I am in Australia, travelling in the parts where its citizens are known for their relaxed attitudes and open minds. Here a political party called The Sex Party, had its leader – formerly involved in prostitution – elected to the Legislative Council in Victoria. It stood for legalised euthanasia, prostitution, hard drugs, and “putting personal freedom and respect for human rights at the centre of its political philosophy”. Now rebranded The Reason Party, it will stand for re-election on an anti-censorship ticket.
But such liberal values and attitudes are rather lacking within the universities here, which seem to be rife with restrictive practices.
Only the other night, a conference I was presenting on one campus, which focused on sexual exploitation towards women and children, was stormed by a group of campaigners. They were shouting “Blow Jobs Are Real Jobs” in protest at the position taken by speakers such as myself that prostitution is harmful to all women. I didn’t mind that in the slightest. I am all for protest and free-speech. My problem was with the university’s response.
Rather than seeing such protests as an inevitable consequence of today’s combative style of healthy debate, the university decided that our next event would be moved off-campus in order to “protect the students”. Protecting students from what exactly? Learning that there is more than one opinion on matters such as prostitution, feminism, and the like?
Alas, this is far from an isolated incident. As Peter Franklin’s thoughtful series, Open vs Closed, has pointed out, there is a growing tendency in places of learning and academia, which you would expect to be open-minded, to be Closed to ideas to which they are opposed – and there is an increasing inclination to no-platform certain opinions.
This trend is not restricted to Australia. It’s one I am far too familiar with the world over. In 2013, to take only one example, I was disinvited from a debate in a UK University on pornography (the pornographer was not) when the elected transgender representative of its LGBTQ Society argued that it was wrong to give a platform to someone with “a track record of transphobia during Welcome Week, when making all students feel safe and included is particularly important”.
My crime? An article written in 2004 in which I argued that men who identify as women are not suitable to counsel rape victims. I wasn’t allowed to even state my case.
On countless other times I have been invited to address students – including post-graduates – at British universities only to be stood down when management decide that they cannot ‘guarantee’ the ‘safety’ of students. Heaven forbid any of the little darlings experience trauma as a result of my presence.
Lecturers at one American university even set up a ‘safe room’ for students when I took part in a debate with the alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos about feminism. This room, outside of the sight and hearing of students, was, so I heard, stocked with soft toys, ‘relaxation music’ and there were counsellors on hand ready to intervene if the upset of having our alien views on campus became too much to bear.
Who’s to blame for this “drawbridge up” attitude? On a book tour around Texas last year, fresh from my London launch at which the (non-academic) venue was filled to capacity with 400 attendees, an independent Catholic college that prides itself of being ‘open-minded and progressive’ cancelled my appearance with less than 24-hours notice. The academic in charge of the event told me, by email, that he had a “duty of care” to the students.
Not one student, the academic admitted, had read my 2004 article, but they had heard I was transphobic. If he had been honest, he would have admitted that he dares not risk any views perceived as controversial on campus.
It’s depressing enough to learn that the ‘snowflake’, cosmopolitan students aren’t as open-minded as they like to think they are – their tolerance extends only to view-points they agree with. But to know that the academics, the people who are supposed to charge these places with their intellectual energy, feel that it is legitimate to shut down certain points of view is worse. They are supposed to be Open to challenging ideas. But reluctant to venture beyond their own ideological comfort zone, they are, instead, closing young minds.
Bristol University student union recently proposed a policy to ban any feminist who refuses to accept that trans women are actual women. The policy was drawn up after a major kerfuffle was caused when a group of women organised an event to discuss controversial proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. They were met with blockades, pickets and major disruption by trans activists and allies, including local university students.
Later, when news that disciplinary procedures had been initiated against a PhD student involved who attempted to stop the group from meeting, an open letter to Bristol University Vice Chancellorwas signed by numerous senior academics protesting the assault on this particular student’s ‘freedom of speech’.
So there we have it – major support from spineless academics for a student who did their level best to prevent a women’s group from being able to speak out and address the 100-plus citizens who wished to hear both sides. It’s Orwellian, hypocritical, and Closed. It’s all part of a pattern which includes the pandering to the Rhodes Must Fall mob and the no-platforming of Theresa May’s portrait.
Once, universities were places where unpopular views – from either Left or Right – were welcomed and challenged. Today, the left-leaning ideologues steering these supposed bastions of learning aren’t just set against conservative soft–right views, but also those of radical feminists such as myself. Prejudices are reinforced by curricula and differing opinion silenced by the drawing up of the drawbridges.
It is to our great shame that universities are becoming such Closed, ideological echo chambers – places were students will tolerate you only if you think like them.
Where do we go from here? How do we break down the walls of their ‘safe spaces’? I would never advocate blanket freedom of speech, and I do recognise that some speech can be incitement to criminal activity. But I do believe we need to stop encouraging or accepting those Closed prejudices so prevalent on university campuses, which are inculcated and inflamed by the academics. This enforced ignorance is taking our kids in the wrong direction. It is anti-intellectual, anti-progress and anti-democratic. I despair.