Why censorious young women are leading the charge to shut down free speech on campus Telegraph 12.11.19

The original article is here

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Cabinet minister and one of Britain’s politest MPs, is many things. But a dangerous extremist whose views are so beyond the pale he must be banned from sharing them? Utter madness, obviously. But good luck telling that to the one quarter of British students who would indeed ban Mr Rees-Mogg from speaking on their campus.

New research from the think tank Policy Exchange suggests that fewer than half of students consistently support free speech. Two fifths claim to be in favour of censorship and the “no-platforming” of controversial speakers. And the definition of who counts as “controversial” is as expansive as it is illogical. The growing list of speakers students have campaigned to have banned from British universities includes the feminist icon Germaine Greer, the Canadian scholar Jordan Peterson and the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.

Meanwhile, even popular views are not permitted a hearing on campus. Take Brexit. Only four in 10 students feel comfortable voicing Leave-supporting opinions in the classroom, despite the wide support for Brexit in the country at large. And the blame for this appalling state of affairs lies at least in part with the people who are supposed to be helping our students expand their intellectual horizons: that is, the academics who teach them.

Nine out of 10 university staff polled in the run-up to the referendum backed Remain. Even if Brexit is never mentioned in teaching, students pick up on the views of their lecturers through posters on display in offices, jokes made at the expense of Leave voters, snide asides on the stupidity of Brexiteers and social media posts comparing candidates for the Brexit Party to Nazis. Given the barrage of Brexit-phobia displayed by many lecturers, it is surprising that even 40 per cent of students feel comfortable expressing an anti-EU opinion.

Of course, lecturers should not hide their views from students. However, there is a difference between opening up differences of opinion for debate and decrying some ideas as so beyond the pale they are positively harmful.

It’s not just lecturers. University managers and student support officers have promoted an expansive definition of harm that takes us far beyond physical violence to encompass threats to emotional and psychological wellbeing. Banning free speech can be justified because, in this subjective terrain, controversial ideas are now considered to be akin to violence against the vulnerable or oppressed.

Somewhat ironically, there is also a significant gender divide on these issues. In the Policy Exchange poll, female students were far more likely than men to back censorship in the name of sensitivity, whether that was banning Jacob Rees-Mogg or to vote in support of university authorities regulating fancy dress costumes.

For those concerned with academic freedom, this gender difference matters: women outnumber men on campus to an ever-increasing degree and if the moral imperative is not to offend then women will be at the forefront of enforcing this line. Girls, far more than boys, are socialised to “be nice”. They gain far more social capital – and academic good standing – from demonstrating support for perceived victims rather than the cause of free speech.

Some of this is self-interest: young women have picked up on the feminist message that they are oppressed and therefore in need of protection from free speech. It is not just fellow students who promote this perception of female fragility but an older generation of social justice activists now employed in our universities.

There are few quick-fix solutions to free speech on campus. A broader culture change requires far more than just berating “snowflake” students. We need a collective reminder that the primary aim of universities is the pursuit of knowledge and not social change. However much they may wish it were otherwise, academics are not appointed to try and right the social wrongs they perceive around them.

To prompt open debate, lecturers need to lead by example and challenge ideas rather than seeking to outlaw or ridicule them. When they do, they will discover that free speech is about far more than just political point-scoring: it is vital for learning.

Joanna Williams is the director of Cieo

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