an infant, who would be as unfazed by the appearance of a flying saucer as they are by the appearance of a slice of toast, they can't discern the probable from the impossible. I find most teenagers to be remarkably give-a-shit about the possibility that someone might disagree with them. Why not? They have often barely begun to work out for themselves what they believe. Uncertainty permeates them; their neighbour’s beliefs about euthanasia or fashion or music or the single currency may strike them as odd, but they don't strike them as outrageous. Not yet.
OK: so what happens? What process permits the emergence of an intolerance so strong that, as one member of the audience revealed, some college courses in the US are routinely interrupted by students objecting to ‘problematic’ terms and idioms – to the extent that it is almost an expected part of the campus life? I have two suggestions: the Shamans of identity politics, and the broader cultural emphasis on the cult of the individual. I’ll develop both ideas in part two. You're free to disagree with me.
Which is exactly the point.