Turning students into weapons

The control of free speech at universities is a first step on a path towards totalitarianism

University Challenged

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

University authorities sometimes disinvite visiting speakers, and more frequently control what their own staff and students say, not (or not only) so as not to disturb the rest of us with new facts but also, or instead, to protect our feelings. For instance, in 2015, Warwick University Students’ Union took a decision to bar the well-known anti-Sharia activist Maryam Namazie because of the risk that she would say something “inflammatory” (though this was later reversed).

The Students’ Union later said, “The decision was made in deference to the right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against on their university campus rather than in the interests of suppressing free speech.”

The Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, defending its decision to rescind Jordan Peterson’s Visiting Fellowship there, wrote that “Robust debate can scarcely occur … when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity”.

Sheffield University announced it would employ 20 of its own students to help control “micro-aggressive” speech, by which it means “subtle but offensive comments” which, in turn, means what the university thinks are racially offensive comments, such as “Stop making everything a race issue”, and “Where are you really from?”

People usually offer the “Galileo defence”: that free speech is necessary for knowledge

All these measures compromise the values that universities ought to hold dearest, but describing them as ‘campus censorship’ doesn’t really get to the bottom of the issue. After all, both Maryam Namazie and Jordan Peterson state their views publicly in other forums. And Sheffield hasn’t said it will punish or actively prevent these supposed micro-aggressions, but only that it will attempt to create “healthy conversations”. Of course the phrase ‘healthy conversation’ in this context sounds about as reassuring as ‘public safety’ did in Paris c. 1794; but it may be well-intentioned; and on the whole the atmosphere in universities these days reminds you more of Huxley than of Orwell.

Is there a free speech argument against policies that are designed not to control our beliefs but to pacify our feelings? What people usually offer is the “Galileo defence”: that free speech is necessary for knowledge. Suppressing a truth stops people knowing it is true. Suppressing a falsehood stops them knowing why it is false. Suppressing discussion of any sort stops the discovery of new truths.

The Galileo defence is quite right as far as it goes. And it matters too: recent experience suggests that we as a society will suffer from ignorance of truths in psychology, sociology and elsewhere because the research that would uncover them is being suppressed.

But you needn’t look far to find control, coercion and bullying directed against speech, or art, that has nothing much to do with knowledge or truth. The intention, and probably in most cases the effect, of these dis-invitations and nudges away from the “inflammatory” or “micro-aggressive” was less to protect anyone from truths that might surprise them and more to preserve them from being upset.

Although it has only recently become widespread in British universities, controlling literary and other output on the grounds of corrosive or inflammatory effects is something that Mary Whitehouse, the Lord Chamberlain and others have been doing for decades.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover established literary merit as a defence against censorship for obscenity in 1960. Seventeen more years passed before the acquittal of Inside Linda Lovelace, a book that lacked the literary merit or at least the literary pretensions of Lawrence’s novel , but of which it could fairly be said (and was said by the Met at the time) that if it didn’t count as objectionably obscene, then no written material ever could.

In 1988, the Local Government Act banned Local Education Authorities from using material that taught “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. And in 2019, police charged two famous drill rappers, Skengdo and AM, for playing their own music, because of its supposed connection to gang violence (they got two years suspended).

One couldn’t really say the value of truth or knowledge outweighed whatever real or imaginary social harms the police, the anti-pornographers or Mrs Thatcher were trying to prevent. There is no important truth that suppressing Lady Chatterley’s Lover prevents anyone from knowing. That people sometimes have affairs with gamekeepers is (I suppose) something that anyone who cared could have guessed anyway; and we already knew that it is not a good idea to over-intellectualise everything, if only because Lawrence himself had been going on about that for years. The Galileo defence has limits.

A broader defence starts with a clearer view of freedom in general. People on the right often think of it as the absence of a physical impediment imposed by others “The free man,” Helvetius wrote, “is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment … it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale.”

