Can Europe Make It?

Free speech, "political correctness" and the university

The idea of "political correctness" is, at the best of times, a vacuous one to invoke in public debate or social commentary.

Robert Lamb
16 February 2015
Backpack with anti-BNP badges

Can't students have a mature discussion over whom they invite to their campuses? Flickr/Walt Jabsco. Some rights reserved.In an article for The Atlantic last week, loosely framed around the theme of “political correctness”, David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, bemoaned the apparent increase in recent years of “disinvitation” incidents at US universities: instances of “attempts by students to ban speakers from campus” for political reasons. Universities in America have been a battleground for unedifying and depressingly chronic culture wars since before the 1960s – they were as much a source of worry for Joseph McCarthy as for Allan Bloom. There they are considered crucial for understanding the political shape of things to come, gauging the extent to which the conservative right or liberal left are gaining ground in a conflict that shows no sign of receding.

Keeping an eye on campus activism must be a joyless, wearying task and it is at this point that most of us across the pond are likely to feel a little smug. After all, it is not a huge exaggeration to say that Britain skipped the culture wars entirely, instead ushering in liberalism with minimum fuss and discussion, and getting the bulk of it through parliament before The Beatles’ last LP. Nevertheless, there are some twenty-first century civic voices in the UK who enjoy engaging in a kind of ersatz version of the liberal-conservative stand-off, presumably wishing they could somehow get involved in – or as angry about – the real thing. With the absence of any substantive enemy in a society marked by a relaxed liberal consensus, some people evidently get their kicks criticising a monstrous tyranny of political correctness that does not actually exist in British public life.

The hysteria comes to Britain

It should not then be a surprise that British Universities have been open to some of the same farcical politicised scrutiny experienced in America. On Friday, The Times ran an editorial castigating those students and faculty members at the University of Oxford for their censoriousness. A number of them had signed a letter asking that the Oxford Union to withdraw an invitation to speak from the leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen. The editorial suggested that the signatories to the letter should consider whether they were in fact “too genteel to cope with university life”, that the academy should, above all, “understand the preciousness of free speech” and that – pace J.S. Mill – that individuals should be prepared to tolerate views that they find offensive.

This is not an isolated – or even a particularly novel – incident of people showing distaste for universities debating whether or not to invite certain controversial public figures to speak. Chaotic scenes visited the Oxford Union when it attempted to host both David Irving and Nick Griffin in 2007. But, at the moment, a lot seems to be at stake with regards to free speech and thus the imaginers of political correctness are watching our seats of learning closely. And so Brendan O’Neill recently wrote a cacophonous piece for The Spectator, complaining that his invitation to speak at an Oxford College debate on abortion had been rescinded, with a hegemonic feminazi thought police denying him a platform to air his views. (Though curiously, since O’Neill appears to make a living from being nothing more than an internet troll, it does not seem to have occurred to him that the students’ change of mind may have been sparked by the realisation that he is nothing more than an internet troll.)

“Political correctness”

The idea of “political correctness” is, at the best of times, a vacuous one to invoke in public debate or social commentary. It is always connotative of the tin-foil hat, of a life being lived in increasingly-less-than-quiet desperation, of a person who feels cut adrift from the society in which they live. But when used as a stick with which to beat British universities, it becomes not only pathetic but dangerous.

As it stands, there is a definite contingent of people in the UK – including seemingly all mainstream politicians – who have absolutely no idea what a university is, or what purpose it serves. The main reason for the confusion is actually the artificial separation of those two qualities: a proper understanding of a university acknowledges that its purpose simply is its nature and not anything extrinsic to it. It is thus a catastrophic error to regard a university as instrumentally valuable, to view it either as a vehicle for financial profit or a means to achieve social justice. It is neither. It is rather most appropriately considered an autonomous institution with its own set of values, which become perverted when they are made subject to undue political interference.

Universities do many things. Among them, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott pointed out, they protect, nurture and transmit our civilisation and because of this their value can never be adequately captured by the standards of practical usefulness. In a sense, universities are civilizations unto themselves. And in institutional terms, they should be thought of as somewhat akin to city-states with their own unique practices of governance that reflect their nature and that should remain immune to political whim. This does not of course mean that they are above the laws (or even beyond the reproach) of the community of which they are part. But nor can they be rightly used as a way of measuring the future democratic health of that community.

British universities have come to occupy a position where young adults enter a delicate and important stage of their life, poised on the brink of their entrance into civil society, learning to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their choices. The higher education “marketplace” enforced by the UK government has already enabled an infantilising of students, with several universities now hosting carnival-like open days designed to reassure parents of the soundness of their financial investment. It is therefore extremely important that once at university, these students be allowed the space to maturely enter into their own legitimate and democratic dialogue about exactly whom they wish to invite and listen to on their campus. Crucially, they should be able to do this without the wider community denigrating their deliberations, decisions and subsequent internal protests, without paranoid outsiders regarding their civic discussions as revealing some kind of mythical PC herd mentality, simply because they occasionally reach a conclusion that we would not wish to be transposed to the scale of national politics.

At a time where cartoonists are being murdered by maniacs, it is obviously tempting to view everything through the prism of free speech. Doing so, however, merely ends up trampling over our other cherished values and institutions.  

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