Tuesday, 26 December 2017
The old news that universities have been ‘ordered’ to promote and defend free speech, under threat of sanction from a new higher education regulator, the ‘Office for Students’ (OfStud?), has popped up in the post-Christmas newsbag. This office could, apparently, be gifted powers to fine, suspend or deregister universities if they do not meet this new statutory duty. This is the proposal, anyhow. Back in October universities minister, Jo Johnson, said young people and students need to "accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate".
This sounds, at least on the surface, like ‘a good thing’ but I’m not convinced. Up for discussion also is the notion that universities must not become breeding grounds for racism, islamophobia and any other ism-style ‘hate crime’ you can dream up; and therein lies the problem. One person’s free speech is another man’s hate speech; so who decides what is acceptable? But more disturbing than any of this is the paradigm that the solution to regulation is more regulation; and that this is being lapped up by the right as an antidote to the left. The irony is thick enough to slice.
In a society with true free speech your delicate teen would have been toughened up by exposure to different thinking, different opinions, from an early age. He or she would have seen comedians telling jokes about both left and right and all in between. They may have even witnessed debate and discussions where both sides and the audience were willing to listen to a good idea, even from one who held opposing affiliations. But that was never the case anyway; the family and community comprise the bubble we grow up in, so we are already partly cast in that mould, if not yet fully set.
University isn’t the big wide world either, far from it, but it should be an arena for experimentation, for dabbling in ideas and for building a bullshit-shield against the worst excesses of extremism from either side. University should develop critical thinking skills and allow you to discern, as the Americans have it, shit from Shinola. It is as much bullying for the safe-spaces advocates to deny a platform to those they accuse of bullying. And to do it via officialdom is tantamount to official censorship. To then censor the censors is, well, I’m a little confused as to what it is.
What it isn’t, is free speech and expression. When the control of speech is itself controlled, no matter what it calls itself it isn’t freedom. The arbiters of what is allowed will be every bit as power-hungry, as self-righteous and as arrogant as those who illiberally try to push their faux liberal agenda today. We need a revolution against regulation and the Brexit/Trump axis is a part of that, which is why even while apparently legislating for free speech, those who practice it are still proscribed. One thing is for sure; as far as is possible, this revolution will NOT be televised.