The 2017 British University Free Speech Rankings, published by spiked-online.com, depressingly show that every one of the 24 leading research universities in the Russell Group is either actively censoring ideas on campus or chilling free speech through intervention. Inevitably, Christians are among the silenced: last month, the junior common room at Balliol College, Oxford, banned the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair, citing the possible “harm” their presence could do to newly arrived undergraduates.
To pro-life students, who are disproportionately likely to be Christian believers, this will have a familiar ring. “It would make me feel threatened in my own university,” complained the Oxford student who led the 2014 campaign to prevent the Catholic Herald contributing editor Tim Stanley discussing abortion at Christ Church.
The sheer terror provoked by pro-life speakers has grown so strong among students from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and those attending the University of Auckland in New Zealand that both have banned pro-life organisations altogether. The Strathclyde students defended the move by saying that anti-abortion activists elsewhere had been known to stand outside abortion clinics demonstrating and that disturbing images of them doing so could be evoked in the minds of Strathclyde students, thus posing a threat to the body-autonomy of “people with uteruses”. (This last, scrupulously careful, verbal formulation takes pains to include people who no longer identify as women, but who might nevertheless want an abortion at some future stage.)
When the great assault on free speech in the universities first began, many commentators put it down to a lack of moral fibre among the young. “Generation Snowflake”, they said, lacked the resilience required for a robust exchange of views.
Undergraduates, right across the English-speaking world, were too weak and weedy to face up to controversy. There was a deficit of grit.
I think there is a deeper explanation, which I’ll come to. But there is no doubt that students, academics and visiting speakers have had to walk as if on eggshells, particularly when they stray on to the territory of identity politics: race, sexual orientation and, more recently, transgender issues. If we do not observe the standard pieties, we are told, we risk inflicting real psychic pain on vulnerable young people.
Thus, many student groups have demanded “safe spaces” where the psychologically feeble could be guaranteed they would not be traumatised by being exposed to opinions or attitudes at odds with their own. But these spaces are safe only for some, as one Edinburgh student found out when she was threatened with sanctions for the previously unheard of offence of silently shaking her head in disagreement at a speaker’s point.
Over the past few years, students have, often successfully, pressed their universities to introduce compulsory “trigger warnings”, flagging up any material in a seminar, lecture or text that could conceivably cause distress or offence. The term “trigger” is drawn from the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, where it makes perfect sense. Extrapolated into ordinary academic life, it is often plain silly. At one US university, for instance, students demanded that The Great Gatsby be peppered with alerts warning potential readers about domestic violence, dangerous driving and gun crime.
Many institutions that have taken the road of appeasement in the face of such demands have published guidance for faculty advising them to take account of racism, sexism, “cissexism”, “ableism”, issues of privilege and oppression and so on, and to either flag up anything sensitive, or better, cut it out.
The consequences for university staff who don’t stick to the new rules can be serious. Earlier this summer, a professor who had taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 14 years tendered his resignation after a student filed a complaint that he had used the word “rape” in a lecture without having uttered the required trigger warning. He later complained that students were turning his class into something that “resembled a police state”.
However, the extraordinary violence that has erupted on many US campuses, such as Berkeley, in the past year should make us all think again about the “wimpy kid” explanation. When conservative students demonstrating in favour of free speech are beaten to a pulp in front of the world’s media by Antifa or Black Bloc activists, then it is clear that some of these snowflakes have developed a steel edge.
What if there is a more straightforward political explanation? What if the progressives’ anxiety when faced with opposing views has little to do timidity, but is simply a slightly different manifestation of the age-old Marxist style of argument? The Polish Catholic thinker Ryszard Legutko, the author of The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, reminds us that the contemporary habit of denouncing people – as fascists, racists, homophobes and transphobes – instead of actually engaging with their arguments is straight out of the old communist playbook.
And, of course, it was into the universities that many of the old communists went after the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled that they had lost both the economic argument and the global political power struggle. In the academy they could do all the consciousness raising and political organising they wanted while sucking on the public teat. The taxpayer would subsidise the revolution. Or if there was no revolution, the taxpayer would at any rate subsidise their narcissistic posturing. By coincidence, an older generation of academics was coming up for retirement, leaving high table free for a new generation to snap up all the chairs. The long march through the institutions got a sudden spring in its step.
According to a group of US professors worried about the limited diversity of viewpoint in the social sciences, “in the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left”, with 60 per cent of faculty being identified as “hard left” in 2014.
Much of today’s campus madness is the fault not of the students but of the dons. It was the professors, not the students, who savagely hacked back the old disciplines and replaced them with gender studies and postcolonial studies. And it was the professors, not the students, who first introduced the draconian speech codes that set the rules of political correctness.
All this has affected the substance of academic research. The sociologist Mark Regnerus, from the University of Texas, was subjected to an extraordinary campaign of vilification in 2012 when he published a paper which found – at least within those he studied – that the adult children of parents who had same-sex relationships, including same-sex couples as parents, tend to have more emotional and social problems than the adult children of traditional marriages. It was the results themselves, not just rather questions of interpretation, that provoked outrage. And Regnerus’s treatment was a warning to Christians in particular about what happens when you cross the line.
We may have seen something similar in Britain in recent weeks with Bath Spa University reportedly turning down a research project into people changing their minds about gender reassignment. Suppression of truth and academic freedom may be more than just the side effect of a political malaise; it may be actually be the intended outcome of a political project. If so, we need to take this a lot more seriously than junior common room high jinks.
Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of the Spectator
This article first appeared in the October 20 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here