University can be a frustrating time for those of us who support freedom of speech. Inspired by our pursuit of intellect, we had been enamoured by visions of our student years featuring mighty meetings of the mind in oak-panelled halls, as battle was waged between the preeminent ideas of our time. This, however, may characterise our parents’ era more accurately than our own: what we got was rather different. But why is nobody talking about it?
The university environment can be a toxic one. The prospect of several thousand bright-eyed youngsters crammed together with largely homogenous political views; finally unshackled from the sheltered uniformity of living at home; eager to fly the nest and define themselves, can be daunting for those of us who don’t conform to whatever particular political views are ‘trending’. This became apparent to me at the beginning of my first year of university. There was a seminar discussion regarding whether David Cameron ought to authorise reparations to the people of Jamaica for the harm caused by our colonialist policies. I firmly took the position that it was acceptable for the Jamaicans to ask for an apology on behalf of the perpetrators, but that demanding material compensation was little more than a shakedown disguised as diplomacy. After all, Cameron and his wonderfully lustrous forehead hadn’t even been conceived until after Jamaica had become an independent nation-state. I was of the view that, although colonialism is a dreadful chapter in our history, the sons should not be blamed for the sins of the fathers, and certainly not at cost to the British taxpayer. After making this perfectly reasonable point, I looked at the girl sitting next to me to see her glowering in my direction. To my utter bewilderment, she then declared, “I can’t believe you said that, that’s racist”, to which a number of students nodded their heads so vigorously I was genuinely concerned about whiplash. That moment has always stuck with me and it was probably a fear of that embarrassment repeating itself, albeit this time with a multitude of emboldened keyboard warriors, which caused my hesitation.
Surely it isn’t right that politically-interested students should have concerns about espousing perfectly reasonable opinions for fear of being labelled as a racist, bigot or chauvinist. Yet, time and time again, I’ve seen supporters of new-old Labour (or whatever Jezza and his loyal mob of hard-left liberals are calling themselves) conflate conservatism with these totally inappropriate epithets. This problem is most concentrated on university campuses, where the aforementioned mob is so confident and numerous. The so-called ‘safe spaces’ which many universities are championing only exacerbate the problem. Their aim is to prevent minorities from being offended, and the cost is any chance at innovation and the creation of a free-market of ideas. The main effect they’re going to have is to force students to reconsider contributing to the discussions that take place within them, owing to the potential for institutional discipline should a student take ‘offence’ (a term so subjective as to tarnish a plethora of rational opinions). Do we want an educational system that enshrines originality or one that churns out reticent robots? Society can only benefit from allowing controversial opinions to be aired. Engaging in informed and stimulating debate is the best way to discover the truth of a matter – that’s a Millian concept and it appears to be one that society still hasn’t grasped 150 years after his passing. By allowing those with truly ridiculous ideas such as holocaust denial (which is banned in no less than 14 European nations) to air them in public, we can affirm the rightness of our opposing view and at the same time ensure that those encouraging ideas that are truly racist or chauvinistic discredit themselves and their viewpoint. Continuing to use those who deny that a genocide ever took place in WW2 as an example, by banning it or pushing it underground you create groups of conspiracy theorists. I think it better to let them make fools of themselves out in the open.
For all its faults, this is something America excels at. There’s a lot of animosity towards the Constitution; specifically for how difficult it is to remove the right of gun-toting Texans to fire automatic weapons at will because of it. The obstinacy of the Constitution may well be its greatest weakness, but it’s often forgotten that the same quality is also where the biggest strength of the grand old document lies. The 1st Amendment ensures that free speech and liberty can never be compromised, and this makes America something of an outlier in the West. Where most European countries have varying degrees of restriction on free speech, Americans correctly place it on a pedestal and are loathe to allow their Government to dictate how free they are to speak their mind.
By banning it or pushing it underground you create groups of conspiracy theorists. I think it better to let them make fools of themselves out in the open
I should clarify that there must be some limits to this ideology. Inciting violence, for example, has no place in a civilised society. It should be fairly simple to construct a set of laws which prohibit that sort of speech, but at the same time do not infringe upon the freedom to hold opinions. At the end of the day, the role of the state is to protect its citizens and their liberties, not to pander to various groups who feel offended.
It is unfathomable to me that people are vilified simply for exercising what should be a basic democratic right. Take the recent case of Jordan Peterson, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Toronto. He recently released a video objecting to Government bill C-16, a flawed bill that sought to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity. He specifically stated that his opposition to the bill had nothing to do with the debate over LGBT rights, and everything to do with the implications for freedom of speech. The bill is currently traversing the Parliamentary process, and if successful, it will open employees and organisations up to punishment for being directly or indirectly ‘offensive’. Perhaps you can see the problem with it now. The cost of allowing people to have bathrooms that match their identity is a wall of silence; everyone will be so scared to speak their mind lest it be construed as offensive to someone. This is a slippery slope indeed. Dr. Peterson has been the subject of much controversy, having been called ‘prejudiced’ and ‘transphobic’ simply for believing in the idea of free speech. Of course, it matters not to the mob of self-righteous students currently harassing him that his rejection of the bill had nothing to do with the LGBT debate in the first place; all that matters is that he is silenced.
It matters not whether you agree with Dr. Peterson, or any of the other victims of this spoilt, censorious minority: it is only by defending his intellectual freedom, and that of others you disagree with, that you can guarantee your own; his harassers are part of a movement that wages war not on individual ideas, but on idea itself. Unless we tolerant majority find a voice soon, we may find it confiscated from us, as our ability to speak freely continues to die a slow death.