Saturday, 10 January 2015

Please read Brendan O’Neill on the rise of The Stepford Students in The Spectator

The Christ’s College Debating Society (1971-74) held a raucous dinner every term, but only managed to host one actual debate during the two-and-a-bit years of its existence. I can’t now remember the exact subject – something to do with immigration – but I do remember that one of the invited speakers was a Mosleyite fascist (I was convinced that he was a member of the British Union Movement, but, on reflection I doubt anyone would have chosen that particular acronym for their organisation). The only things I can clearly remember about that evening were that the elderly fascist was on the whole listened to in semi-respectful silence (with a few cat-calls thrown in), that the pro-immigrationists won handsomely, that nobody died, and that - despite having come into contact with the forces of pure evil - we didn’t all don white hoods preparatory to burning a cross on the Senate House lawn. Of course, such a debate couldn’t take place in any British university today.

Were we justified in inviting a fascist to speak? Well, yes, I think so. He definitely wanted most immigrants to be sent “back where they came from”, but I’m pretty sure  that he didn’t advocate violence. What this quietly-spoken with which working-class Northerner did was put a case for a policy the overwhelming majority of those present didn’t agree. The only speaker who got a bit hysterical and stooped to personal insult and misrepresentation of his opponent's position was a fiercely bright economics post-graduate Labour supporter (last I heard, he was a Tory councillor). Although I can’t recall a word that was spoken that night, I do remember vaguely thinking at the time that a country in which such a debate could take place in a such a relatively unrancorous atmosphere had to be pretty damned civilised.

I'm certain that none of us felt scared that we’d be polluted by coming into contact with illiberal views, or that we had any right not to have our adolescent political assumptions questioned, or that anyone we didn’t agree with should be automatically silenced. What in God’s name would be the point of attending university with a mind already closed to contrary opinions? True, unformed minds are prey to unscrupulous extremists and nutters (hence the rampant Islamification taking place in schools, colleges and prisons) – but that’s another good reason for tolerating an intellectual free-for-all, where every form of opinion can be expressed and attacked in the strongest possible terms. Universities don’t exist to churn out intellectual cowards who all think the same “correct” way and who run around shrieking “Kill the monster!” whenever faced with an opinion which doesn't compute. Universities exist to turn out civilised, rational adults who can bloody well think for themselves – not craven conformists who automatically assume that anyone who questions gay marriage or abortion on demand or the benefits of unchecked immigration or whether islam really is a religion of peace is demonic.

I don’t know why I’m wasting your time talking about this, when Brendan O’Neill does it much better in the current Spectator. He and Tim Stanley were due to debate abortion at Christ Church, Oxford. In the face of protests from the usual liberal fascist suspects, the college (shame on them!) cancelled the event. Here’s an extract from O’Neill’s excellent article:
If your go-to image of a student is someone who’s free-spirited and open-minded, who loves having a pop at orthodoxies, then you urgently need to update your mind’s picture bank. Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It’s hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have. From freewheelin’ to ban-happy, from askers of awkward questions to suppressors of offensive speech, in the space of a generation... I’ve been jeered at by students at the University of Cork for criticising gay marriage; cornered and branded a ‘denier’ by students at University College London for suggesting industrial development in Africa should take precedence over combating climate change; lambasted by students at Cambridge… for saying it’s bad to boycott Israeli goods. In each case, it wasn’t the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming — disagreement is great! — it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas.
Where once students might have allowed their eyes and ears to be bombarded by everything from risqué political propaganda to raunchy rock, now they insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and, crime of crimes, make them feel ‘uncomfortable’. Student groups insist that online articles should have ‘trigger warnings’ in case their subject matter might cause offence (my italics).

While I have no direct experience of modern universities, I know from speaking to current undergraduates that questioning certain “givens” (gay marriage being the most prominent) leads to instant ostracism. The only heartening news is that right-wing economic views – including support for free markets and scepticism regarding the welfare state - can now apparently be expressed freely. Apparentyly Mrs. Thatcher didn't reign entirely in vain.

You can read the whole of Brendan O’Neill’s article here.


  1. Excellent post, Scott. Here in Paris this afternoon, there seems no shortage of young people who value the right to take a pop at orthodoxies and have got out of bed to say so.

    1. Damn, you get around, ex-KCS!

      I expect our brave students would have been similarly active if it had been an anti-Tory cuts demonstration with coaches laid on by the NUS - and if it had taken place on a weekday when they should have been at lectures - with free beer provided, of course - and if it didn't start too early.

  2. I remember many years ago visiting a rather rough pub in east London. Written on the wall of the gents was some fairly foul racist graffiti. I can't now recall exactly what was written, but I do remember the response written in another hand underneath. We're all familiar with it (attributed to Voltaire, I think). "I disagree with everything you have said but will defend to the death your right to say it." or words very similar. That used to be something of a liberal motto in those dim and distant days. No more. The modern liberal doesn't want you saying, writing or even thinking anything he doesn't consider is appropriate. The most illiberal people I now know are those who purport to be liberals.

    1. The American conservative writer Jonah Goldberg says that liberal students (is there any other kind?) are always coming up to him after he's spoken on college campuses and giving him the Voltaire quote: "They're obviously lying. They wouldn't take a bullet for me. And it's always after the speech , so who gives rat's ass?" Spot on.

      His remarks are from an excellent video interview here:

  3. This sort of Oxonian intolerance is not, of course, new. Back in February 1986, the Conservative MP and Monday Club member, John Carlisle, was prevented from speaking about the Government's policy of engagement with the South African regime and manhandled out of Oriel college.

    Carlisle and his party retreated to a private room at a nearby restaurant and were followed and attacked again by a group of students, many of whom claimed membership of the Socialist Workers Party. The Daily Mail reported that the "protesters" were around forty in number, a reduction from the original 200 or so in Oriel College's environs.

    Yet another 'Alas Poor Yorick' moment for freedom of speech in what used to the academic centrepiece of English civilisation.