The Spectator

Letters | 31 August 2017

Also: freedom of speech; prostitution; when to speak their language; actors in the theatre; polytechnics

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Campus censoriousness

Sir: I am so grateful to Madeleine Kearns for having the courage to speak out about her experiences at university when others, including myself, remain silent (‘Unsafe spaces’, 26 August) .

I have done the reverse of Madeleine in that I, a young American woman, moved from New York City to the UK for graduate school. One of the main factors in this decision to continue my education here is because I feel I have more academic and intellectual freedom.

The idea of a balanced argument at my undergraduate university was ‘neoliberal’ versus ‘radically liberal’. We spoke of the importance of diversity, but political diversity was never considered. I thirsted for a deeper understanding of why half of Americans could hold opinions that were only met with dismissive ridicule or barely acknowledged. What I wanted was a wide exposure to different ideas and arguments, whether or not I agreed with them. Instead, even this skewed presentation of liberal opinions was too broad and too offensive for my peers, meriting the need for safe spaces and trigger warnings.

In the US, if someone disagrees with you politically, they disengage from you and refuse to get to know you on a personal level. So I have often kept quiet among my peers, only revealing my true thoughts to those who have ‘come out’ to me in the same way that Madeleine describes. This has been compounded by the fact that my undergraduate degree was in gender studies, a famously radically liberal discipline. I am proud that I do not conform to the stereotype of a gender studies student.

I am grateful that in the UK I have been free to say what I think and not be personally judged. I wish to remain anonymous not because I am ashamed of my views, but because I want to be an academic and fear assumptions might be made about my politics. Academia is so liberal that, though I am politically neutral or centrist, others might regard me as being conservative and not want to hire me. Nevertheless, I look forward to working towards a future where academics have intellectual freedom in the form of open discussion, not anonymous letters.

Anonymous American PhD student

Right or right-on

Sir: I write regarding Madeleine Kearns’s excellent article. As an undergraduate at Manchester Metropolitan University and an instinctive conservative thinker, I have found myself in a similar situation to the one she describes — although I can report that British universities have not yet fully embraced the American model of all-pervasive censorship. Nonetheless, declaring oneself a conservative and a believer in objectivity is often problematic. Try arguing that Churchill was an exemplary individual, Thatcher a great prime minister or, heaven forbid, that Brexit is a logical decision, and you are well and truly outside civilised opinion. In the wider world, however, such views constitute a majority. Although I am reading history, I haven’t even bothered to make the case for the British Empire in my seminars.

Speaking with fellow students one-to-one; however, there is often a clear signal of relief when such views are privately expressed. Don’t believe what you hear; conservatism is alive and well on campus. It has just become the transgressive option.

Campbell Bishop

Bradshaw, Bolton

How to repel snowflakes

Sir: As reported by Brendan O’Neill (‘University challenge’, 26 August) and Madeleine Kearns, some students are not happy with university censorship. It is therefore surprising that none of the 145 or so universities in Britain has broken ranks and advertised with messages such as: ‘Snowflakes need not apply’, or ‘Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is shocking, but we teach it without a trigger warning’. Such a university might attract good students, and perhaps even an able vice-chancellor.

Jonathan Coles

Great Clifton, Cumbria

Upholding free speech

Sir: Brendan O’Neill paints a picture of UK universities that would be alarming if correct. It is nonsense to suggest that the views of students are ‘censored’, that they are taught ‘not to question ideas’ or that ‘universities are factories of conformism’.

It is also factually incorrect that students at my university ‘slapped a ban on tabloids’. Such a ‘ban’ has never been in place. Ironically, this inaccuracy stems from a motion proposed and debated as part of the democratic process followed by our Students’ Union which was not taken forward — an example of the type of open debate that the article suggests does not exist at universities.

Our universities have a deep historical commitment and if that were not enough, a statutory duty (1986 Education Act, clause 43) to uphold freedom of speech within the law. This is something we take very seriously.

Professor Sir Paul Curran

President, City, University of London, EC1

A personal view of escorts

Sir: Julie Bindel paints an unremittingly depressing account of the sex trade, in particular the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls (‘The “sex worker” myth’, 19 August). I am quite sure her descriptions are accurate, but here in Britain they are far from the whole story.

There is an important distinction to be made here. It is between the circumstances of the powerless, mostly illegal, foreign workers (and these are not necessarily sex workers) on the one hand, and local, legal workers, who are not at all powerless, on the other hand. Almost all OECD countries now provide extensive statutory protection for legal workers, and so a legal worker in an OECD country does have a genuine choice.

