How censorship conquered academia
This is what happens when you do not defend free speech for all.
So, British universities are dropping books about slavery from courses in case students are upset by them, while academics launch witch-hunts against feminists. Had you said this to someone even a few years ago they’d have asked you if you’d been drinking. But as two stories in The Times this week attest, this is actually where we’re at now. The climate of intolerance and offence-taking on campus has gone so unchecked for so long that tactics once reserved for fascists are being used against feminists. Meanwhile, academics exhort students to flagellate themselves for the evils of slavery one minute before telling the poor little dears they can skip reading novels about the evils of slavery the next. Censorship is now so ingrained it is meted out without those involved noticing how ridiculous and reactionary they’re being.
On Wednesday, The Times published the details of an investigation it has conducted into universities slapping trigger warnings on texts or editing reading lists to protect students from ‘challenging’ material. Easily the most shocking example is the University of Essex permanently dropping Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, from a literature course because of ‘concerns about graphic depictions of slavery’. The logic here is stunning. Apparently, slavery is so evil it’s better not to think about it too much. The right-on thing to do here is apparently to protect privileged English students from reading a book by a black American author. It’s a nice, neat example of how you can be so woke you end up being racist.
Even more shocking was the Times report published yesterday, detailing attempts by academics to identify and go after trans-sceptical colleagues. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) reportedly pledged to ‘compile a list of university backroom staff suspected of holding gender-critical beliefs’. This comes after feminists like Kathleen Stock (at the University of Sussex) and Jo Phoenix (at the Open University) were essentially run out of their jobs for their heretical views about gender, with their own union branches siding with the intolerant mobs who were trying to oust them. Shereen Benjamin, lifelong trade-unionist and senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Edinburgh, similarly tells The Times that she was labelled a transphobe and likened to a racist by colleagues. She was told she couldn’t join picket lines because it would make trans people ‘feel unsafe’. All this because she called for a ‘reasoned debate on gender recognition reforms’.
How did we get here, where university students are warned against reading challenging books and ‘reasoned debate’ is put in scare quotes? The image conjured up by these stories and thousands more in recent years is the complete inverse of what university life is supposed to be like. Students should expect and crave intellectual challenge. Meanwhile, free speech and academic freedom on campus are supposed to be sacrosanct. Without them you don’t really have a university. You have a very expensive holiday camp with a side order of indoctrination. That even left-wing feminists and books about slavery are finding themselves in the censors’ crosshairs has sensible columnists scratching their heads. But it’s really not that complicated: all this is the logical consequence of a failure to hold the line on free speech that goes back decades and a profound complacency on the part of supposed liberals and leftists.
Gender-critical feminists began to become targets of censorship on campus over a decade ago. In 2011, feminist Julie Bindel was No Platformed by the National Union of Students’ LGBT conference, which passed a motion entitled ‘This conference believes Julie Bindle [sic] is vile’. Since then liberal commentators have begun to ask why No Platform, a students’ union policy which was only ever supposed to be used against fascists, is now being used against feminists. They clearly haven’t been paying attention. Almost immediately after No Platform for Fascists became the policy of the NUS in the mid-1970s it began to expand. By 1986, Lindsey German of the pro-No Platform Socialist Workers Party was warning that it had already been used ‘to deny a platform to a whole range of people whose ideas are very far from the original intention of the ban’, ranging from black nationalists to Tory MPs.
The scope of the No Platform policy continued to spread, with Islamists added to the black list in the 1990s. So too did the general intolerance and censoriousness that underpinned it. In 2001, Sheffield Students’ Union banned Eminem’s music and even banned students from wearing his t-shirts, claiming his work was sexist, violent and homophobic. In recent years, censorship has become ever more kneejerk and widespread. Speakers needn’t be on the official No Platform list of an SU to find themselves No Platformed. And where once it was the likes of BNP leader Nick Griffin being silenced, by 2015 it was people like Maryam Namazie – the Iranian-born leftist, secularist and anti-Islamist campaigner. She was banned by Warwick University Students’ Union because officials feared her presence might upset Muslim students.
All the while, those trained in an academic culture that was becoming more and more censorious were working their way up the ranks. Censorship became institutionalised via an unholy alliance of intolerant students, intolerant academics and dimwitted administrators keen to dodge controversy and keep the minority of ostentatiously offended students sweet. The commodification of higher education put this process on steroids. Students became customers and the customer is always right, even when they’re being censorious dicks. Alongside a rise in external speakers being banned – according to the Office for Students, the number of speaker events banned on campus doubled last year – we’ve seen campus cancel culture turn in on itself. Academia is now purging itself of academics, like Stock and Phoenix, who refuse to toe the line. Members of academic unions are agitating against their most important and cherished workers’ right: academic freedom. We’ve ended up with an academic culture that is at once paternalistic and vicious. It treats students like children and treats dissenting academics like fascists. The upshot is a university system that is utterly hostile to freedom of speech and thought.
That we were heading in this direction has been clear for a long time. For two decades now, spiked has been arguing that censorship on campus is a serious and growing problem. This is why we launched our groundbreaking Free Speech University Rankings, which we ran from 2015 to 2018. British university campuses have provided a perfect demonstration of the age-old lesson of censorship – that it never stays within the bounds you set for it. If you don’t defend free speech for all – including extremists, bigots and other undesirables – soon enough it will be denied to all. But until about five minutes ago, free speechers were being accused of obsessing over normal campus argy-bargy by some of the same centrist sensibles now furrowing their brows and asking how all this happened. In 2018, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights – which spiked gave evidence to as part of the committee’s inquiry on campus censorship – argued the problem was ‘exaggerated’.
I doubt it would get away with saying that today. If we are ever going to tackle the scourge of campus censorship – which if we’re not careful will hollow out academia for good – we need to realise how we got here. And a big part of that story is the complacency and double standards of many MPs, commentators and intellectuals – those who didn’t bat an eyelid when their opponents were being silenced, and who only started to realise that campus censorship was bad once their friends and allies started to bear the brunt of it. As ACLU legend Ira Glasser puts it: ‘Speech restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like they’re a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts.’ Now that the wind has well and truly shifted, it’s high time we fought for free speech for all.
Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
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