By: Matt Gore and Leo McGrath
Special to SeeThruEdu
For our parents’ generation, Universities were feared for their political radicalism. Senator McCarthy saw Reds under every student bed. The same reaction today seems almost laughable. When did Western universities become such breeding-grounds of lily-livered, sanctimonious conformists? In both the US and the UK, as across the Western world, students are being told to keep their opinions to themselves. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in France last month, the issue of free speech has become a more prominent political issue. It is the depressing state of affairs that the West has fallen into a rut of astonishing complacency about the freedoms we profess to enjoy. And nowhere is this more apparent than in our universities, where censorship, and not free debate, has become the norm.
Having been students at Oxford University for little more than three months, we have seen numerous examples of shocking censorship on campus. A debate on “the culture of abortion,” hosted by the group, Oxford Students For Life, was forced to be cancelled by a militant opposition who were offended at the mere prospect of hearing a contrary view. Such was their bile that the hosts chose to cancel based on fears for their property and the safety of those with enough intellectual confidence to attend. This incident is indicative of a wider cultural cancer: the inability of people to accept that there are those who disagree with them. Such a culture of mob-censorship is anathema to the principles upon which Western society has prided itself. We as a generation need to speak out against the creeping Orwellian groupthink that characterizes modern political discourse.
Just last week, the University Student Government threatened the Oxford Union Debating Society for inviting controversial French right-wing politician, Marine Le Pen, to address students. This is the same Society that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called “the last bastion of free speech in the western world.” Founded in 1823, the Union has held debates that deeply affected British politics, played host to some of the brightest minds in the world, and produced British Prime Ministers too numerous to count.
In response to the talk by Le Pen, the student government stated, “Freedom of speech includes the right of everyone to protest, but not the right of fascists to a platform for their ideas.” Their reasoning is as poor as their grammar. It demonstrates a callous disregard for the principles that both of the Debating Union and the University hold most dear: the free exchange of ideas.
Earlier that same week, the online magazine, Spiked, charged that Oxford “has banned and actively censored ideas on campus.” The squelching of freedom of speech is the result of a dangerous new ideology. Many students believe that offending someone is the same as oppressing them. Arguing that the culture of abortion harms Great Britain or that immigration should be limited would no doubt offend some people. But according to one Oxford student, being offensive is tantamount to jeopardizing “the well-being of students and basic social justice.” No, that was not a misprint; they believe offending people is harming their well-being and violating the norms of social justice. Similarly, the Oxford Student Government condemned Le Pen’s invitation to speak on grounds that it would “be upsetting” to many students, especially members of “marginalized groups.” Ideas that could be upsetting to “marginalized” people are not welcome on campus, and thus are fair game for the censor’s witch hunt.
We suggest that all universities adopt a modified version of Parliamentary Privilege. This principle guarantees the sanctity of Parliamentary debate by protecting Members of Parliament from those who would silence them. Western Universities should mirror this culture of openness and intellectual freedom. But it is not just down to the universities. Students must realize that the greatest threat of all is censoring ideas. Even if you disagree with them.