The recent furore over the decision by the NUS’ LGBT officer, Fran Cowling, to withdraw her presence from the “re-radicalising queers” panel at Canterbury Christ Church University has been met with appropriate support for the celebrated gay rights campaigner she was so incensed by. I can not argue with her right to unnecessarily and self-destructively turn her allies into adversaries, or to ruin her reputation with petulance, I can only lament this as the latest symptom in the campus-wide phobia of other people’s opinions. It is obvious to anyone familiar with Peter Tatchell’s tireless activism that the two would-be interlocutors share an overlap in their worldview, including their shared sensitivity to the injustices that affect LGBT minorities. It is disappointing that Fran’s social-sensitivity radar seems so starkly miscalibrated, so readied to indulge in the virtues of public outrage that she would sink to smears of racism and transphobia at Peter’s expense. The refusal to be confronted with different viewpoints – which in this case ironically amounted to Peter’s support for being able to express a different viewpoint – marks the alarming dearth of disputation in higher-education.
The word disputation is often defined using the word ‘academic’, denoting the formality of the collision of ideas. But universities and colleges, the homes of academia, are increasingly unwilling to provide necessary disputation as a part of the higher education experience. Debate halls have become echo chambers, speakers with the faintest tinge of right-wing thinking are interrupted by air-horns, purposefully pulled fire alarms or paint-smearing activists who showcase the full extent of their barbarism in the process of demanding civility. The crime of providing a platform for ‘hate speech’ is usurped only by the crime of taking away others right to hear it.
The broad-brush strokes of hate speech that are so indelicately applied to critical ideas and controversial thought are more a symbol of progressive pragmatism than of the contents of the speech itself. Campus activists know it is futile to deny free speech because it might hurt someone’s feelings, as the right to open discourse and unregulated expression are the stalwarts of a civilised society. And so comes the facile tactics of calling unwholesome views hateful, of circumscribing debate by retreating to a safe-space; of metaphorically jamming your fingers in your ears and signing petitions to de-platform formally invited speakers whose voice is waiting to be heard by someone you probably don’t like anyway.
To claim that the noises made by those who don’t subscribe to the progressive orthodoxy are as deafening as hate speech is to exhibit your profound ignorance, both of the pluralism on the right and of the number of those who subscribe to some form of it. No sacrifice of our right to confront those we disagree with was more publicly supported than the petition to ban Donald Trump from the UK. As I remarked at the time, you will educate and engage many more people through debating and refuting his incendiary politics than you will by suppressing it. (Besides, if this petition had been successful, must we have also banned every american who agrees with him?)
These calls for censorship and no-platforming that plague our universities do not just deny us the right to engage with, refute or even point and laugh at facile rhetoric, but also of the right to change our opinion when new ideas come fortified by fully ratiocinated logic. The most illuminating defense of free speech is arguably that of Thomas Paine who wrote:
I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.
In this light, Fran and the many universities across the country who routinely no-platform speakers are all slaves to the dictates of their own ideology. It is people such as Eleanor Sharman and Helen Pluckrose, who have thankfully been freed from the self-victimising grip of neofeminism, that give us hope and whose voice we must amplify the loudest as few speak freer from bias or more well informed.
As I pointed out when prompted to comment on sexism and censorship in music forums: what we lose in civility when we are exposed to criminally trite jokes and sexist tropes – or when we call for stoicism instead of censorship – we gain in our commitment to free-speech-fortified discourse, debate and discussion. I fear that those who call for censorship see the futility of debate as having a direct correlation to the depths of bigotry in the opposing speaker. It is true that one of the most well-rooted barriers to progression is the sustenance we give to our cognitive dissonance. We fear the social damages of changing our mind and ally ourselves with opinions we don’t really hold because the alternative viewpoint seems even more deplorable. But the point of debate, as Richard Dawkins often points out when he is accused of stridency, is not to convince your opposite number but to gently push undecided listeners into the embrace of the firm ground on your side of the fence. It is also a good opportunity to sharpen the spears of incisive logic that should ground the tenets of whatever worldview you hold. As Richard’s good friend, the tireless debater, polemicist, contrarian and gifted public speaker, Christopher Hitchens once wrote:
Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.
