The 2017 British University Free Speech Rankings, published by spiked-online.com, depressingly show that every one of the 24 leading research universities in the Russell Group is either actively censoring ideas on campus or chilling free speech through intervention. Inevitably, Christians are among the silenced: last month, the junior common room at Balliol College, Oxford, banned the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair, citing the possible “harm” their presence could do to newly arrived undergraduates.
To pro-life students, who are disproportionately likely to be Christian believers, this will have a familiar ring. “It would make me feel threatened in my own university,” complained the Oxford student who led the 2014 campaign to prevent the Catholic Herald contributing editor Tim Stanley discussing abortion at Christ Church.
The sheer terror provoked by pro-life speakers has grown so strong among students from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and those attending the University of Auckland in New Zealand that both have banned pro-life organisations altogether. The Strathclyde students defended the move by saying that anti-abortion activists elsewhere had been known to stand outside abortion clinics demonstrating and that disturbing images of them doing so could be evoked in the minds of Strathclyde students, thus posing a threat to the body-autonomy of “people with uteruses”. (This last, scrupulously careful, verbal formulation takes pains to include people who no longer identify as women, but who might nevertheless want an abortion at some future stage.)
When the great assault on free speech in the universities first began, many commentators put it down to a lack of moral fibre among the young. “Generation Snowflake”, they said, lacked the resilience required for a robust exchange of views. Undergraduates, right across the English-speaking world, were too weak and weedy to face up to controversy. There was a deficit of grit.
I think there is a deeper explanation, which I’ll come to. But there is no doubt that students, academics and visiting speakers have had to walk as if on eggshells, particularly when they stray on to the territory of identity politics: race, sexual orientation and, more recently, transgender issues. If we do not observe the standard pieties, we are told, we risk inflicting real psychic pain on vulnerable young people.
Thus, many student groups have demanded “safe spaces” where the psychologically feeble could be guaranteed they would not be traumatised by being exposed to opinions or attitudes at odds with their own. But these spaces are safe only for some, as one Edinburgh student found out when she was threatened with sanctions for the previously unheard of offence of silently shaking her head in disagreement at a speaker’s point.
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