The Observer 7 February 2015
Today’s academics are like parents who expect the child they deserted to love them. The state is demanding that they spy on students who may have extreme ideas, but are not inciting violence. Panicked and outraged, intellectuals are embracing liberal principles they abandoned decades ago.
Twenty-four vice-chancellors wrote to the Times to protest that universities must be places where “lawful ideas can be voiced and debated without fear of reprisal”. So they should, but in Britain they are not. An army of 500 professors wrote to the Guardian to say campuses must be “centres for debate and open discussion, where received wisdom can be challenged”. That would make a welcome change too, because they are nothing of the sort at the moment. Peers in the House of Lords argued quite rightly that, rather than being banned from campuses, “non-violent extremists” should be “exposed, challenged and countered”. The noble lords forgot to point us to universities where such challenges can be found.
The broad truth about the intelligentsia is that it has ignored or excused a movement of the religious right that opposes democracy, free inquiry and equality for women and gays. If you are a young student who thinks abortion is a sin or Ukip is the answer, you will face constant challenges. If you are a radical feminist who wants to arrest prostitutes’ clients, rival feminists will denounce you as a “whoreophobic” denier of sex workers’ rights. Whenever your beliefs can be caricatured as rightwing or prejudiced, universities will challenge you, in all instances except one.
I may have missed an honest speaker but when I looked down the list of 24 vice-chancellors and 500 professors, I couldn’t see one I recalled arguing in public against religious fanaticism. There are fine radical groups – Southall Black Sisters, One Law for All – which try to get a hearing for their argument that religious fundamentalism is as great a threat to ethnic minorities as racism and social injustice. Few inside campus walls want to listen. The popular and political cultures that engulf students do not “challenge” a young Muslim, who is being tempted by the doctrines of the religious right. Indeed, if you describe radical Islam as a movement of the religious right, you will hear gasps of disapproval on most campuses.
Assuming, that is, you can speak at all. The protests of professors and vice-chancellors sound breathtaking in their insincerity when you hold their professed ideals against the illiberal reality of the institutions they police.
Here, without me going out of my way to look for trouble, is the testimony of the people who have mailed me in the past week. Students from the Manchester University Free Speech and Secular Society report that their student union has imposed a blasphemy code. It has banned them from displaying a copy of the mild cover of a tearful Muhammad Charlie Hebdo published after Islamists massacred its journalists.
A lecturer emailed. Like every academic I have spoken to for this piece, he begged me to keep his identity secret because his university would punish him. (So much for academic freedom.)
Managers told him and his colleagues that they should not mention Muhammad, religion in general, politics or feminism. Rather than being free institutions where the young could expand their minds, British universities were becoming “theological colleges” where secular priests enforced prohibitions.
Last week, students at Goldsmiths College in London banned a performance by the fantastic feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite in an act of neurotic prudery that bordered on the insane. Her show was on freedom of speech – yes, yes, I know. She told me that Goldsmiths did not close it because of what she had planned to say, but because she had once said that the police should arrest men who go with prostitutes and that she was against patriarchal clerics forcing women to wear the burqa. In the demonology of campus politics, these were not legitimate opinions that could be contested in robust debate. They marked her as a “whoreophobe” and “Islamophobe”, who must be silenced.
University managers are no better than their teenage heresy-hunters. They say they want to oppose radical Islam in argument. The Lawyers’ Secular Society took them at their word. It tried to present an investigation at the University of West London into Islamist groups that were all over campuses, despite their record of advocating Jew hatred, homophobia and misogyny. The university authorities banned the secularists.
Some of us have tried to warn of the inevitable consequence of such authoritarianism. And now it has come. The government is treating academia as academia treated the holders of unpopular opinions. From the 1980s onwards, Joel Feinberg, Jeremy Waldron, Rae Langton, Catherine MacKinnon and dozens of less prominent academics have battered the liberal principle that you can only ban speech that incites violence. The giving of offence, not incitement to commit physical harm, was a good enough reason to call in the authorities. I have no argument with them finding racism and sexism offensive. But as soon as they said you should oppose it with laws and speech codes rather than with argument and satire, they opened a gap through which the state has poured through.
Today’s Home Office tells them in effect: if you ban speakers even though they are not provoking violence, we can demand that you spy on Islamist extremists, even though they are not engaged in violence. The universities protest that ministers are forcing them to become “Orwellian” enforcers of government policy and forget that you should not use a writer’s name without reading his work.
The intellectuals who excused Stalinist communism in the 1940s aren’t so different from their grandchildren, who excuse radical Islam. Orwell was something of a “whoreophobe” himself and he warned his contemporaries: “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.”
Unless today’s intellectuals want the same said of them they must end the censorship of debates that provoke no violence beyond the violently hurt feelings of the thin-skinned. They must prove the sincerity of their argument that religious reaction must be met with words, not arrests, by overcoming their cowardice and spitting out protests of their own.