Brendan O’Neill

University challenge | 24 August 2017

Universities are now factories of conformism; only the brave and resilient will survive them

University challenge | 24 August 2017
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In a few weeks, a new intake of students will arrive, all fresh-faced and excited, at universities around the country. They’ll be thrilled at the prospect of escaping the wagging finger of mum and dad, eager to absorb new ideas. But I’m afraid they are in for a rude awakening. Unless they’re very fortunate, they will soon find themselves enveloped in a world that’s more censorious than stimulating and taught not to question ideas but to learn by heart the progressive creed. It will take a brave and resilient youngster to survive university with their intellectual curiosity intact.

Every aspect of campus life, from what you can say to how you should party, is minutely policed by what I called the Stepford Students in this magazine three years ago. ‘No Platform’ policies strictly govern who can speak on campus. Anybody, no matter what their political background or supposedly liberal credentials, can find themselves shunted off campus for having the wrong opinion in the eyes of the Stasi of student politics.

‘Safe Spaces’, controversy-free zones where students who find the real world brutalising can weep and hug ‘emotional support animals’ (this is not a joke), are almost compulsory. Newspapers are blacklisted: a growing number of student unions have banned the Sun, Mail and Express on the jumped-up basis that they’re racist and sexist and thus ‘harmful’. In the last academic year, even students at City University in London, famed for its journalism school, slapped a ban on tabloids. A journalism uni where you can’t read popular journalism? Thanks to the youthful jackboots of the National Union of Students, and the lily-livered vice-chancellors who bow down to them, the list of the undoable, unsayable and unthinkable grows longer every year. The adults have gone AWOL.

Any student society whose worldview isn’t a carbon copy of that of the NUS lives under permanent threat of censorship. Israel Society events are shouted down, pro-life groups are denied space at freshers’ fairs. At University College London, a Nietzsche Society was banned for fear it might stoke far-right thinking. Thus Spake the Censor.

The message from student officialdom is relentless: think like us, or else. The result is that university becomes less and less like university. They now resemble factories of conformism, training their student body not to think freely but to fear the eccentric, hide from the provocative, and prize their self-esteem more highly than their intellectual development.

In the three years since The Spectator named these Stepford Students, the situation has become far worse. Campus craziness has intensified. Worse, it has Americanised. Not content with subjecting our dreaming spires to No Platforming and middle-class prejudices about tabloid newspapers and lad culture, these young clones are gaily importing the worst excesses of America’s hysterical campus culture. This is very bad news, because if you look at what is happening on America’s campuses, you get a terrifying insight into the baleful influence that identity politics can have on everyday life and liberty. The trouble is that the ‘safe space’ mentality doesn’t stay contained on campus. Year after graduating year, students who have been trained to see safety as preferable to liberty and difficult questions as wounding to their self-esteem head out into the world, taking their ‘safe space’ mentality with them. Like B-movie blobs, safe spaces are breaking free and now threaten to swallow up public life.

America’s student radicals regularly punish speakers they disagree with. Student agitators at Brandeis University managed to cancel an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the basis that she’s ‘Islamophobic’. Earlier this year, students at Middlebury College in Vermont physically assaulted an academic who was trying to protect Charles Murray, an invited speaker they considered racist. ‘Antifa’ activists and students at Berkeley started fires to prevent the alt-right Brit provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. Berkeley was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, when students demanded more debate, not less. The anti-Milo protesters even burnt a replica of the simple banner reading ‘Free Speech’.

Our own student leaders assume their peers are morally feeble and must be protected from sore words or controversy. But in the US, they’ve gone deeper. Campus authoritarianism is darker, more driven by race. It governs not only ideology and opinion, but everyday conversation, and even dress. In the US, the student Stasi furiously condemn ‘cultural appropriation’, which is when a member of one racial group borrows the culture of another. They minutely police interaction between blacks and whites. Watch last year’s video of a black student at San Francisco State University physically confronting a white student with dreadlocks, and threatening to cut off his dreads because ‘that is my culture’, and you’ll see how terrifying this racial myopia can be. Watch the film of Yale students screaming hysterically in the face of a lecturer who had said that people should be able to wear whatever they wanted at Halloween and not worry about cultural insensitivity, and you will see the sheer intolerance that the cult of student sensitivity has unleashed.

