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Artillery Row

Taking Stock

“Freedom of speech is alive and well at Oxford” — but for how much longer?

Thus spaketh the dons — and, soon after, the students. Forty-four courageous souls of diverse political creed, who believe in a core value not just of a University but of a healthy society, and the need to preserve such values for future generations. Though the journey ahead may be long, the free speech cancellers have, for now, been defeated. They are the antithesis of the ethos of any university, let alone one of the best in the world. They should have learnt the perils of manipulating evidence and biassing arguments. They should also have learnt the value of reading. “Freedom of speech is alive and well at Oxford,” wrote the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, in response to these malevolent shenanigans. It is alive, and now it needs to be revived to the best of health.

If Saint John Henry Newman would have shuddered at the start of this academic year — as I mentioned — then he would be trembling once more. Hark back to 1852, the year in which Newman delivered his renowned lectures on the values of a university education. Down the narrow path of St Michael’s Street, the Oxford Union would have been thriving. Holding the reins of the presidency in Michaelmas Term 1852 was Charles Henry Pearson. Pearson, another Oriel College alumnus — though, unlike Newman, a student rather than academic — would soon have a variegated career spanning academia, journalism and politics.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes Pearson as combining “a Puritan determination in carrying reforms with a gentle manner and a scrupulous respect for the traditional rules and courtesies of public debate”. Over 170 years later, the “last bastion of free speech in the Western world”, as Harold Macmillan once described the Oxford Union, has been targeted by the anti-free speech brigade. With far less introspection than the most censorious of Puritans, the inward-looking determination to asphyxiate debate is becoming ever more potent.

It is the heart of academia, the heart of an education, the idea of a university

It speaks of the perils of contemporary academic institutions that it was not seen as an opportunity, when the Oxford Union decided one week ago to invite the gender-critical feminist philosopher Kathleen Stock to speak at the organisation later this month. It is an opportunity for an interdisciplinary academic community to hear the views of a renowned philosopher, an opportunity for rigorous exchange of views, and an opportunity for all those attending to go forth and think, cogitate and ruminate on what has been said. It is the hallmark of a free and open University — a place for learning and healthy Socratic exchange of sundry ideas and worldviews. Indeed, it is a privilege that students, academics and beyond can listen to speakers from far and wide. It is the heart of academia, the heart of an education, the idea of a university.

These revelations ought to be banal. Yet, blind to these mundanities, the University’s notorious Student Union (SU), LGBTQ+ society and even several colleges (whose undergraduate student bodies have called for the invitation to be rescinded) have persecuted the Oxford Union, treating its decision as a punishable offence. Preferring an illiberal monoculture with students unexposed to views different to their own, this unholy team of prosecutors has arraigned the Union on charges that amount to little more than what Michael Portillo once called “wishy-washy flim-flam”. Their first accusation is that the Oxford Union is “a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students”; the second, that Professor Stock is “exclusionary and hateful”. Such unevidenced statements would infuriate any Oxbridge don, were this poorly-articulated, polemical verbiage to feature in an essay. Need it be said again? Kathleen Stock does not hate transgender people. These shouters have simply not done their reading, and how ironic that reading is the beating heart of an Oxford degree.

The website of the Oxford University Student Union proudly reads: “whatever you’re looking for, Oxford SU is here to help.” Certainly, this Student Union can help you if you seek to demolish the sacred value of freedom of speech. The malicious tactics of their officers were ill-devised, however, not least a botched attempt to prohibit the two centuries-old institution from holding a stall at the Freshers’ Fair come October. In a world where universities often surrender to student satisfaction indexes, these authoritarian actions epitomise a worrying strategy on the part of some student bodies, namely to suffocate voices with which they disagree. They evidently prefer tactics of false accusation and slander over reasoned debate.

One need hardly be a logician to realise that the Welfare Secretary of Oxford University’s LGBTQ+ Society, who accused the Oxford Union of “spreading [Stock’s] misinformation and hatred”, is no impartial character. Simultaneously an officer for the Student Union, this person attended the meeting that voted in favour of severing financial ties with the centuries-old society. The SU’s claims that the invitation of Professor Stock did not influence its decision-making reeks of inaccuracy. The adage, “one rule for us, another rule for them”, oft-applied to Boris Johnson’s pandemic antics, is more befitting for this unholy organisation. There is one rule for those who wish universities to be hubs of the full spectrum of voices and viewpoints, another for those who insist on a monoculture of ideological institutional illiberalism.

It is not just the dons who are bravely putting their heads above the parapet

To dismiss this event as an internecine spat between two student-led bodies would be naïve. It represents a worrying direction of regression spreading through our academic institutions, demonstrating that if you do not accept mainstream fashionable views, you will be threatened, ostracised and cancelled. The SU’s actions epitomise the criminalisation not just of freedom of speech, but freedom of judgement. Instead of offering students a choice to attend a whole range of events, amongst which students can choose for themselves, these free-speech cancellers would prefer that this choice be taken away from them. I know first-hand that hosting any event on freedom of speech is no easy endeavour for an academic. Those around you will probably insist on vetoing certain speakers, and the result would be, quite literally, cancellation.

Whether you like or loathe the Oxford Union, or whether you are an ardent supporter, vehement opposer or ambivalent fence-sitter towards all or some of Stock’s views, these are non-criteria for opposing her right to speak. Her attempted cancellation underscores that the road ahead is long, as activist student bodies and (some) academics continue to spread this malaise of university “campus culture”. It highlights the sheer absurdity of the contemporary university that the Oxford Union has had to placate these cancellers by offering “welfare resources” to attendees who may feel “unsafe” by the mere sight of Stock, or victimised by that most meaningless of phrases, “epistemic violence”. What about the welfare of those who choose to attend, or those who have organised the event, committed to preserving freedom of speech? Predictably, this has gone unconsidered.

Still, flames of hope are flickering. As Oxford University’s former Vice-Chancellor Dame Louise Richardson made clear, universities will fail to flourish without ideological diversity. They will lose the culture wars to the deluge of ideological indoctrination. In a milestone victory for free speech, her successor Irene Tracey has insisted that Stock’s event go ahead. Away from the dreaming spires, another breakthrough was reached this month when the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill received Royal Assent and thereby became law. Moreover, the likely appointment of Cambridge academic Arif Ahmed as the inaugural Free Speech Champion represents a momentous step forward, along what may seem like an arduous road ahead. What is more, it is not just the dons who are bravely putting their heads above the parapet: the students are, too.

To the free speech cancellers: your politics will be confounded, your knavish tricks frustrated. When will you eavesdrop on conversations in a public house in the hills of Yorkshire and make false accusations of “hatred”? Academic institutions must stand firm as pillars of free speech and resist the juvenile and activist tantrums of their members. Back in 2010, the late Martin Amis was one of the signatories to the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate in Harper’s Magazine. Concerned at the weakening of “norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity”, the letter called to “preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences”. Thirteen years on, this concern remains.

A brief sigh of relief: hooray for free speech, for now. Stock will speak! The longer-term question remains: is this one isolated case? As the late Pope Benedict XVI underscored in 2008, preserving freedom “demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate”. It is no longer enough for universities to uphold freedom of speech; it needs to be defended and fought for. We must defend the rights of students and academics to be exposed to the full range of views and quash the hysterics of so-called activist student groups and academic ideologues. If not, these hallowed institutions will cease to function.

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