Are Freedom and Tolerance British values.? If so shouldn’t we protect them in our universities?

One wonders whether   the West’s loss of faith in its own values has led to various attacks on free speech and greater intolerance. It cant have escaped anyone’s notice that a section of motivated and  well organised  students in some of  our universities are seeking to ban speakers whose views are regarded as extreme or  offensive to them. .Students are  cultivating the art of being offended before really  knowing beforehand what is actually going to offend them. They are developing a robust view that their sensitivities and sensibilities are of paramount importance. Indeed their ‘ right’  not to be  offended trumps any rights to freedom of thought expression and speech. In this bonkers world if a speaker holds views that you regard as offensive and/or extreme you have a right not only to be offended but to ban  that speaker from campus  and more, to  prevent them from  speaking at all  , denying them a public platform .  One has grounds for wondering whether these students know what universities are for. Why, such widespread intolerance is more evident  now, than ever before,  is hard to fathom. Certainly the  social media  buttresses  self-absorption and narcissm in some individuals , and also puts them  more easily in touch with like -minded  fellow travellers , but why  the scale of such intolerance, and why now?

Universities, of course, were established in the first place to foment intellectual inquiry  and discourse ,  bastions of free speech and  the dialectic, encouraging the free flow of ideas information debate  and argument, championing tolerance and the values  of the Enlightenment.

WB Yeats reminded us in the Second Coming that ‘ The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ And one wonders whether those in charge of our universities lack all conviction.  Certainly the response of universities to this new threat appears hesitant at best, and supine at worst.  It was Spinoza who said in a free state, every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.” (Spinoza is himself quoting a passage from Tacitus – “the rare happiness of times when you can think what you like and say what you think” But one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that some of  our University campuses have become seed beds  of intolerance, dictating what we can and can’t  think or say.(an increasing problem in the States too)

Does upholding Free speech in our universities mean that everyone should be allowed to say whatever they like? No, of course not . Freedoms are never absolute they are always qualified. (not least by laws) So Freedom of Speech is not unrestricted. There comes with it responsibility- for example if you incite  violence, hatred ,  racial insults etc   you will be prosecuted.  And quite right too. But the default position must be overarching tolerance ,and only exceptionally should one limit or qualify  freedom of speech. The balance seems to have shifted though in the opposite direction

Dr Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent,  writes ‘The biggest threat to academic freedom today is neither students nor government policy but the reluctance of academics to defend universities as places of intellectual dissent where diverse views are heard and robustly debated. Higher education should teach students how to think and not what to think.’

The ancient Greeks understood the importance of the dialectic –that is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. This should be a central pillar   to any good education, budding  in schools, then  flowering in a blaze of colour  at university.  Its time for academe to wake up to the threat this represents not just to our values but to the reputation and integrity of our universities.



Have a look at Martin Robinsons book The Trivium


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