Campus censors: Doing the dirty work of The Man

No amount of swear words or tweets about how much they dig Frida Kahlo can disguise how mainstream they are


The cutest thing about the new campus censors is that they genuinely think they are radical.

Because they have unconventional haircuts, say “fuck” a lot, and model themselves on the louche, ironic mannequins you see in the windows of American Apparel, they think this makes them edgy.

In their mind, their bans – on rude pop songs, racist political parties, redtop newspapers – are salvos in a war against The Man. Apparently their censorship isn’t repressive – it’s rad, a stab at protecting the poor, put-upon and underprivileged from harm and insult.

Such self-delusion is kind of adorable, like when Princess Diana claimed in that psycho TV interview that she was a victim of The Establishment, when in fact she was born with more silver spoons in her mouth than are produced in a cutlery factory in a decade and was the mum of the future King of England.

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Because no amount of swear words or tweets about how much they dig Frida Kahlo can disguise the fact that these student Stalinists, far from revolting against the mainstream, *are* the mainstream.

They embody, just in fouler language, the dominant idea of our age, which has leaked from the very top of society down to pretty much every institution: namely, that words hurt, that images wound, that certain ideas are too toxic for public consumption, and thus it falls to the state or those better educated than the blob occasionally to clamp down on such words, images and ideas.

I don’t believe that students who nobble debates or No Platform those they dislike are the source of censoriousness in modern Britain, as if somehow their half-baked arguments had spread through the nation and destroyed freedom of speech.

On the contrary, these student censors are better seen as the end product of an already existing political culture, one which treats individuals as fragile and which elevates the guarding of self-esteem above all else, including freedom and autonomy.

Far from being the authors of the new authoritarianism, campus censors are its obedient sons and daughters. Having grown up in a society in which the government outlaws stiff criticism of religion, in which officials ban from Britain everyone from hard-right American bloggers to crazy Islamist preachers, and in which our Prime Minister longs to switch off the porn in everyone’s home and make us phone our ISP in order to opt back into it, these student banners are merely aping the authorities, dutifully continuing on campus the kind of illiberalism that has been unleashed in society more broadly by numerous politicos and police people in recent decades.

They are, in essence, the junior wing of 21st century censorship, doing to students what the establishment already does to citizens. Their No Platform policy echoes the state’s brute refusal to allow certain ideologues to come to Britain. Their banning of The Sun mirrors politicians’ war on porn. Their demand that no far-right person be allowed on campus is indistinguishable from recent Home Secretaries’ bans on far-right marches on the grounds that they could stir up racist sentiment.

Far from going against The Man, student censors do his dirty work. They’ve imbibed the petty prejudices of the political class – most strikingly the idea that the public is morally weak and therefore requires protection from certain ways of thinking – and now spread such prejudices on campus.

Perhaps the most foul establishment idea they have uncritically embraced is the one that says certain sections of the population – ethnic minorities and women – are even weaker than others, and require special measures to keep them safe from harmful ideas.

In my debates with student censors – every one of them white, every one of them middle class, every one of them in possession of cut-glass tones – I’ve been amazed by the extent to which they express in new lingo some rotten old ideas – ideas I’ve spent my adult life fighting against.

So in a Spectator podcast debate I did with an Oxford student censor (white, middle class, obvs), I was stunned to hear her say that one reason she wants to control debate on campus is to protect “the wellbeing… of students from ethnic minorities”. How extraordinary that a white student would presume firstly that ethnic-minority students cannot cope with controversial discussion, and secondly that it falls to her – presumably on the basis that she’s more enlightened than them – to decide what they are capable of hearing and dealing with.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Oxford churned out its fair share of colonialists keen to take on the White Man’s Burden of providing foreign savages with the right ideas – it seems it is still producing such people.

One of the first political campaigns I got involved in, in the Nineties, was against racism. We opposed the treatment of people from ethnic minorities as inferior, as less capable of engaged, intelligent citizenship than white people – and I will continue to oppose such an outlook, including when it’s expressed by a bleeding-heart student who has assumed the role of protector of the blacks and defender of the ladies and No Platformer of wickedness. Racial thinking is always repulsive – and the idea that ethnic minorities, or women, need clever white saviours to guard them from harmful ideas and images, which is the fundamental underpinning of most modern student censorship, especially the No Platforming of the far right and the bans on lad culture, should be dumped in the shredding machine of history.

Student censors, your self-flattering narratives are sweet, but wrong. You aren’t a brave few doing unpopular but necessary things to protect “the vulnerable”. You merely rehabilitate in youth-speak the depressingly entrenched censoriousness, intolerance, paternalism and even racialism of the political elite itself.

— Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked, which recently launched the Free Speech University Rankings. —