Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Free Speech in danger?

If there is one value which is absolutely fundamental to the preservation of democracy it is the one usually attributed to Voltaire:

Even Frederick the Great, who made Prussia a great power, made a point of allowing free speech, though not all of his successors followed suit.

And if there is one place above all others where the battle for free speech is most critical, it is at Universities and Colleges.

Students attend colleges to have their minds expanded, not to be allowed to retreat into "safe spaces" where they can block out ideas they do not like.

This is obviously a battle which has to be re-fought in every generation. I was a student between 1980 and 1985, and there were far too many student unions doing outrageous things in the name of "No Platform" policies back then - including, in one particularly egregious case, banning a college Jewish society in the name of anti-racism.

Back then, that got the college student union concerned suspended from the National Union of Students. These days it is student unions which are looking to disaffiliate from NUS - a policy which was very popular with the right of the Conservative student movement in my day but appeared to have dropped out of sight in the intervening 30 years.

I was very depressed to read the results of a survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) whose researchers interviewed 1,000 students in more than 100 universities for a new reportKeeping Schtum? What Students Think of Free Speech.

Apparently three quarters of the students interviewed want to ban all "offensive" speakers - and more than a quarter of them (27%) would include UKIP in the category of speakers who should be banned.

As will probably be obvious to anybody who reads this blog, I am not a fan of UKIP, but my attitude to them is exactly that laid out in the Voltaire quote above.

And although UKIP have a larger nutter quotient than the average mainstream political  party, most of their members and supporters are not fascists, racists, or anybody to whom a reasonable person would apply a "No platform for racists and fascists" policy if you supported one in the first place, which of course I don't.

For that large a chunk of students to think it is OK to ban them is a sign that the flames of democracy are not burning as brightly as they should be in our Universities and Colleges. Students are usually and rightly considered the future of our country: if the people who were surveyed by the future of HEPI are the future of Britain, I fear for the future of British Democracy.

The No Platform policy has been used, both when I was a student and recently, to try to silence speakers way outside the categories of extremists who its' defenders usually say it is meant to stop. Supporters of the policy often say that it is applied against those who have plenty of other avenues to speak - and they often say that that means affluent, right-wing straight white men.

Actually the people who have faced attempts by student unions to stop them speaking in the recent past include  gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, feminist Germaine Greer, ex-Muslim and anti-Sharia campaigner Maryam Namazie and liberal Muslim Mona Eltahawy.

As the feminist writer Naomi Wolf writes, the attitudes displayed in the HEPI survey are "catastrophic."

She added: “They show a terrifying trend, especially in British universities which for 800 years have served as lights of freedom of thought.”

Mind you, if a similar survey had been done in my student days, I am not sure how much better the results would have been.

I remember at one National Union of Students conference in the eighties, a speaker told the people in the hall that they were the future of our country, and one of my Conservative student colleagues - not by any means a hard-right one - looked round the hall and muttered to me a comment which was only half a joke,

"I b***** hope not!"

But actually most of them grew up.

Please God most of those students who today are calling for views they don't like to be suppressed rather than trying to defeat them with argument will eventually do the same.

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