Campus confidential

Inside the secret Cambridge societies hiding their unfashionable views

This article is part of a Universities in Crisis feature from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I had heard rumours of Cambridge’s secret societies — of Sunday morning symposiums devoted to sex and scrambled eggs — each tale too outrageous to be true. But it is not the promise of illicit affairs driving students and academics underground. It is a love of C.S. Lewis.

My discovery and subsequent involvement in these societies had been something of an accident. A Canadian psychologist and all-round troublemaker once said that one should, “Tell the truth. See what happens.”

Within weeks of committing to this experiment, I had been thrown out of every student theatre society in Cambridge for refusing to state my pronouns. “Your presence in the room makes people feel unsafe,” was the judgement handed down to me. Being competent and committed to directing stood for nothing: I had transgressed against the exclusionary commandments of inclusivity.

Tossed into social isolation and career ruination, I began to attend lectures across a number of faculties in search of fresh perspectives: I came across a lecturer who criticised Marx in front of a hall of undergraduates. Despite the danger of backlash — outspoken Oxbridge academics regularly face “microaggression” tribunals and attacks in student magazines, the prof resisted the instinct to self-censor. This emboldened me.

I reached out to a lecturer who told me of a discussion group for students who found themselves at academic odds with their peers. An introduction was offered, but first we must meet.

My “interview” was in a quiet court of a Cambridge college, where I was quizzed about my background and ambitions. The lecturer wanted to know how an English student, theatre kid and barefoot pagan came to be excluded from liberal and tolerant society and to seek the company of Christians. After 90 minutes the professor sat back with a satisfied nod. “I wanted to be sure of you. I thought you were a spy for the other side.” I knew it was a joke,  but there was a lingering irony.

In its own way, this seems absurd and unnecessary. One history graduate explains that “the ‘secret’ societies I am a part of are hilarious in the sense that most of the conversation is free-wheeling, irreverent humour or sharing articles and ideas that are similar.” The only remarkable thing about them is that discretion and exclusivity is deemed necessary to their survival — that it is necessary to have only trusted people in the room in order to maintain openness and free debate.

Secrecy necessitates the idea that there is something taboo, uncouth, dangerous even, about the act of discussion. It “gives the impression to other students and the public that there is something untoward about what goes on in these societies, when there’s really not,” said one music PhD candidate.

Mobs of masked students brayed with megaphones, blocked entrances to venues, berated passers-by

Once you are accepted into these societies, they do not feel secret at all. They are perfectly pedestrian: wine is drunk and essays bemoaned or admired. Yet, they are serious enough that students fear being exposed. Each of these private, shy, yet often dashing young conservatives I interviewed chuckled at the idea that they belonged to something as heretical and bohemian as a secret salon. Yet, at the suggestion I would write about such gatherings, a cry of consternation arose: “Don’t give us away!”

These gatherings exist because genuine interest in exploring the biggest and most enduring questions has withered within the official branches of the universities. Members share a belief that they are preserving from oblivion momentous ideas that were once the sacred heart of education — transcendence, truth, beauty, the freedom to disagree.

Attempts have been made to bring these private discussions to the public forum with initiatives such as “Living Freedom”. More often than not, they result in newspaper stories where academics scrabble to denounce their colleagues as “offensive, insulting and hateful”. The threat of disruption from disgruntled student protesters also perpetuates self-censoring behaviour in audiences and in venues, which routinely cancel events in anticipation of property damage, civil unrest and violence.

I found myself assisting in the running of these public speaking events, and took it upon myself to scan student newspapers and chatrooms for information about planned protests. I squirrelled out what I could by keeping my ears pricked up in the library and in the local Sainsbury’s — where students seem most secure to boast about their poverty, one-night stands and activist activities. I reported back to the event organisers who could then get the appropriate security measures put in place to prevent the venue from capitulating to the “hecklers’ veto”.

I gained notoriety for this and began receiving pleas for help from professors whose debates were under threat of cancellation by student protesters. On one occasion, this involved disguising myself as a student activist in dungarees and borrowed Dr Marten’s and ducking into colleges to infiltrate protest coordination meetings. Another time it involved arranging for students to be smuggled through a side gate, and up a winding stair into a private attic office.

Kathleen Stock, Jordan Peterson and Helen Joyce were some of the people I found myself supporting. These were exciting nights. Mobs of masked students brayed with megaphones, blocked entrances to venues, berated passers-by and attempted to drown out the speakers with the hammering of pots, pans and drums — sometimes for several hours on end.

Security staff are hired at these events to frisk audience members and escape routes have to be prepared for speakers. Sometimes there are terrifying moments when the student mob approaches and you cannot tell if they will be bystanders or will barricade the room, throw soup, kick or merely scream. It can leave you vibrating long into the night.

There is nothing especially Cambridge-centric about all this. In 2022, a study by King’s College London found that two-thirds of UK university students self-censor on at least one major contemporary controversy, including the “British Empire” (25 per cent), “politics” (34 per cent), and “gender identity” (36 per cent). Students fear voicing heterodox opinions lest it brand them a “troublemaker”. As a conservative, Christian physicist explained to me, “It affects my references further down the line.”

According to the same polling, “conservative” students self-censor twice as much (57 per cent) as left-wingers. To get a sense of the prevailing attitude, I posed a question on an online public “confession” forum run by Cambridge students. I asked if self-censorship among their right-wing peers was “a mark of progress?”

Choosing to hide one’s true beliefs may achieve little more than the mere purchasing of time, and at the price of one’s soul

“Terrible people with terrible opinions have trouble talking about their terrible opinions,” scoffed one student. “Yes, it is progress,” said another. And the most brazen and revealing response? “We need to work together to get the number of right- wing students who self-censor up to 100 per cent,” with a handshake emoji added for good measure. In this welter of self-aggrandisement only one student recognised the “irony of this comment section”.

There are now over 160 recognised universities in the UK. In 2022, Civitas identified controversies at 93 of them relating to the censorship of free speech, with over half experiencing “a ‘cancel culture’ of open letters or petitions which pushed for the restriction of views of staff, students or visiting speakers on campus”. More concerning was that 23 per cent of these episodes were “due to the intervention of external pressure groups”.

As one recent Cambridge graduate, now a curate, recounts, “It is beyond self-censorship. You are now expected to promote certain topics and ideas. If you don’t, then you are suspected and targeted.”

Every student I interviewed about self-censorship conceded and regretted that there was a lack of bravery involved in these publicity-shy groups. Yet, when I asked them if their name could appear in print, all found themselves lacking that same bravery.

Who could blame them? I do not believe their hearts fail but their heads dominate. For my part, I speak not through some exclusive wellspring of courage but rather a disregard for my own longevity in this environment: I do not have a family or property or career prospect that I am afraid to lose. While self-censorship can be cowardly, it can also be prudent. They want to avoid their careers being derailed before they have the chance to get established. They want to be a contender.

And yet choosing to avoid early cancellation by self-censoring and hiding one’s true beliefs — choosing security over vulnerability — may achieve little more than the mere purchasing of time, and at the price of one’s soul. The plea “I was acting under duress” is a plausible defence but not always the noblest one.

If the debate is to be joined and won it needs proponents who take a stand and dare to have their voices heard. So tell the truth and see what happens. I can guarantee it will not be boring.

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