Not that long ago, the sorts of views that were verboten on a university campus were genuinely out-there and nasty: fascism, racism, radical Islam, that sort of thing. It was generally accepted that university was the place to air and interrogate even the most eccentric ideas. Many people still had their limits, but those limits were sufficiently broad that they weren’t tested all that often. And when they were, real scumbags, with genuinely obnoxious opinions, were usually involved.
The big campus controversy of 2002 was whether British National Party leader Nick Griffin and Islamic fundamentalist Abu Hamza should be allowed to appear in a debate at the Cambridge Union. That’s almost unimaginable today. The bar for what is acceptable has fallen so low of late that the big campus story of recent weeks was a decision by officials at Sheffield university to ban students from wearing sombreros this Halloween on the grounds that white people wearing them might be offensive to Mexicans.
Such an uptight climate is having a truly chilling effect on some students’ experiences, as a new report from Policy Exchange shows. Many of them even struggle to express in class what is a majority opinion in the country at large – that it is a good and desirable thing for Britain to leave the European Union. Only four in ten Leave-supporting students feel comfortable expressing their views in class, compared with nine in ten Remainers, the report revealed.
Roughly speaking, according to the findings, students’ views on free speech divide into thirds: those who value free speech over ‘emotional safety’, those who value the precise opposite and those who are persuadable either way. It’s a welcome reminder that not all students are ‘snowflakes’ and that many more of them can be won over: the report found that undecided students often respond positively to pro-free-speech arguments when presented with them.
But there is still a strong plurality in favour of banning certain speakers. Forty-one per cent agreed with Cambridge’s decision earlier this year to rescind the offer of a visiting fellowship from Canadian professor and author Jordan Peterson, who sparked controversy a few years back when he refused to use transgender pronouns. Just 31 per cent disagreed. Students also split 44 to 35 in favour of Cardiff students’ attempts in 2015 to no platform Germaine Greer. Her appearance sparked uproar because she does not believe trans women are women.
Here, again, we find ourselves in a curious position: what is considered a mainstream, even common-sense position among the general population — that there are men and women — is being treated on campus as some kind of dangerous heresy.
Many people will agree with Peterson and Greer on trans issues. Many people think you can’t be a ‘they’ (sorry, Sam Smith). And many struggle to believe, to quote Greer, that a woman is just ‘a man without a cock’. Whatever you think of these positions, these are not unusual things to say and yet they increasingly are on campus.
Universities are supposed to be places in which more eccentric ideas can be aired and explored. They are conceived of as spaces set aside from what John Stuart Mill called the ‘tyranny of opinion’, the received wisdom of mass society.
But there is a big difference between exploring an unusual opinion and effectively enforcing it. And there is a big difference between challenging a widely-held opinion and rendering it akin to hate speech. Too often campus culture seems to be doing the latter in both instances.
Traditionally, the point of free speech has been to protect the minority view. The mainstream, after all, can usually look after itself.
The test of our commitment to free speech has typically been how willing we are to allow eccentrics and free thinkers, as well as weirdos and bigots, to speak their minds as freely as anyone else. But increasingly we find ourselves in a world where mainstream positions are not just questioned but demonised. And the conformist culture on many of our campuses is clearly a big part of the problem.
Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked