Snowflake students must learn how to argue by Philip Collins in the Times 20.10.17

Original text is here

In a display case in University College London sits the preserved skeleton of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham who issued instructions that he wanted to live on in this form. Bentham was, in his day, an early advocate for freedom of expression among many other liberties that were then contested. He still attends the college council on important occasions, where he is recorded as “present but not voting”. Bentham’s university, like so many others, is becoming so suffused with nonsense that it needs him to spring to life and offer some intellectual clarity.

UCL in fact has a highly honourable history in this regard. When John Henry Newman wrote The Idea of a University in defence of liberal education and against theological instruction, it was the only college that declared itself to be the enemy of all religion. With all religions treated the same, a Catholic had no need to abjure
his faith.

This week, in a report on the BBC’s Newsnight, the student union representatives of UCL articulated the modern campus concern with trigger warnings, micro-aggression and safe spaces. For all its fine intentions, this is a threat to the freedoms for which Bentham still stands.

Last week, Linda Bellos, the former Labour politician and gay rights activist, was denied a platform at Peterhouse, Cambridge, because the organisers were fearful that her opposition to proposed changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, which give greater priority to self-declaration of gender, might offend some in the audience. Like Germaine Greer before her, Ms Bellos holds the view that identity is more than a matter of personal choice and that it is incoherent to treat the complex sense of the self as if it were a consumer item.

Whether or not this is a reasonable case — I happen to think it is — universities have travelled a long way from free expression if the potential hurt feelings of an audience member are allowed to trump the right of Ms Bellos to speak.

Excessively sensitive victimhood has been all the rage on American campuses for a long time now. In an essay titled The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt lamented the way that an obsession with diversity was eroding liberty. The idea of “concept creep”, from the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam, helps to explain what is going on. Haslam shows how the meaning of terms such as bullying and trauma have expanded on campus to apply to ever more trivial, ever less objectionable events. Bullying is now defined, for example, principally according to the perception of the victim. The idea of “trauma” was once subject to stringent medical definition. Now it has come to be used, says Haslam, citing a US government agency, to express anything that is experienced as physically or emotionally harmful.

‘Trauma’ was once subject to stringent medical definition
One of the main sites of this battle is gender, the subject on which, astonishingly, both Germaine Greer and Linda Bellos have been deemed to be beyond the pale. There is a clear distinction between biological sex on the one hand and gender on the other, which has led some students to demand that they be identified by neutral terms or, in some cases, by a pronoun of their choice or a word of their own invention.

Facebook has 58 options for users to identify their gender, including agender, pangender and neutrois. It is hard to care too much either way. Students can wear bags on their heads and demand to be called Eric for all I care. I think I may insist that I be referred to as meh from now on. And yet, of all the causes we might espouse, changing the pronoun by which we are known is so pathetically small. It’s not hurtful and it’s not oppressive. It’s not big and it’s not clever. It’s little and stupid.

These non-disputes on campus are stretching the definition of harm to breaking point. It was Bentham’s godson, John Stuart Mill, who defined “harm to others” as the only reasonable case for interfering in the liberty of the individual. Ever since Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859 there has been a dispute about what constitutes harm. Mill was quite explicit that harm is not merely the taking of offence.

There are university course materials now marked by trigger warnings that books may contain colonial, racist or sexist ideas that are apt to cause offence. One wonders at the lack of resilience of a reader liable to have a trauma when they discover that Jay Gatsby is a bit of a rotter. A “micro-aggression” which is seeking out the coded insults buried in everyday exchanges can be found anywhere by someone determined to see nothing else. Any remark can be construed as offensive by someone who is wasting an expensive education looking for offence.

It was good to hear that the government is prepared to resist this nonsense. The universities minister Jo Johnson, by a distance the most effective minister in his own family, told colleges this week that the new regulator, the Office for Students, will create a blacklist of universities that have a policy of not offering a platform to perfectly respectable speakers. The law prohibits all manner of vicious statements and so it should. Truly egregious speech is already outside the law and a university, a temple of learning and discussion, should be an arena in which intelligent people allow truth to emerge, as Mill thought it would, from the free collision of ideas.

I have defended political correctness many times on the grounds that it is largely a matter of increased courtesy and respect. There is no glory in giving offence and any respectful speaker will try to avoid it, not least because nobody ever persuaded an audience by upsetting them. However, this is best regulated by thoughtful people disagreeing in civil fashion. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written in his book Antifragile that muscles only gain strength through use. Anyone who thinks Linda Bellos is mistaken about the 2004 Gender Recognition Act ought to be confident that their identity will survive the encounter with someone who disagrees. The impulse of therapy cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a basic liberty of free expression. Students in a market era have, rightly, become more demanding. They would be a lot better served using their market muscle to seek better and more engaged teaching and richer courses of study than the intellectually vapid pursuit of safe spaces.

Jeremy Bentham was a pioneer in all forms of individual freedom and expression but he understood that the source of liberty lay in tolerant argument. As he said about the doctrine of natural rights, all this no platforming is not just nonsense, it is nonsense on stilts, although stilts are probably banned from universities for fear that someone might fall off.