We live in interesting times. Universities in the U.K. and U.S. which were once bastions of free thought and free expression are now seeing a surge in calls from various student bodies to curb free speech. We even have MPs in parliament warning against the “fetishising” of debate. A new space in the political spectrum has opened up: The Regressive Left.
Students of this persuasion call for trigger-warnings, de-platforming, de-fenestration, safe spaces, and warn against cultural appropriation and micro-aggression.
It is hard to fathom how and where in the evolution of the political spectrum the liberal left became so extremely liberal that they now have more in common with fanatics on the extreme right. (The “Horseshoe theory” proposed by Jean-Pierre Faye in his 2002 book, Le Siècle des Ideologies asserts that the far left and the far right are not at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political spectrum. In fact, they closely resemble one another, much like the ends of a horseshoe.)
Free expression may seem like a modern issue. However, those with a classical bent and those grounded in Literature will know that this is old stuff. For instance, Areopagus was the great hill of free expression in ancient Greece. Named after it, was Areopagitica, the 1644 polemical tract by the English poet, John Milton (author of Paradise Lost — arguably one of the greatest epic poems in the English language). In the pamphlet, he opposes licensing and censorship and makes a passionate, eloquent, and intellectual defence of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.
Speakers’ Corners in Hyde Park, London and in Hom Ling Park, Singapore are modern equivalents of Areopagus.
The question of free expression is particularly relevant today. Countries all around the world are competing to be the “most innovative” or to create the “greatest innovators.” Millions of dollars are being poured into creating innovation-related events, conferences, incubators and accelerators. However, the best way to develop innovative students is to create spaces where bad ideas are allowed to be challenged.
Unfortunately, today there is growing intolerance of ideas, images, and words (just as much from the liberal left as the fanatic right). In many western universities, we are witnessing policing of culture, guarding of morality, and stifling of thought. This is being done with a kind of zealot-like intensity not by the university authorities, but rather, by sections of the student population. These students are filled with self-righteousness and feelings of victimhood. They use their accusatory rhetoric to promote not freedom of expression but protection from offence.
It is worthwhile to consider briefly some of the behaviours and demands of these students:
In November 2015, students of Princeton University demanded that the name of Woodrow Wilson (America’s 28th president and former head of Princeton) be removed from the university campus. Wilson had reintroduced segregation into the federal workplace and the students considered any reference to him as a form of microaggression that they found offensive. They also demanded “cultural competency training” for academics and mandatory courses on marginalised peoples.
In 2015, students at Yale campaigned to rid their Literature classes of White Male Poets — these included, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Chaucer, Donne, Wordsworth, and Eliot. These white male poets were seen as representative of colonialism and their inclusion could be perceived as creating a culture that was hostile to students of colour.
In 2015, students at Oxford University campaigned to get rid of a statue of Cecil Rhodes because he was seen as a symbol of colonialism and repression of the Black population of South Africa. When it was explained to them that Rhodes was a product of his time and that removing his statue would mean removing other important figures like Churchill and Cromwell, they weren’t persuaded to give up their demands.
Students are increasingly demanding that colleges create safe spaces that are segregated for students of colour, female students, LGBT students, or students of various other identity or minority groups. For instance, students at New York University wanted one floor of the campus building to be assigned to Black students and another floor assigned to LGBT students. Black students at the University of Missouri set up what they called “Places of Healing” where white students were not welcome and were asked to leave.
In 2016, a black female student at San Francisco University verbally and physically assaulted a white male student because he had dreadlocks. She insisted he was appropriating her culture. Students on other campuses are campaigning against yoga, sombreros, tequila, ethnic dresses, and ethnic foods — insisting that these are cultural appropriations and thus offensive to the native people of that culture.
Students at Western Washington University campaigned to monitor and investigate all examples of micro-aggression. As an example of what qualifies as a micro-aggression for these students, they spelt the word “history” as “hxstory” — because the actual word is too patriarchal (i.e. “his” + “story”).
In 2015, a National Union of Students conference in England banned clapping as it might trigger trauma (the audience were asked to ‘please use jazz hands’). In the same year, a student of Edinburgh University was threatened with expulsion from a meeting after she raised her hand in disagreement.
All this is frightening in an Orwellian sense. Universities are coming under increasing pressure to cave in to these demands from students. These students feel that they should be protected against everything that will cause them offence. Anything that triggers them should be banned or censored. They want only positive affirmation of the views they already hold and brook no opposition.
