Students of Britain, rise up against your censorious leaders
Before it’s too late
You have to admire the chutzpah of today’s moralising students.
Not only do they ban anything that has the temerity to rile their Victorian sensibilities, whether it’s a photo of a woman’s boobs or a human being with a penis talking about abortion.
They also claim, without even blushing (giving credence to the rumour that they’re bloodless, robotic beings), not to be banners at all but rather liberty-lovers who are upholding the “freedom of comfort” of their student charges.
“We aren’t censors”, they say as they censor yet another saucy Sun shot of Chloe from Essex or a song that has lyrics about s*x. “We’re just using our freedom of speech to push aside problematic speech.”
So their attacks on freedom are actually great strikes for freedom. Brilliant. I wonder if I was to punch one of them I might get away with saying: “It wasn’t assault. It was just the freedom of movement of my fist towards his stupid face.”
Illiberal students’ Orwellian contortionism was on full display this week after a debate I was supposed to speak in at Christ Church, Oxford was banned (or should I say freedomed out of existence).
Timothy Stanley and I were invited by Oxford Students for Life to discuss Britain’s abortion problem — Tim thinks there is one; I think there isn’t.
But when some Christ Church feminists heard that “people without uteruses” — what used to be called men — were going to offer their opinions on an issue that primarily affects women, they lost every bit of their shit.
They transformed into a virtual mob, setting up a Facebook page on which 300 likeminded pitchfork people promised to turn up to the debate with “instruments” in order to disrupt and ultimately destroy it.
They said the debate would challenge the “mental security” of women on campus, thus doing infinitely more to undermine feminism than Tim or I could ever have done, through depicting women as wilting damsels who might faint upon hearing a gruff word or disagreeable idea.
Incredibly, Christ Church caved in to the mob and called off the debate. I might not have a uterus, but it’s far more concerning that a college at one of the most prestigious universities in the world doesn’t have any balls.
But the best, by which of course I mean the worst, was yet to come. Not content with using threats to shut down a debate, the mob and its apologists then claimed they weren’t actually being censorious.
So in the Independent, Oxford student Niamh McIntyre, who bizarrely boasted about the role she played in the debate-squashing debacle at Christ Church, wrote the following logic-defying sentence: “Cancelling the debate is not a violation of free speech.” Here’s another way of putting that: censorship is not censorship.
Orwell must be kicking himself in his coffin for not thinking of putting such double-speaking words in the mouths of his tyrannical characters in 1984. Just as they insisted that “war is peace”, so today’s Big Sisters on campus claim “censorship is freedom”.
But Ms McIntyre’s disdain for the ideal of freedom leaked out from behind her weaselly, back-covering lingo. “The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups”, she said. How lovely: a privileged white woman using minority groups as a Trojan horse to shut down ideas her dainty mind can’t cope with.
The president of the Cambridge Union, Tim Squirrell (funny name, not so funny guy), also tied himself in intellectual knots in his attempt to justify censorship without coming across as a censor.
In his Tab piece, he argued that denying certain people a platform on campus doesn’t violate their freedom of speech because they can always go somewhere else to air their allegedly toxic, harmful brain-farts.
Mr Squirrell seems not to recognise that the problem with censorship isn’t only that it treats a potential speaker badly, sending him and his dangerous ideas packing — it also insults the audience, the public, the masses, or in this case the student body.
Attacks on free speech patronise and punish listeners as well as speakers, treating them as infants whose ears and eyes must be blocked by their betters to guard them against rough or controversial thinking.
The great 18th-century radical Thomas Paine — who was sentenced to death and sent into international exile for fighting for the rights that today’s cosseted students casually cast aside as if they were last season’s UniQlo jeans — recognised this fact.
Censorship, he said, is always “more a sentence on the public than the author”, because it tells the public “they shall not think, they shall not read”.
Throughout history, from Torquemada’s burning of heretics in the Inquisition to Mary Whitehouse’s war on gay plays to student unions’ hysterical clamping down on abortion debates and lad banter and goddam pop songs, censorship has fundamentally been driven by a paternalistic urge to protect the public from harmful words or images that might pollute their tiny brains and turn them into Satanists or homos or Robin Thicke fans.
Torquemada talked about preventing the “moral corruption” of people’s souls, while our double-speaking offence-policers at Oxford talk of protecting students’ “mental security”, but the idea is pretty much the same in both cases: ordinary people are dim and weak and corruptible and therefore those of us who know better must burn at the stake / No Platform heretical ideas so that these ignoramuses don’t ever hear them.
This is the true problem with No Platform. Not only does it involve the ugly, McCarthyite drawing-up of blacklists of people who must never be allowed to speak on campus — racists, Zionists, lads, people with dicks who have opinions on abortion, Julie Bindel — but even worse than that it treats the student body as a childish, impressionable blob in need of protection from certain thoughts.
That Mr Squirrell and others in the censorious student set cannot see that blacklisting speakers and seeking to protect students’ “mental security” is an assault on free, open, rowdy debate is further evidence of their descent into the mulch of dishonest Orwellian thinking.
Orwell described how political language is often twisted “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. Today, student leaders warp words and indulge in linguistic gymnastics to make censorship sound liberal and mob-like behaviour seem progressive.
The key argument made by the student apologists for intolerance and illiberalism is that censorship only occurs when the government shuts down a debate. If it’s just a group of students harrying and chasing certain speakers off campus, that isn’t officially censorship so STFU, they say.
They should brush up on their John Stuart Mill. In his classic On Liberty, published in 1859, back when people who called themselves liberals actually believed in liberty, he said government censorship isn’t actually the worst kind of censorship — informal illiberalism can be worse.
“Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough”, said Mill. “There needs [to be] protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”
This is exactly what’s happening on campus today. Self-righteous student leaders and their footsoldiers in intolerance are enforcing a “tyranny of prevailing opinion” through “other means than civil penalties” — through No Platform policies, political pressure, top-down conformism and threats to disrupt any event at which someone might dissent from their preferred dogma and received wisdom.
And in the process they have created a culture on campus that is as at least as inamicable to free and open and true debate, if not more so, as any act of official government censorship could ever be.
Students of Britain, rebel. You’re being patronised beyond belief. You’re being infantilised. You’re being denied the right to hear and debate and think about all ideas and to make up your own minds, independently, using your own moral compasses rather than the NUS’s broken one, about which ideas are good and which are bollocks.
So buy the Sun, play Robin Thicke on college radio, invite the EDL to speak, talk about abortion, make sexist jokes, indulge in banter, hold debates on transgenderism, and do anything else you can to kick against the pricks who think you are babies who must be kept away from sexy or shocking or silly words.