Dan Hitchens, president of Oxford Students for Life, has written an article in last week’s on-line magazine, Spiked. In case readers think this is an odd platform for this student society, it must be pointed out that although Spiked is a secular magazine it always champions the right to free speech. Hitchens writes that his society discovered recently that the following clause was being put forward at the Oxford University students’ union: “Never [to provide] a platform [to] any group or organisation which provides directional advice around abortion or explicitly stands against women’s right to choose.”
This has happened before, as Hitchens points out: in 2012 Oxford University students’ union tried to prevent its own pro-life students from having a platform. The union trustees discovered this was “completely illegal”. It seems there are also on-going attempts to outlaw pro-life activities at Cardiff University.
It should not come as a surprise that university students, assumed to be the most literate and intellectually bright of their generation, show this kind of unthinking prejudice. After all, whatever their academic training (and this means being trained to pass exams rather than training to think about the big questions) they have grown up in a culture and environment when the mantra “a woman’s right to choose” has become a matter of sacred dogma. It must be very hard for a thoughtful but secular student today to stand out against his peers on such an emotive subject. No-one wants to be jeered at, especially when you are young and keen to fit in with your contemporaries. It takes courage, even when you have the backing of faith and pro-life friends, to withstand the incomprehension or hostility that might follow a defence of a baby’s independent right to life, distinct from its mother’s “right to choose.”
I recall that the late Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper, was well-known for his own prejudice against the Church. In “The Last days of Hitler”, the book that made the young don famous, he includes such intemperate remarks as, “Joseph Goebbels…the prize pupil of a Jesuit seminary, he retained to the end the distinctive character of his education: he could always prove what he wanted…As the Jesuits created a system of education aimed at preventing knowledge, so Goebbels created a system of propaganda…which successfully persuaded people that black was white.” What if this is not prejudice, sneering at a faith which the author has no wish to understand? If that characterised the intellectual climate in Oxford after the war, from a well-known member of the academic body, what is it like to be an average Oxford student today? They have imbibed another kind of propaganda, every bit as powerful as the one Trevor-Roper cites, compounded of an extreme form of feminism, the idea that individual rights trumps all and moral relativism, alongside a refusal to allow those you disagree with have any say.
Nonetheless, Trevor-Roper would have upheld the right to free speech, whatever his disdain for his opponents. That is what is at stake here. A heartening feature of this item of news is that many of those who supported the pro-lifers were not pro-life themselves. As one of them put it, “I’m not on your side. I just believe in having the argument.” Hitchens comments, “The whole point about free speech – as George Orwell and Rosa Luxemburg and many others have repeatedly pointed out – is that if you take it seriously, you have to defend the free speech of precisely the people who drive you up the wall.” All he wants is an “informed, conscientious public debate” – not a “relativist free-for-all.” The distinction matters. It’s not a question of the dismissive “you have your views I have mine” – but a serious debate about a serious moral matter which could even change minds.
Hitchens reports that the clause, which was intended to ban the pro-life group from student union events like the freshers’ fair, was defeated by 27 votes to 24. Like the battle of Waterloo it was a close-run thing. Pro-lifers at university have to stay vigilant. If free speech on such a fundamental issue is closed down on a student campus it will have its own knock-on affect on our future leaders of society – and that society is already prejudiced against those who oppose its secularist outlook.