People ought to be able to have a debate on any issue they damn well please
Wrong ideas are crimes committed against future generations and should therefore be punished like other crimes. That, if you like, is the totalitarian creed defined. If you are convinced you have right on your side you will grant yourself permission to trample underfoot like a rotten apple anyone who stands in your way.
While the communist dream has been consigned to Leon Trotsky’s dustbin of history, the tendency on the left towards suppressing unpleasant things lives on. This has been in evidence this week when shutting down, silencing or banning things has reached an apogee. Or to put it another way, we have reached peak authoritarian left: disagree with anything thought to be in the public good and you are liable to become a hate figure.
In contrast to the stuffy Stalinist bureaucrats of the past, the new purveyors of intolerance are young and highly educated. Those meant to be the most enlightened are in fact the most afraid of any ‘offensive’ or, dare I say it, dangerous opinion.
So this week students at Goldsmiths University voted to ban the creepy Socialist Workers’ Party along with its affiliate student society. They also decided to burn the cult’s literature outside the student union – in the upside down world of student politics book and newspaper burning is a hallmark of enlightenment.
Put simply, holding the SWP to account for its rape apologism ought to be de rigueur for any civilised person. But aside from any attempt, if possible, to prosecute those involved in alleged sexual assaults, what happened to simply having a better argument? And how hard is it, really, to match someone who genuinely believes the glorious Revolution is just one newspaper sale away? Women really do deserve protection from sexual violence on campus; but they aren’t delicate little flowers: much like men they don’t get a ‘safe space’ from offensive opinions.
A penchant for silencing debate rather than engaging in it has been on display elsewhere this week. On Tuesday the plug was pulled on a debate between Telegraph writers Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley at Oxford University after protesters took umbrage with the fact that two ‘cisgender men’ were given a platform to debate a question that relates solely to the reproductive organs of women. A reasonable reason not to attend the debate perhaps; but hardly justification for silencing any discussion by thuggishly threatening to disrupt it with ‘instruments’.
In our mollycoddled and politically correct culture it may sound revolutionary, but people ought to be able to have a debate on any issue they damn well please – it may in fact surprise you just how well women and other oppressed groups actually handle it. But this is where identity politics has now led us: to the assumption that an opinion is only valid if the issue in question directly affects the person making the argument. Every sentence must begin with the thought-terminating words ‘Speaking as a…’ and it no longer matters what you think – far more important is what you are, as if this were in itself an achievement.
Once upon a time the left accepted a universalism which believed in the moral equality of all people. Today identity politics puts people into restrictive boxes based on the colour of their skin or what happens to be between their legs. Inverse prejudice pervades everything, with women and ethnic minorities relegated to group clichés without individual agency.
Yet underneath all the pseudo-progressive verbiage about ‘privilege’ lies the old elitist assumption about the censor having a better idea of what is ‘appropriate’ than the reader or the listener. The students of Goldsmiths may delight in torching the literature of the Socialist Workers’ Party, but they’ve adopted the totalitarian mindset of the Trotskyist vanguard they profess to despise: that they – and only they – are in possession of the truth.
And this gets to the crux of any defence of free expression: not only do bien pensant students have no right to silence anyone, but they have no right to prevent an audience from listening. And besides, being correct in any argument is never the end of it. As John Stuart Mill put it, even if an entire society agrees on the essential truth of an argument this heightens the importance of listening to the single heretic: we will still learn something, not least how we got to our own position in the first place.
Censorship eats away at a society like a termite infestation: it goes unnoticed until one day the house falls down. The real problem isn’t that people are ‘abusing free speech’ (whatever that means), it’s that a generation of highly educated young people only want to defend the rights of people like themselves who have opinions that resemble their own. No open and liberal society can function like that, and it doesn’t take an education at an elite university to recognise what a dire week it’s been for free expression.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter