A week on from Rod Liddle's appearance at a dinner at Durham university's South College, the fallout continues. Yesterday, my fellow students gathered outside the college, brandishing signs saying ’No hate’ and 'Principal without principles’. Their target? The college's head, Tim Luckhurst, who made the fateful decision to invite Liddle to speak and then to call students who walked out 'pathetic'. Now students are calling for Luckhurst to apologise – and resign.
As a Durham finalist, I’m fed up. The university has released more communication about Rod-gate in the last three days than I have received all term about what is going to happen with my exams. My college, my department and the university governing body have all sent me emails telling me about the appropriate welfare resources to turn to if I have been unduly affected by hearing about comments that I might disagree with. The university has been quick to affirm that it ‘categorically does not agree with views expressed by the external speaker at this occasion’. This is precisely my worry: since when has inviting someone to speak been a sign that you agree with everything they’ve ever said? After all, by giving someone a microphone, it should be clear that you are not irrevocably aligning your institution with them. Who would think otherwise?
Whatever your opinion on Rod Liddle, his speech had nothing to do with stirring up hatred. Those who stomped out of the dinner somewhat prove his point about 'jabbering infants'. And anyway, once my fellow students and I leave the Durham bubble, we will surely encounter views more radical than Liddle’s, who my father refers to as ‘a bit of a leftie’. I fear we have used up all our hysteria on someone who doesn’t quite deserve it.
I do not necessarily agree with Liddle’s views, but I do think he should be able to express them – and be argued with afterwards in the spirit of informed debate. Encountering someone you disagree with at a college gathering (especially after a glass of free booze) is inevitable. If they were the one finishing up the formal dinner, I’d be rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of taking them to task once the plates had been cleared. Students have a right to protest, of course they do. But Rod Liddle cannot be said to be the biggest problem at this university when some of our teaching staff are not being paid a decent wage.
Durham students should be better than this: educated, liberal-minded young people who see themselves as crusaders for tolerance must realise that we need to at least be in the room to have conversations with those we disagree with. Yet we seem to be rapidly re-defining ‘discussion’ to mean ‘talking with people I agree with and nobody else’. This is concerning for a university that has produced two Supreme Court judges and six in the High Court. Do we expect our future lawyers to walk out of court when the other side starts speaking for fear of disagreement?
Had Liddle announced a plot to burn the Bill Bryson Library down, I could understand the need for all this clamour. Instead, the speech that the protestors missed by storming out concluded with Liddle emphasising the importance of listening to different perspectives and avoiding the opinion echo-chamber to which we have all become accustomed. Oh, the irony.