Or observe what happened at Evergreen State College in Washington in May. When the biology professor Bret Weinstein refused to take part in a proposed day of racial segregation — a ‘Day of Absence’, students called it, when whites would agree not to turn up to college — all hell broke loose. Student mobs invaded lectures, they demanded Weinstein’s resignation, and they effectively imprisoned university bosses in their offices and refused to let them leave until they agreed to the students’ foul, divisive agenda. This was a step on from Stepford Students — this was Lord of the Flies-style student authoritarianism: menacing youths using mob tactics to enforce their reactionary programme.

Whether we like to admit it or not, in Britain we tend to ape American culture, especially youth culture. And now our students, always on the lookout for new ways to assert their tinpot authority, are beginning to imitate what’s happening across the Atlantic.

This year, Oxford’s equality and diversity unit warned staff that failing to make eye contact with certain students could be construed as racist, and that asking a student about his or her origins is a ‘micro-aggression’ liable to worsen mental ill health. (Oxford then rowed back on this advice on the grounds that it might be seen as discriminatory against people with autism who can’t look others in the eye. Jesus wept.) The NUS has declared war on racial micro-aggressions, which it describes as ‘covert, subtle’ forms of racism. It means everyday banter and blips in conversation that have no racist intent whatsoever but which the union feels must be policed anyhow.

Just as American colleges are under pressure to remove statues of old ‘problematic’ white men, so the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London this year announced it would remove all the portraits and statues of its founders because… well, they’re all white. This historical cleansing of KCL to pre-empt and halt the racial fury of student radicals will of course only intensify student demands for racial correctness. Students want a Cecil Rhodes bust at Oriel College, Oxford, removed, for curricula across the country to be ‘de-colonised’, and for black students not to be expected to read so much ‘white philosophy’. That was in a demand by students at SOAS this year that ‘white philosophers’, including Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, be dropped from the syllabus in order to make black students feel less isolated.

The nasty, paternalistic American politics of racial thinking is imposed wholesale on British campus life — even though Britain’s social history is considerably less blighted by racism than America’s. In the past academic year, Cambridge was slammed by students for serving ‘culturally insensitive’ food (exotic dishes that didn’t properly reflect the countries they claimed to be from); the musical Aida was cancelled at Bristol University following a ‘student revolt’ over white students portraying Egyptian slaves; and Edinburgh University’s self-styled fancy-dress police insisted students mustn’t ever dress up as Pocahontas.

If our censorious students are going to import America’s campus insanity, they need to know that means they will also import its consequences. And those consequences are dire. No one can imagine that it’s a good thing to create a generation unable to stomach things it dislikes or disagrees with. How are they to survive in a pluralistic democracy? It’s vital to be able to hear people out, to have civilised disagreement, to engage in debate, to change your mind.

The ‘safe space’, by guarding students from the disagreeable, is churning out an army of hypersensitive dogmatists. We can see this in the US with the current outburst of statue-smashing. And we can see it in Europe with the alarming revelation that fewer and fewer young people believe in freedom of speech and democracy.

The other consequence of rampant PC in the US has been the rise of Trump. It’s becoming clear that the increasingly unhinged policing of academic, public and political life in the US, as gabbed about on Fox News every night, has generated bemusement and sometimes fury among ordinary people. The ‘safe space’ mentality has created a very unsafe backlash. Americans elected Trump precisely because he seemed to infuriate the bossy left-liberals who are suffocating free speech. And Trump deliberately inflames his voters’ outrage; he champions a new identity politics for the right. Trumpists now exist in large part to annoy the radical left, and the radical left, for its part, lives to infuriate them.

Will this polarised politics arrive here too? We have seen elements of what I call ‘vice-signalling’ Trumpist rhetoric from the contenders for Ukip’s leadership — but so far, mercifully, the British have remained immune. But we should beware: enforce PC and there will inevitably be a revolt against it. A Europe-wide poll this year found that only 46 per cent of Brits aged 18 to 21 think people should be free to ‘say what they want’. And polls of millennials frequently show that they’re more down on democracy than older generations.

This is what happens when we socialise youths to think censorship is good and other people’s opinions are bad, to believe mental safety is better than zany liberty: they lose faith in freedom and democracy. They will leave uni and populate public life with these views. This is how liberty dies.

Im Looking For Mr Alt Right
‘I’m looking for Mr Alt-Right.’ Brendan O’Neill on campus culture.
Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is Spiked's chief politics writer

Topics in this articleSociety