In 1793, on the eve of the Terror in France, the royalist journalist Mallet du Pan coined the adage ‘The Revolution devours its children.’ Today, on the left, history is repeating itself as farce. In universities, childish pseudo-revolutionaries are devouring their elders and self-styled radical betters.
Last week, student activists at Columbia University in New York mounted a concerted campaign against that notorious neo-fascist puppet Pinocchio. A big blow-up Pinocchio doll had starred in a display by Students Supporting Israel, staged as a counter demo to a fun-sounding campus festival called ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’.
Presumably his role was to suggest that the pro-Palestinian students were telling porkies and their noses should grow. After these opponents protested, the university authorities removed Pinocchio — purely, of course, as a ‘safety’ measure, the new all-purpose excuse for political censorship.
But why pick on Pinocchio? Because, the anti-Israeli lobby insisted, the inflatable constituted ‘an explicitly and overtly anti-Semitic image’. A group of Jewish American students was censored because they were accused of, er, anti-Semitism.
Barely a week goes by without similar student-eat-student lunacy. Campuses are becoming ‘intersectional’ war zones, where identity zealots compete to see who can appear the most offended and victimised and so silence the rest.
In British universities, a rising ride of intolerance sweeps away anything that might make students feel uncomfortable. A leading anti-fascist campaigner has been ‘no-platformed’ by the NUS black students’ group, who branded him ‘Islamophobic’. The NUS lesbian, gay, bi- and transsexual officer refused to share a platform with Peter Tatchell, doyen of LGBT lobbyists, because he had opposed bans on Terfs (‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’). After standing up for free speech, it seems, the likes of Tatchell must be denied the right to speak on -campus.
Over a year ago, Brendan O’Neill introduced Spectator readers to this new breed of super-squeamish, censorious student. The Stepford students, as Brendan called them, might ‘look like students, dress like students, smell like students. But their student brains have been replaced by brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform.’
Since Brendan’s piece came out, things have got worse. Some Cambridge undergraduates set up a website ironically called the Stepford Student, intending to show that they didn’t fit the stereotype. Before too long they surrendered and closed it down — because of protests from real Stepford students outraged by tongue-in-cheek articles such as ‘Am I only a feminist to get laid?’ which showed a ‘flippant and harmful attitude towards feminism’. Feminism is never a laughing matter and flippancy equals heresy.
The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, demanding the removal of the Victorian imperialist’s statue from an Oxford college because it made students feel ‘unsafe’, has been reportedly superseded by a move to bring down a statue of Queen Victoria at Royal Holloway, in London, because she was ‘implicitly involved in colonial exploits’. The reports were later denied – but it was widely reported in the press because it was so believable. It fits a relentlessly depressing trend.
Just last month at the London School of Economics, freedom-loving students formed the LSESU Speakeasy to defend free speech. The immediate response of some student activists was to demand that the union -disband this offensive society. Not only is it unacceptable to speak your mind, it seems even using the F word — freedom — risks a possible ban.
The recent UK cases of student upstarts trying to censor their radical forebears has caused consternation that we may have reached ‘peak lunacy’. What, everybody wants to know, is wrong with these students?
Wrong question. Far from springing from nowhere, these millennial students are only the militant, provisional wing of a crusade for conformism — banner slogan: ‘You can’t say that!’ — infiltrating our culture from the top downwards. They are the youthful vanguard of a movement I call the reverse Voltaires, whose cri de coeur is ‘I know I will despise what you say, and I’ll fight to the end of free speech for my right to stop you saying it!’
The campus censorship crusade is not craziness so much as a logical extension of the ‘no platform’ policy so beloved of the left. This dates back to the ‘no platform for racists and fascists’ policy adopted by the National Union of Students in 1974. Today it seems more like ‘no platform for racists, fascists, Islamists, Islamophobes, homophobes, Nietzsche, rugger-buggers, pin-ups, rude pop songs, sombreros, sexist comedians, transphobic feminists, Cecil Rhodes or anything at all that might make anybody feel uncomfortable’.
Even back in the day, some of us opposed the NUS policy. It confused shutting down your opponents with winning an argument. It denied everybody else the right to hear and judge for themselves. And by making free speech a privilege rather than a right, it opened the door to banning any views -outside the prevailing orthodoxy.
At its 1977 conference, the outgoing Labour general secretary of the NUS was already criticising students’ unions which ‘no-platformed’ members ‘whose views the majority of members do not like. This kind of thought control is no part of a democratic students’ union.’
‘No platform’ now means no argument. The frequent allegations of ‘homo/trans/Islamophobia’ give the game away. To brand opinions you don’t like as ‘phobic’ means damning them as symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. And there is no point debating with irrational and dangerous ‘phobics’. Far better to muzzle and quarantine them.
Stalin’s Soviet regime was keen on accusing its political critics of mental health prob-lems and shutting them in psychiatric wards. But while there is a whiff of Stalinism about the Stepford students, they are more like enthusiastic young Maoists — the youthful Red Guards who denounced their elders and teachers for failing to toe the line, and smashed up China’s cultural monuments, Isis-style.
The irony is that many throwing up hands in horror at today’s promiscuous ‘no platform’ antics have themselves tried to ban speech of which they disapproved. It will come as little surprise to those with a sense of history that among the latest ‘victims’ of ‘no platform’ are those who demanded campus censorship in the past, up to and including St Peter of Tatchell. Those who live by the ban can perish by it, too.
Mick Hume is the author of Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of being Offensive Killing Free Speech?