Nick Cohen

The idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing

The idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing
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I’ve always admired the liberal Muslims in the Quilliam Foundation. It is hard to take accusations of betrayal from your own community. Harder still to keep fighting when the thought feeling keeps nagging away that out there, somewhere, there are Islamists who might do you real harm.

But Quilliam keeps fighting. To mark the launch by students of the Right2Debate campaign, which seeks to make universities live up to their principles and respect the right to speak and dispute, they have collected accounts from atheists and secularists of the wretched state of higher education.

I should pause to explain that last sentence to the confused.

You might have assumed that universities would be the last institutions in the country to censor. University is meant to be the place that blows away the cobwebs between your ears. Students are freed for the first time in their lives from the pressure to conform imposed by family and neighbourhood. They are yet to go into the workplace, where managerial hierarchies impose their own codes of silence. Lecturers and professors say they believe in academic freedom. The 1986 Education Act specifically obliges universities themselves to uphold freedom of speech under the law.

Yet all of the above counts for nought. I don't know how you could measure intellectual deprivation. If you could, there's a fair chance that universities would be among the most servile and conformist institutions in Britain.

The confused may also wonder about the targets of censorship. Atheists? Humanists? Surely the left believes in secularism and despises the superstitions that have held humanity back? Not so, and not for a long time. The speakers most likely to be prevented from enlightening students are speakers who uphold Enlightenment. They are targeted for the offence they cause, or ordered to stay silent. In the name of diversity, everyone must hold the same opinions, and remarkably reactionary opinions at that.

As Quilliam's Haydar Zaki put it after he visited Exeter university with the cultured and liberal Muslim theologian Sheikh Usama Hassan:

Human rights speakers are branded as racists and vile, whilst speakers who advocate for FGM practices and theocratic rule are applauded as intellectual heroes.

In other words, and not for the first time in history, the far left is allied with the far right, and drags the soggy centre along whimpering behind it.

It is grimly fascinating watching often angry and occasionally baffled students come to terms with the obscurantism around them.

Daniel Porter said that at King’s College London said it was not just a few extremists policing thought, but the vast bulk of the student body. Everyone around him identified defence of free speech with endorsement of the speaker's words. To say the holder of an unpopular or unpleasant opinion must be defeated in debate rather than banned was to share that opinion. and make you as tainted as the object of the communal scorn.

Porter tried to hold a debate of his own titled 'Is the West responsible for Islamic extremism?' A familiar enough topic that has been argued over thousands of times. But because he could not guarantee that the answer would be 'Yes. It's all the West's fault', it was attacked. He was accused of running a smear campaign against Muslims. The accusations grew so violent that participants said they no longer felt safe taking part. One stepped down after suffering from panic attacks.

Admire him though I do, Porter's conclusion could not be more wrong.

The most unfortunate and depressing aspect of the US vs THEM narrative permeating through universities today, is that it fails to grasp the fact that most people actually have the same goal in mind: to create a world in which no one is discriminated against for who they are.

He may not realise it, but an uncrossable gulf separates the liberal from the inquisitor and the police officer. They do not share the same aims. They want to enforce their taboos and will pick on the smallest sign of heresy to do it. This is not a left v. right argument. It is barely even a philosophical argument. It is about people's temperament. If you give the witch finders the power to denounce witches, they will do it, and use fear and the urge to conform to conscript the credulous and the frightened to the witch hunt.

In any case, the 'left' as I suppose I have to call it, is happy enough discriminating against those who fight discrimination.

Benjamin David and Damian Lewis from Warwick University talk about seeing

Feminists, gay-rights campaigners, anti-fascists and anti-Islamists being unpardonably indicted with ‘hate-incitement’ and subjected to disproportionate and unconscionable no-platforming sanctions, and sanctioned without sufficient evidence.

Reading them I understood that some struggles are eternal and every generation has to discover for itself the reason why freedom matters. In their own words, David and Lewis delivered a near perfect justification.

A society where one does not risk the beliefs they hold dear being questioned and challenged, where the values which pierce the depth of your very being cannot be offended, is one not worthy of the name for those who cherish the beautiful, powerful, and yes, dangerous nature of free thought.

An anonymous student from Leeds –  anonymous because it is dangerous to step out of line in the safe spaces – reformulated John Stuart Mill's argument that only speech that provokes violence should be banned for the 21



The balance between protecting the right of students’ and academics’ freedom of speech and a safe space is never going to be an easy one to find, but I believe a fundamental line should be drawn at the incitement of violence and hatred. 

Just so. But few believe it. Haydar Zaki, Quilliam University Societies Outreach Office, described how University College London's student union refused an application to establish a Quilliam society on campus. Liberal Islam was 'irrelevant' apparently – and this from a university with a Beyonce appreciation society. SOAS meanwhile banned the Egyptian feminist Mona El-Tahawy, and there have been repeated bans on Kurdish fighters and their comrades describing the war against that bastion of progressive and feminist values – Islamic State.

Last year, to cite the most notorious, University College London's Kurdish Society organised a seminar to discuss the Kurdish militia and their fight against Islamic State. One of the invited speakers was ex-UCL student Macer Gifford, who fought with the Kurds in Syria. The student union decided to No Platform him, concerned that 'in every conflict there are two sides, and at UCLU we want to avoid taking sides in conflicts'. Clearly they missed the irony in that statement, since UCLU routinely takes sides in their Union Policy, the most recent example condemning airstrikes in Syria, and in the past they’ve held votes on the situation in Gaza.

A student at Goldsmith reported it was just as bad there.

In the relatively short time since I established our atheist, secularist and humanist society, I have encountered a number of obstacles and flagrant attempts to suppress our right to freely express our views. From the outset, when I met to discuss the societies approval with the SU I was ‘encouraged’ to not do anything that might in the most minimal sense cause offence to any religious group. The SU officer, referencing the LSE Jesus and Mohammed cartoon row suggested not doing anything which might provoke similar hostility. 

It was Goldsmith's of course that saw the infamous attempt by Islamists to shout down the ex-Muslim human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, which became a national story. It is still worth dwelling on. A woman who has fled from theocracy and campaigns for the rights of women everywhere, is shouted down by a clerical mob whose supporters think it 'progressive'.

I could go on, and indeed the report does go on. But the depressing picture should be clear by now.

As I said earlier, by far the greatest restrictions on free speech Western societies suffer come in the workplace. You could argue that the collapse of intellectual freedom in the universities does not matter, and is just used by the right to damn the worst of the left.

Perhaps it is, but it needs taking seriously for two reasons

The idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing. This is a profoundly conservative development. The only people I can imagine welcoming it is the type of hard-headed businessman who says the point of education is to train the young to work not argue.

Then there is the question of what will happen to all these barking martinets when they leave and join the establishment. Whatever poses they strike now, we will find that they fit in all too snugly.

As I have written before

The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities which teach that free debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a free one.