Stifling the freedom to mock and attack will reduce our universities to irrelevant echo chambers

Arif Ahmed
Protesters rally outside the National Union of Students HQ to urge a revision of its safe space & no-platform policies, which have been used to restrict freedom of expression - Nick Edwards

A new report on free speech in British universities makes clear to everyone what was already clear to many within them: free expression in many places is threatened and in many others actively curtailed.

Of 115 institutions, 73 "ban and actively censor ideas on campus"; 35 "chill free speech through intervention". Students’ unions have banned "offensive" fancy dress (Edinburgh) and Charlie Hebdo (Manchester); university authorities have banned many forms of speech, including criticism of Israel "that might reasonably be taken to be anti-semitic" (Leeds); numerous universities or unions have also banned or tried to prevent the expression of "fascist" or "racist" ideologies or of any views by speakers belonging to some objectionable category.

Charlie Hebdo: a casualty of a Manchester University crackdown on free speech - Credit: CHARLIE HEBDO/HANDOUT,CHARLIE HEBDO/HANDOUT

Academics, journalists and students will address these issues in a debate at Gonville & Caius College at Cambridge University on March 14. The aim is to force an open confrontation between the arguments in favour of what has been happening and those against.

To those who oppose speech based on the identity of the speaker, I am tempted to say: do you understand the point of thinking?

I myself believe that the freedom to express and to defend your opinion, pretty much regardless of who you are or what that opinion is, is our society’s most precious asset. Those who would compromise it need to explain to the rest of us how anything could compensate for its loss. I hope to hear the explanation on Tuesday night.   

To those who oppose speech based on what is said, I am tempted to say: do you understand the point of higher education? To those who oppose speech based on the identity of the speaker, I am tempted to say: do you understand the point of thinking?     

Higher education supplies specialised knowledge and scientific training to those equipped and willing to get them. But equally importantly, and in the humanities especially, it gets across not only knowledge but that intellectual attitude that Kant regarded as a precondition for our maturity as a species: of not respecting authority, not believing everything that it tells you; and more generally of thinking for yourself about things that matter.

If anything should be a "safe space" then the universities should be a safe space from which to attack

My own subject – philosophy – illustrates this as clearly as any. It imparts methods of rational criticism and logical analysis and it applies them to the most deeply held, and the most vigorously contested, values and beliefs of our own society and of other societies.  

These include religious ideas, to many of which the best response is not respectful dialogue but hostile scrutiny. If anything should be a "safe space" then the universities should be a safe space from which to attack – and even to mock – Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity (which frequently does get an enthusiastic kicking).

The report reveals how far, and how willingly, they – staff and students – have instead adopted Orwellian speech codes that would probably have censored Hume and Voltaire alongside Maryam Namazie, the ex-Muslim human rights campaigner that Warwick Student Union tried to ban in 2015 on the grounds that her views were "inflammatory and could incite hatred on campus".

They also include ethical ideas. When we stop emoting and start thinking about a subject like (say) abortion, the instruments that we apply are those of abstract thought: logic, conceptual analysis and scientific knowledge. We all have access to those instruments. Everyone who can think can think about these things; and they can debate about them too, productively and in public. Being a man doesn’t stop you thinking about them; being two or three men shouldn’t stop you debating them. And yet it has: in 2014, student outrage at the fact that both advertised speakers were male led to the cancellation of a debate on abortion to have been held in Christ Church, Oxford.

Controversial figure, Milo Yiannopoulos, was "no platformed" at Manchester University in 2015 - Credit: ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

They also include political ideas. Another report – by the Adam Smith Institute – implies that 80% of university lecturers are left-wing. True or not, it reflects a widespread perception that the values of the university are not those of the society around it – a society that returned a Conservative government in 2015 and which has now voted for Brexit. Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor warned as much in a recent speech.

But part of what makes universities reflective of the political ideas present in the wider society is the freedom to express any of them within its halls – including those of Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos, whom the University of Manchester students’ union banned in 2015 from a debate on free speech.

And what makes them responsive to our ideal of rational and fearless enquiry is the freedom to discuss those, and all other ideas, abrasively and without fear.

Without that, they risk becoming political echo chambers annexed to centres for scientific inquiry. Important and worthwhile, yes – but not, as they could be, the wellsprings of that scepticism and independence of mind that are essential to a healthy democracy.  

Arif Ahmed is a Reader in Philosophy at Cambridge University

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes