Universities and the Suppression of Dissent
“University life is punctuated by a single minded desperation to quash any dissenting opinion”
University is for the exposure of individuals to new experiences, ideas and, judging from this years bout of freshers flu, a hitherto undiscovered batch of bacterial subcultures. I’d go as far as saying that university can and should be the formative years for intellectual and ideological discovery. This means, crucially, that opinions and ideas that an individual disagrees with should be explored, constructively criticised and understood.
Well, that ship has sailed, scuttled and sunk. Rather than be the hotbeds of critical thought, University life is punctuated by a single minded desperation to quash any dissenting opinions, and to present those with dissenting opinions as somehow morally bankrupt. So called “safe spaces” are one element of this, together with the politicisation of key issues. At Southampton, for example, a planned conference on Israel’s legitimacy in April 2015 was cancelled after pressure from students, the British government and international pressure groups. One of the Soton Tab‘s own writers believed that the conference would serve as an “unbalanced and delegitimising” force – but rather than attempting to listen to the points made and challenge them on intellectual ground, he and others saw points of contention as reasons to suppress freedom of debate.
This is my issue. Irrespective of the fervency of your views, the fact that other individuals do not share them is not in itself a fair reason to prevent their airing. If you truly find ideas so morally reprehensible that you cannot bear to listen or respond to them, there is a simple option, one that many refuse to take. Don’t bloody listen. If you’re unable to rebut the ideas, or cannot source the motivation to do so, seeking them out to perform the charade of taking offence or to silence them is entirely Orwellian in its execution. I find many ideas perpetrated by religions entirely incompatible with my 21st century lifestyle. I find their outdated views on homosexuality, abortion, secularism and the entire concept that if I don’t live my life by their own guidelines on morality it’s afternoon tea with Satan’s lackeys for eternity entirely offensive – but I have never fought to suppress religious freedoms. As long as I’m not being policed, or having such opinions rammed down my throat, I couldn’t care less what people choose to believe. On matters where my opinions differ from theirs, I’ll raise that with them – but I sure as hell won’t demand that they be prevented from airing their beliefs. I mean, how else am I supposed to get my kicks? It’s no fun debating people simply playing Devil’s advocate, you’ve got to see the doubt in their eyes as their fundamental belief system is shaken to its core.
This is what University life is missing out on, really. We’ve become obsessed with preventing opinions that might perforate the cosseted cotton wool bubbles we seek to wrap the feelings of every student in. The creation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” exemplifies this perfectly. Manchester Student’s Union recently banned journalist Milo Yiannopoulos and feminist Julie Bindel from debating whether “Feminism has an issue with free speech”, based on violations of their safe space policy. Incidentally, this “safe space” policy is not a little bit terrifying to read, including the doozy “The Students’ Union believe strongly in the right to free speech however acknowledge that this should not be to the detriment of the rights of other individuals and groups.”. It’s a noble concept, but without adequate definition on what actually constitutes the detriment of other individuals and groups, it’s a broad policy that can be applied to suppress whoever they personally disagree with – not at all open to abuse, right?
The problem with holding the ideal of freedom of speech as paramount is the manner in which your belief is manipulated to dismiss your views off-hand. I truly believe that however offensive someones views, they should be aired. It’s only by subjecting these views to rational criticism that we can truly counter them – censorship never works. And if your feelings get hurt, well, grow up. Rationally locate the flaws in what has offended you, because censorship gives the impression that they’re correct, that they have a point because the censor is unable to debate. The real world doesn’t care about your emotions, and nor should it.