Universities are about the communal examination of ideas
There is a new intolerance that is sweeping higher education in the US and UK. Its an intolerance of words, ideas and images. Andrew Anthony expressed it thus “ a zealous form of cultural policing that relies on accusatory rhetoric and a righteous desire to censor history, literature, politics and culture.” A new vernacular is developing around this of ‘Safe Spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and ‘ trigger warnings ‘. Worryingly, many universities, rather than defending freedom of speech and expression are doing the opposite. Allowing a new culture of censorship to develop.
Research by online magazine Spiked, shows that 80% of universities, as a result of their official policies and actions, to have either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus, beyond the requirements of the law. However, it transpires Students’ own representative bodies are far more censorious than the universities themselves.
An obsession with protecting people’s feelings has, over time, begun to trump other values. Including it seems the values of the Enlightenment and the exercise of dispassionate, secular reason, on which the foundations of world class universities were built. This seems to have combined with social Medias considerable capacity to give currency, organisation, effect, and faux credibility to minority radical views. (There is scant evidence that a majority of students sympathise with these views-an HEPI poll for example this year found a majority of undergraduates agreeing that universities should never limit free speech )
But there is a push back underway. Earlier this year ,Professor Louise Richardson, Oxfords Vice Chancellor said : “We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable about and what it is about those ideas that they object to. And then to have the practice of framing a response and using reason to counter these objectionable ideas and to try to change the other person’s mind and to be open to having their own minds changed. “That’s quite the opposite of the tendency towards safe spaces and I hope that universities will continue to defend the imperative of allowing even objectionable ideas to be spoken.” (Daily Telegraph 16 Jan 2016)
More recently in a speech at Melbourne University (14 September Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Foundation Lecture)- Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, offered a robust defence of free speech on campus. She said “Universities are about the communal examination of ideas”. Adding that “ As the next generation of intellectuals, while you have a duty to test and critique the boundaries of scholarship, you also have a duty to ensure respect for others as these boundaries are tested. The debate will only ever be as good as the space it is given. Argument and disagreement are all part of the course to finding solutions. It is only through the interplay of constructive and engaged examination, that we can progress in our understanding and knowledge of the world. As leaders in higher education – the key sector of society which provides such space across the world. I feel we have a duty to preserve and protect free speech. It is a duty I hold dear.”
But as Lady Amos points out ,as others have her before her “ it must also be recognised that these rights are not absolute – these are rights that need to be exercised with due regard for others – with respect.”
When universities stop being about confronting new and challenging, perhaps even dangerous, ideas, and instead become self-censoring spaces in which students are protected from ideas that might offend , and in which acceptable views, and speakers, are defined ( by a self-appointed illiberal elite), , and others banned, not only the pursuit of truth is imperiled but the very purpose of universities is undermined.