But we can understand it more generally as the absence of control by another person or agency. You can control someone by thwarting his aims, wishes and desires — by imprisoning him, or putting a gun to his head. But another, better method is to control those aims, wishes and desires. Christopher Hitchens therefore defined the totalitarian as “the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes”.

To control somebody’s aims, wishes and desires, it may be enough to restrict their exposure to facts. But it may be necessary, and it typically is more effective, to restrict (I mean not necessarily to prohibit, just to make more costly) their exposure to values as expressed in literature, art and music, or in the “wrong” sorts of conversation, sitcom or fancy dress.

Only very specific kinds of speech and writing can transmit or preserve knowledge of the truth; but there is no limit to the kinds of speech, writing and other forms of expression that can shape people’s values and priorities, and therefore also the direction of their lives. To control the producers of culture high or low is therefore to control its consumers that is, everyone.

Universities do not exist to make our society kinder, or more equal, or more inclusive. They exist to pursue truth

That is why the suppression not of scientific but of artistic freedom constitutes a thread in totalitarian procedure running from Plato, via Islamic and Protestant fundamentalism, to the Khmer Rouge and the Soviet Union in modern times. It is also why the CIA during the Cold War aimed to distribute to Russians not just facts but fiction, most famously Doctor Zhivago. As Peter Finn and Petra Couvée write in The Zhivago Affair, the CIA found that doing so was an effective way to “influence attitudes and reinforce predispositions toward intellectual and cultural freedom, and dissatisfaction with its absence”.

It is not because they convey truths that Bend Sinister or The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists should be available to everyone, but because they express with unique power values that nobody has the right to prevent anyone from encountering.

It is not because they convey truths that it is wrong to suppress prejudices that belong for example in suburbia c.1970 or Islington c.2021; it is because in the act of controlling them, the state or university is partially and indirectly controlling everybody who would otherwise have heard them. The problem with censorship is not always the connection between freedom of speech and knowledge; it is the connection between freedom of speech and freedom of everything else.

You would have expected universities to be among the most important institutional barriers to the sort of control that I am contrasting with individual liberty. Universities exist to pursue facts, but also to interrogate values, including the most fundamental values of our society.

Indeed, it is the proudest boast of any decent society that it possesses institutions devoted to that end. You would have thought, therefore, that they would encourage exposure to the widest possible variety of opinion on social, political and philosophical matters.

And yet all too often our universities or rather the government, the regulator, the managerial class that runs them and even the students’ unions themselves behave as though their purpose is (a) to address real (and also I fear to whinge incessantly about imaginary) social problems that are better addressed elsewhere, if at all; and (b) to connive in the ongoing moral panic over “extremist” speech to which the current “Prevent” duty gives such clumsy and heavy-handed expression. The upshot is that many of the most intelligent people in the country, at the most formative stage of their lives, are being denied exposure to a whole range of radical thinkers, from Maryam Namazie to Norman Geras, the likes of which previous generations benefited immeasurably from being able to discuss.

Although it is not there yet, the situation in higher education threatens to develop into a sector-wide dereliction of duty. There are many valuable aims that duty does not include. Universities do not exist to make our society kinder, or more equal, or more inclusive.

They do not exist to make Christians or Jews, or atheists or Muslims feel their beliefs are being “respected”. They do not exist either to denigrate our past or to gild it; nor are they there to transmit any particular set of values. They exist to pursue truth and to question values.

And if they don’t hold fast to this aim, then there is another purpose to which they might readily be put. In December 2019 Fudan University in China removed the phrase “freedom of thought” from its charter in favour of a commitment to “weaponise the minds of teachers and students using Xi Jinping’s socialist ideology with characteristics of China in the new era”.

Clearly we are not close to that point right now; but the direction of travel is clear enough. So, too, is the size of the betrayal involved in bequeathing to the next generation educational institutions that “weaponise” the very minds that they were in fact supposed to liberate.

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