‘Free speech not hate speech’. Another snappy slogan from the vociferous, placard-bearing Left. But as noted by many critics of the postmodern inquisition, the supposed guardians of tolerance do not clearly define the thing they confront (or should I say hate). Campus censors are good at finding words or opinions that offend, but less proficient in presenting a logical principle to justify sacrificing basic freedoms. What exactly is hate crime?
Readers of two recent publications on hate crime will be none the wiser. Exhibit A is in the latest Time magazine, where Katy Steinmetz describes the fear and trauma of students at the receiving end of insensitive or offensive remarks. It is a sign of the times that Steinmetz uses the word ‘yet’ in this sentence: ‘Universities have been at the vanguard of civil rights, yet few values are more important than the free exchange of ideas.’
A Cornell student is quoted: ‘Free speech is speech that is not aimed to hurt’. But who judges this? Jordan Peterson, the vastly popular Canadian scholar who refused to accept gender-fluid pronouns imposed by his university, certainly does not set out to insult people. But he has been accused of hate speech. As has psychologist James Caspian, a gay advocate of transsexual rights who was blocked by Bath Spa University’s ethics committee from studying people with regrets about changing sex. As Caspian found, a woman becoming a man is honoured, but for that same person to wish to revert is anathema. Scientific enquiry or reasoned argument may be intended to enhance understanding, but are not permissible if they encroach on taboo territory.
Exhibit B is ROAR, the King’s College London Student Union bulletin. There are two articles on the topic: one a fairly nuanced commentary by Philippa Knipe, which poses an unanswered question: ‘How can hate crime be pinned down?’ The second is a tirade against a widely-reported comment by Oxford University vice-chancellor Louise Richardson, who said that her job is not to make students feel comfortable. Ouch! The writer’s lesson in identity politics ends by urging institutional protection: ‘In a space as formative as university, we have to ensure that those with positions of power work to carve out safe spaces, not as a luxury, but a requirement.’
Disturbingly, the demand is not merely for rooms set aside as a sanctuary for particular groups of students. No – the entire university environment should provide immunity from criticism or ‘micro-aggressions’. The article, with its cumbersome title ‘Universities must define comfort versus outright defence’, betrays the current undermining of the true purpose of academe. Apparently few students are aware of John Henry Newman’s classic treatise on liberal education, The Idea of the University. Today, students seek freedom from speech; they would prefer to avoid hearing different opinions from their own. Certain beliefs or rights are simply not negotiable, regardless of majority views. Indeed, as polling indicates, the fundamental value of democracy is no longer appreciated by the younger generation.
Lacking logical coherence, student commissars display double standards. Sweeping statements about homosexuality are unacceptable (while heterosexual males are carriers of ‘toxic masculinity’); a Muslim must never be questioned on her faith (while Christians are fair game). The argument is that marginalised groups should be protected, while the traditionally powerful deserve their come-uppance. Young people are thus encouraged to identify with a group bestowed with special status.
In the past, Left-wing politics shouted for minority rights, but the supposedly disadvantaged identity groups now account for the majority of the student populace. Count up the female, BME and LGBT individuals and compare with a decreasing number of white, heterosexual males. It seems that having fewer men has had an inverse effect on allegations of sexual misconduct, while charges of racism have risen as the white British proportion has fallen. Perhaps the feminisation of universities has given young women more voice, but in keeping the white male as the target of opprobrium, student politics has made every day the Fifth of November – burning a straw man.
So let us understand hate speech for what it is: an aggressive pursuit of power. Steinmetz states that students in American universities are becoming more liberal, when they are actually oppressing people, as illustrated by violent demonstrations against libertarian speakers. The censors argue that free speech harms people, but their own behaviour crudely dehumanises opponents. A critic is not simply wrong, but morally debased. Banish them! Reason has no currency; victim groups claim inviolable rights to emotional sanctity.
Jean-Paul Sartre, while he might have approved of the ascendant cultural Marxism on campus, would have seen that students have taken a wrong turning. Hate crime is an example of ‘bad faith’, whereby people deny their agency and blame their responses on others. Hysterical reactions on social media: Trump/Milo/a Daily Mail headline made them do it. We deny our freedom, Sartre said, to avoid the burden of responsibility. But free will depends on consciousness of choice, not sheltering in the collectivism of identity politics.
I know that some students read my Conservative Woman articles, possibly for the same reason I read Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. My appeal to you is to liberate yourselves from group-think. However much you disagree with what they say, admire those few peers with the courage to differ from prevailing opinion. The concept of free speech is tarnished in the minds of your student union representatives, but you can help to rescue it. That entails a difficult realisation that ‘free speech but’ is not free speech at all. As the ratchet of censorship tightens, I hope some of you will become the vanguard in the battle for liberty.