The current situation prompted Claire Fox (Director of the Institute of Ideas) to write the book, I Find That Offensive! She talks about ‘Generation Snowflake.’ The term describes “a fragile, thin-skinned younger generation that can’t cope with conflicting views, let alone criticism.” In an article for the Daily Mail, she had this to say about the reaction from school students to a debate she was involved in:
“Some of the girls were sobbing and hugging each other, while others shrieked. The majority appeared at the very least shell-shocked. It was distress on a scale appropriate for some horrible disaster. Thankfully, however, I wasn’t in a war zone or at the scene of a pile-up — but in a school hall filled with A-level students.
“What had provoked such hysteria? I’d dared express an opinion that went against their accepted way of thinking.
“I expected robust discussion — not for them all to dissolve into outraged gasps of, ‘You can’t say that!’
“Their reaction shocked me. I take no pleasure in making teenagers cry, but it also brought home the contrast to previous generations of young people, who would have relished the chance to argue back.
“It illustrated this generation’s almost belligerent sense of entitlement. They assume their emotional suffering takes precedence. Express a view they disagree with and you must immediately recant and apologise.”
However, hope is not lost. There are many students who don’t believe in the automatic right to take offence, who, instead, see the value and importance of free speech, debate, and the free exchange of ideas.
These students exemplify the credo of that great polemicist, journalist, and orator, Christopher Hitchens who once said, “I want to live my life taking the risk — all the time — that I don’t know anything like enough yet, that I haven’t understood enough, that I can’t know enough, that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom.”
Of course, there are ideas that we might find genuinely distasteful. Of course, there are images that we might consider immoral. Of course, there are words that we might find offensive. But, the only solution to bad speech or hate speech is to counter it with even more speech. Curtailing thought and stifling speech is the beginning of an Orwellian dictatorship.
When contemplating things that offend us, these are five appropriate responses:
1) We do not have the right not to be offended.
2) Don’t view an image or read a book that offends. Ignore it. (Lots of things offend lots of people)
3) Remember, offence is often taken and rarely given.
4) If something offends us, we’ve got to grow a thicker skin.
5) Use more words to counter the words that offend.
Rickey Gervais, the British comedian, points out that “ideas don’t need human rights. You can ridicule them without hurting anyone! Taking offence is like jumping in front of an incoming bullet and saying ‘why are you shooting at me’.”
Christopher Hitchens once remarked, “If people are determined to be offended — if they will climb up on the ladder, balancing it precariously on their own toilet cistern to be upset by what they see through the neighbour’s bathroom window — there is nothing you can do about that.”
No one is denying the right of students to feel safe. But the question now at hand is how did we get to a situation where freedom of expression and freedom of thought are being stifled and thwarted by young people? — The ones you would least expect to prevent free speech.
Why, instead of freedom of speech are we seeing a shift towards freedom from speech?
The fault lies with the adults — the teachers, the parents, and other figures in authority.
Joanna Williams, an expert in education at the University of Kent, says in her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: “Instead of an intellectual robustness to challenge and debate views, academics are teaching that words can inflict violence and oppression and should be censored.”
The new vice-chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson reminds us that “Education is not meant to be comfortable. Education should be about confronting ideas you find really objectionable, figuring out why it is you find them objectionable, fashioning a reasoned argument against them, confronting the person you disagree with and trying to change their mind, and being open to them changing your mind. That isn’t a comfortable experience, but it is a very educational one.”
What we need to teach our students is that in a world of 7 billion people there will never be agreement on all issues. However, we have to learn to practice a kind of tolerance of difference in opinions. And, if we disagree with an idea or opinion, then everyone should be free to challenge it — using words and speech, not intimidation, threats, and harassment.
Christopher Hitchens calls for seeking out argumentation and disputation for their own sake — saying the grave will provide plenty of time for silence. We have to train our students to hone their debating skills, sharpen their wit, wield the pen over the sword, seek out evidence, and above all to question their own deeply cherished beliefs and opinions.
The Internet is the modern equivalent of the 18th-century coffee houses in Europe that helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment. The Internet is the greatest marketplace of ideas that humanity has ever seen. Matt Ridley points out that the reason we’ve seen this explosion in invention and innovation over the last three centuries is that ideas were allowed to meet, mate, and mutate (metaphorically speaking).
What we need to teach our students is to embrace the notion of Radical Openness.
Contrary to what one might think, Radical Openness doesn’t call for being open to all ideas or accepting all opinions as equally relevant. (Carl Sagan famously exhorted us to be open-minded — but not so open-minded that our brains fall out.)
In fact, Radical Openness is all about creating intellectual spaces and online platforms for the free exchange of ideas and the sharing of information. In a digitally hyper-connected world, we need to be teaching our students about the incredible ways in which we can now connect and collaborate with diverse peoples in far-flung places with disparate ideologies. We have to teach them how to discard the tired, old, banal ways of doing things, and use the digital tools we now possess to come up with new intellectual ecosystems, creative ideas, innovative solutions, and novel approaches to problems.