My own experience of ‘escorts’ is that if a customer chooses English girls, they are fully voluntary, independent individuals, who have made a conscious choice to sell sex for money. Few of the girls I have met are in any sense vulnerable. In my experience, the overwhelming majority are normal, independent individuals fully able to choose the way in which they earn their living. Of those I have met, many are or were studying for university degrees.

For what it’s worth, I would put the average longevity in the trade of young, educated English girls at less than a year. But that is a year in which they can earn £200-£250 per hour after agency fees, which would allow them both the time and the resources to pursue a permanent career.

Well-run English escort agencies (and there are many of these) are assiduous in protecting both their girls’ and their clients’ identity. It is an example of the market working well, whatever else modern puritans may tell us.

The failures are where criminal gangs coerce vulnerable girls into prostitution in the same way as they coerce vulnerable men into low-paid work or criminality. OECD states should pay much more attention to this if they want to eliminate modern slavery — but leave innocent ‘escorts’ and their clients alone.

Name and address supplied

Men are prostitutes too

Sir: I admire Julie Bindel’s effort to dispel the myth of prostitution being a choice. However, her article reinforces another myth: that sex workers are female. Listening to BBC4’s Any Answers of 5 March 2016, the presenter pointed out that according to the ONS, 40 per cent of prostitutes are male. Julie’s article is dominated by the plight of women, and only briefly mentioned boys in prostitution. As a feminist, I am sure she believes men and women need equal and proportionate protection. The media has an important role to play in this but her article perpetuates the myth that prostitutes are predominately female.

Kevin Thak


Autism challenges

Sir: As someone with autism, I have enjoyed watching Atypical, which James Walton reviewed last week (Television, 26 August). The show offers a positive role model for people for autism, while also dealing with some of the genuine challenges we face. It’s indeed true that romantic relationships are quite challenging. High school was not always easy for me and I was bullied at times. Fortunately, most students and professors were kind.

Like the character in the show, I also have some ‘weird’ passions. I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of election results and electoral districts. I collect things like transport timetables and television listing magazines. And while my main passion isn’t Antarctica, like the show’s protagonist, I probably have a dozen books about the continent on my bookshelf. That said, the show is still quite black-and-white in its depiction of autism. For most people with autism, life happens in shades of grey.

Mathieu Vaillancourt

Ottawa, Canada

Speaking their language

Sir: Knowledge of English may well be adequate for helping different nationalities travel abroad, but it is seldom sufficient for international business success (Letters, 26 August). With trade deals becoming increasingly important for the UK in a post-Brexit world, we should remember the wise words of the former German chancellor Willy Brandt: ‘If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.’

Philip Bushill-Matthews

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Hard to hear

Sir: Max Hastings is not alone in feeling disappointment in ‘The Ferryman’, nor in complaining of inaudibility (Diary, 26 August). I have friends who wrote to the theatre to say they could hear about half of the production — only to be offered new tickets, which they were not overly keen to take up. The problem of actors who have not been trained to project their voices occurs in many theatres, including the National Theatre. I believe Dame Judi Dench has expressed anxiety about actors who are only experienced in television and therefore unable to make themselves heard in the theatre.

Maureen Green

Kew, Richmond

Vocation, vocation

Sir: The Chief Executive of the University Alliance quotes Lord Robbins, in 1963, saying ‘universities should offer higher education to everyone with the aspiration and ability to benefit’ (Letters, 26 August).

Lord Robbins’s ghost would now find the definition of ‘higher education’ much changed. Had the former polytechnics emulated those in continental Europe in providing excellent vocational training, and thereby enhanced their status, their graduates would now find good prospects in the job market in the UK.

Peter Stoppard

Long Ashton, Bristol

The best pig book

Sir: I was delighted to see, in Francis Wheen’s review of two recent pig books (Books, 26 August) recognition of that inestimable masterpiece ‘On the Care of the Pig’, by Augustus Whiffle. Even after all these years its sprightly prose and forthright advice remain unsurpassed in the field.

Robert Bishop

St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

The Aussie other half

Sir: Mark Mason (Diary, 12 August), seeking an alternative to the rather inadequate ‘partner’, might like to consider the now colloquial — but legally derived — Antipodean phrase ‘De facto’. It covers most bases, is fresh on the ear, and evokes a certain classic quality.

John Pollock

Chertsey, Surrey