“Efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities. The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.” – President Obama, 2012
If we want to live in a free society, we need robust and free speech and that must include the freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom.
People often ask, but is free speech really under threat? I could list countless examples, like Germaine Greer for alleged transphobic views, and gay rights activist Peter Tatchell for reasons I can’t quite work out, the list of speaker invitations around the country that have been cancelled due to threats of protest by censorious Student Unions or left-leaning academics is long and continues to grow.
The problem is, however, much deeper than whether or not certain speakers can come and debate ideas with students. The bigger problem is the chilling atmosphere created by ideological convergence. The problem is groupthink.
Academic (turned world-famous commentator) Jordan Peterson is just the latest in a list of speakers deemed ‘too much’ for students to handle – students studying at some of our most august institutions, respected globally and topping the charts year in year out.
There is an intense desire to gag dissenting voices that some people find uncomfortable. The world has officially turned on its head – softly spoken, highly-educated, liberal-minded people (or, better put, people who think of themselves as liberally-minded) have become unwilling to accommodate or tolerate dissenting opinion and what some may perceive to be unpleasant belief.
Cambridge University chose to rescind an offer of a visiting fellowship to Peterson following online student activism that claimed: “His work and views are not representative of the student body, and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the University.”
As Cambridge graduate James Mathieson pointed out on Twitter, this is the University of Darwin, Erasmus and Turing, rejecting certain voices, deciding some of the most talented students in the world are too fragile to be exposed to new ideas; ‘feeling threatened’ is now considered a legitimate reason to prohibit the challenging of intellectual consensus and the status quo.
The increasingly reactionary hatred of new ideas in academic institutions is an attack on the freedom of speech. But if we are only free on the condition that we will be inoffensive, then we are not free at all.
These student activists, and those in the upper echelons of Cambridge University who are pandering to them, are on the wrong side of policy when it comes to upholding a free society.
Listen to the IEA’s podcast on free speech on campuses, with Claire Fox, Director of the Academy of Ideas, and Kristian Niemietz, the IEA’s Head of Political Economy.