Those who watch the complexities of contrasting opinions unfurl – via a youtube video from the comfort of their office chair or from the shadows at the back of the debate hall – have nothing to lose publically if they succumb to persuasive arguments. It is for these people that stridency might well be the distinguishing factor. It may well have been Lawrence Krauss who first questioned the tactics employed by Richard and who saw the reasoning for his infamously stern invective. It isn’t surprising that Lawrence would be concerned with how discourse is conducted as he is a passionate educator who is engaged in shaping the minds of young people through the Origins Project he founded at Arizona State. He too echoes the call for a diversity of viewpoints on campus, submitting:
The one experience that I hope every student has at some point in their lives is to have some belief you profoundly, deeply hold, proved to be wrong because that is the most eye-opening experience you can have, and as a scientist, to me, is the most exciting experience I can ever have.
If being open to changing your mind is off the cards, then the onus on FemSocs and campus activists should at least be to expand the number of people who feel solidarity with their cause, not merely to increase the reverberations in their echo chamber. So perhaps they shouldn’t stop men from entering their feminist events or decline to share a platform with those they disagree with. Another infuriating trend in intersectional feminism is opening a sentence by clarifying your gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality and sometimes even weight, using these characteristics as the place you are speaking from. How much can people really care about the ‘ism’ in question if all it takes to insulate yourself from the charge is to admit you’re speaking as someone who shares the physical traits of the oppressor. As Douglas Murray so pithily said, upon admitting that this new qualifier to an opinion was his personal bugbear:
If your point is good it will be valid whoever is saying it.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to deny yourself the right to change your opinion, but now it is encouraged to deny others the right to change theirs. Prohibiting people from exposing themselves to contrasting ideas is the embarrassing nadir of the authoritarian left. This was clearly demonstrated in the documentary ‘Institutions of Higher Indoctrination’ featuring the anti-feminist free speech advocate and english professor Janice Fiamengo. The documentary explored the problems with academic feminism, showing protesters stopping men from attending a talk – which they saw as hate speech – by the controversial author Warren Farrell. After calling attendees scum, rape apologists and incest supporters whilst blocking the entrance, one man explained his interest in the event, submitting ‘I just want to listen to his opinion, I’m not even on his side.’ This exemplifies two alarming points of confusion endemic to this weaponised version of social justice feminism. The first is the conflation of support for someone else’s right to free expression with support for their opinions and the second is the confusion of aberrant ideas with hate speech.
It is tempting to call these symptoms of the ‘regressive-left’, a term that has surged into political discourse courtesy of Maajid Nawaz, who originally coined the epithet to describe ideologically driven liberals who tolerate islamic intolerance in the name of multiculturalism. It’s usage has now dispersed much wider and so in its broadest terms it is applied to self-confessed liberals who convey their profound illiberalism when it comes to notions of free speech and reflexive accusations of bigotry.
Maajid has crystalised the true boundaries of tolerance that liberals must have for unsettling ideas through his work with the Quilliam Foundation, recommending that non-violent extremist organisations be allowed to spout their rhetoric just as we should be allowed to confront it in earnest. This sits in stark contrast to the regressive-leftists who fail to acknowledge that there is anything worth confronting whilst censoring reformers. Maajid has also shown his commitment to unfettered disputation through the dialogue ‘Islam and the future of tolerance’. The book chronicles an essential process in the collision of ideas as Majiid and Sam Harris reconcile their disagreements, wrestling a dialogue from the clasp of futility into the embrace of mutual understanding.
It is this collision of ideas and the pursuit of constructive contention that we must support. Those who go against the grain, who condemn the censorious campus culture, and who stand for true liberal principles amidst charges of bigotry, are the voices that we must follow down the path of free expression towards culturally enriching debate and enlightening disputation. It is a shame that this necessary process is being excluded from our universities, that the place that should be fostering our exposure to new ideas and expanding our worldview is the place accelerating the fastest towards educational sterility.