The free thought imperative
Out-going Editor-in-Chief CHARLIE BELL thinks it’s time to stand up and be counted
Barely a week seems to go by without some faux outrage in our university sector.
It used to be all about fees and greedy bankers, but even the most hardened spouters of propaganda on that front seem to have realised that that particular ship has sailed. But now, there’s a new word to inspire ludicrous protest – ‘safety’. Students, and the public more widely, have become vulnerable – no longer are we adults with thinking cerebral cortexes, but instead we are poor, innocent darlings who need Mary Whitehouse to come back and root out all these mean bullies using words that upset us.
If you believed the new breed of Activists, our universities are full of the most violent, offensive, disgusting ideas that have ever existed. Whether they’re protesting against someone speaking against abortion, like last year at Oxford, or boycotting a private institution, like they did The Union at Cambridge, they are gaining traction. And the terrifying thing is that they’re not being challenged.
This new breed of thought-murderers are on the rise. They rejoice when people are jailed for thought crime and freedom of speech; their personal Nazareth is reached when people with religious views are destroyed, rather than debated, for holding them. They jumped for joy when a fairly ludicrous monk was arrested for being beastly to gays, whilst at the same time stamping their feet when irritants from Occupy break real laws and get prosecuted. Despite the UK’s already dubious laws on hate crime, we need more laws to counteract ‘dangerous’ ideas and views. Stalinist Russia, anyone?
The Activist life goal used to be to enter the Labour Party high command, so they could pronounce all kinds of silliness from parliament but generally be ignored. But the tide has turned, for the worse. Leftoid ‘Political commentators’ are now referred to as Activists. Not that long ago, lots of these new ‘Activists’ would have been described as unemployed and violent – now, it’s a ‘professional’ way of life, smashing up buildings, ‘occupying’ and generally ruining life for the rest of us. Students have never, exactly, behaved well when they don’t get their own way – but the ‘smash and burn’ of Millbank a few years ago shows quite how bonkers these people are.
But that doesn’t matter – because with an evangelical fervor they are ‘right’. The Activists haven’t got any qualms about making up their own truth. One of their particularly obnoxious characteristics is the refusal to listen to any view other than their own. The pitiable and frankly absurd group calling themselves ‘Cambridge Defend Education’ (CDE) has spent the majority of the past three years disturbing the university offices, setting fire to things, breaking windows and ‘occupying’ the Senate House lawn. An annoying idea has been the setting up of ‘Free University Teach Ins’ – an arrogant opportunity to force Marxist tracts down the throats of equally intellectually defunct fellow cultists. Unsurprisingly, free speech isn’t on the curriculum.
But these bizarre Teach Ins are a great example of their mindset. The Activists complain that Cambridge students live in a bubble, yet this lot want to live in a ‘safe space’ – a policy accepted in too many students’ unions nationwide. And they want our academic institutions, our colleges, to be ‘safe spaces’ too. It’s just not on. Yes – we live there, but we don’t have to. Their primary purpose is education – not some pointless, absurd notion of ‘safety’.
For those of you who try to live in the real world, ‘safe space’ needs a bit of explanation. In this made-up nightmare-world, you are essentially forbidden to say anything. If you say something that offends them, whether you meant to or not, you must apologise (and probably be given some form of impressively pathetic punishment). If you so much as mention Pro-Life campaigns or the Conservative Party, you probably get arrested.
The real problem with this idea is when it’s put into practice. Once again, the thought-police decide what can and cannot be said. The reason – students won’t feel ‘safe’ in their college if this discussion takes place. Case closed. Except, it’s not. Because it’s absurd to suggest that an academic institution is there to ensure comfort. Respect, yes. Rigour, yes. Thoughtful debate, yes. But a made-up concept of safety and comfort? Pull the other one.
Safety, a completely devalued word, is now the currency of the thought-police, and it’s absolute madness. And it completely devalues the important things such ‘liberation’ groups allegedly fight for. And these are precisely the same people who seem unable to be personally polite or even civil – their favourite attacks involve obscene ad hominem. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher was right: “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
They’ve always been there, these puritan, Marxist, convention-detesting lingo terrorists, out to deliberately ruin fun and attack every word uttered by anyone not on their list of approved speakers, but suddenly the nonsense they come out with has begun to be accepted as the norm. And to be quite honest, for people like me who are both student and owner of a fully functioning cerebral cortex, it’s thoroughly frustrating. The students I teach are not automatons of the cult of silence, and nor are the vast majority of students at Cambridge. Not all students rely on the Owen Jones fact-o-meter – the louder it’s shouted, and the more bankers are blamed, the truer the assertion. But too much of the noise coming out of our universities suggest that they are, and many normal students, who consider balance and developed thought a virtue not a vice have taken to hiding away and not daring to raise their heads above the parapet.
With the ludicrous rhetoric around fees (mostly whipped up by a Labour Party that secretly supported them) and pernicious demolition of freedom of thought, this country’s universities are becoming less and less attractive to UK school leavers. Our great bastions of learning are under threat; and it’s time for those who value their purpose to start making a fuss. Students are not just students, we’re citizens, and a lot of us are a lot more adult than those who hijack national press coverage make us look. And if government legislation to ‘challenge extremists’ really does lead to the shutting down of free speech in our universities, then we are in deep, deep trouble.
You might not think this matters; after all, outside the Ivory Towers, or should I say the Iron Curtain, of our university sector, perhaps we won’t have to deal with this drivel. But underestimate this threat at your peril, because our universities are under grave threat. The vast majority of students are not violent, women-hating, gay-hating, immigrant-hating terrorists. The fact that Activists suggest that they are says more about their wholesale and subconscious buy-in to Catholic dogma about original sin than anything else.
Real, normal students need to get some confidence back and say “no more”. The student press, too, has a role – we must continue to publish content because it is good, not because we agree with it. We must continue to take on the status quo, both unfair university and societal practices and, just as importantly, not accept the attempted silence of fear demanded by those who want to shove their singular view of the world down our throats. We must be thorough and challenging, and act with integrity. It might not be pleasant to offend people – but to say that we cannot, and must apologise whether or not we intended to offend – well that’s just plain wrong.
We, students and press, must stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Free thought in our universities is sacrosanct – more important than anything else we could ever pursue. We must offend, challenge, understand, reinterpret, excite, think, debate, dislike, love, complement. We must grow up. And we must stand up and be counted.