• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The death of free speech

Germaine Greer has spent a lifetime courting controversy in her relentless and often provocative battle to advance women’s rights but now it is the high priestess of feminism herself who has been accused of betraying women.

Greer is giving a lecture at Cardiff University despite female students there branding her ‘transphobic’ and lobbying for her to be banned. What had the 76-year-old professor done to warrant this fury?

She had once expressed the opinion that even if a man had himself castrated, he would not look, sound or behave like a woman. She also said that ‘a great many women’ think ‘male to female transgender people’ do not ‘look like, sound like or behave like women’.

This extraordinary saga was the second time in the past fortnight that the febrile gender politics of modern campuses have led to feminist activists making headlines. Two weeks ago, Oxford student Annie Teriba, a high-profile advocate of black and gay rights, saw her reputation as a militant lesbian campaigner shattered by an explosive controversy over her public admission that she had engaged in sex that was ‘not consensual’. For a strident activist who built her name fulminating about sexual aggression against women, it was a devastating confession, made worse when other feminists accused her of dishonesty about the real nature of the incident. The Women’s Campaign of the Oxford University Students’ Union even claimed (using the kind of opaque language such people employ) that her statement was ‘rife with rape apologism’ because she had been equivocal in her description of what had taken place.

These sagas highlighted the increasingly totalitarian attitudes on our university campuses: the bullying dressed up as tolerance, the obsession with political correctness and ‘identity’, the pretentious, overblown language, and the eagerness to portray as many as possible as victims.
How bitterly ironic that this pernicious culture has led to Germaine Greer, who has dedicated her academic life to fighting for women’s voices to be heard in society, having her voice silenced by feminist students.
This new censorship is spreading like a cancer across British universities, imposing ever more heavy-handed restrictions on what can be read or said. C.S. Lewis once wrote: ‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.’ That is a good description of what is now happening in parts of our academic system, for the censorship is increasingly imposed in the name of keeping students safe, and guarding them from anything that might possibly offend what are regarded as their vulnerable minds.

Potentially, the results to society as a whole are profoundly dangerous. Whereas Britain’s liberal democracy once allowed for — even encouraged — the open exchange of thoughts and ideas, this new dogma demands only the narrowest world view, and nothing less than the suppression of free speech. It is a movement that can be seen to operate through two distinct processes.

One is the campaigners’ claim that universities should be so-called ‘safe spaces’; free from any views that students might consider offensive. For example, in attacking the forthright lesbian activist Ms Teriba, her Oxford feminist critics argued that it is vital to expel ‘abusers, and those who enable them, from spaces that should be safe for all’. This attitude leads to bans being imposed on speakers who are deemed to have contravened, through their views, past statements or some other arbitrary factors, the current code of politically correct behaviour. As a result, student bodies have become the new Cromwellians, rooting out anyone regarded as a heretical thinker against the new credo.

The second, equally sinister, practice, is the introduction of so-called ‘trigger warnings’ into books and texts. These alerts are designed to shield students from inadvertently being exposed to material which might, it is argued in this new atmosphere of political correctness, unsettle or even traumatise them. Reflecting this trend, Annie Teriba herself wrote at the start of her statement of contrition for engaging in non-consensual sex that she would go into some details which some people might ‘find triggering’.

I would argue that it is this fixation with ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ that is helping to erode the traditional liberal ethos of our universities.

In place of openness, there is now internal policing of thoughts and words. Sadly, those age-old principles of challenge and debate are being replaced by the new censors.
For instance, the radical feminist Julie Bindel was banned recently from speaking at the University of Manchester by the students’ union there, on the grounds that some articles she had written about transsexuality were ‘offensive’. In 2004 she wrote in the Guardian: ‘I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s [jeans] does not make you a man.’ Bindel has also written online: ‘Can those of us who hate bullying please do something about the “trans cabal” running a witch-hunt everytime they get offended?’ Shamefully, the University of Manchester authorities did nothing to stop this outrageous act of authoritarianism.

In similar vein, the University of Warwick recently stood lamely by when its students’ union barred Iranian human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie — who speaks out against Sharia law — from speaking to a campus secular group. Her talk had to be blocked, said the students’ union, because her longstanding opposition to Islamic theocracy undermined ‘the right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against on the university campus’. This absurd decision not only made a complete mockery of free speech, but was also an inversion of morality. The real intimidation surely comes not from Ms Namazie but from Islamic religious hardliners and their sympathisers who refuse to accept any challenge to their bigotry. As Ms Namazie, a refugee from the tyrannical Iranian regime, put it: ‘If I can’t criticise Islam, that leaves me very few options as a dissenter because the only thing I have is my freedom of expression. If anyone is inciting hatred, it is the Islamists who are threatening people like me ... just because we don’t want to toe the line.’ After an inevitable public outcry, Warwick students’ union grudgingly reinstated the invitation to Ms Namazie, but the knee-jerk impulse to shut down debate remains.

As I found in researching my new book The Power Of Reading: From Socrates To Twitter, it is the same story with these so-called ‘trigger warnings’, an idea that originated in the U.S. and which meant that students would be warned about any words or images that could disturb them under this new moral code. This does not just include ‘extreme’ material. Even great works of literature can be subject to trigger warnings from these self-appointed guardians of our morals. A most egregious example involved student activists at the top American university Columbia, who, earlier this year, said that cautionary advice should be attached to the Roman poet Ovid’s epic work, Metamorphoses (written 2,000 years ago) because it featured a description of a rape and sexual assault. One undergraduate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in the same vein, recently called for warnings to be issued about Virginia Woolf’s 1925 classic Mrs Dalloway (which involves a character committing suicide) because it could spark ‘painful memories for students suffering from self-harm’.

Meanwhile, there were also calls for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, one of the finest novels of the 20th century, to be accompanied by warnings that it contained scenes ‘of suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’.

What is really disturbing is that, all too often, American university authorities are keen to comply with this censorship of free speech. Official guidelines at Oberlin College in Ohio warned its lecturers: ‘Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [prejudice against transgendered people], ableism [discrimination favouring able-bodied people] and other issues of privilege and oppression.
The college even suggests the removal of what it calls ‘triggering material’ unless it is essential to learning.

As the furore over Germaine Greer and Annie Teriba’s non-consensual sex demonstrates, this kind of politically correct madness has now infected Britain. Last month, a study published by the National Union of Students stated: ‘This report carries a trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault and rape.’ The report’s almost casually routine use of the new jargon term ‘trigger warning’ indicates how it has been seamlessly integrated into current campus culture. All too many British university authorities, instead of standing up for free speech and challenging this warped thinking, give in to this hectoring totalitarianism

That is certainly true of Goldsmiths College in London, where, during a recent occupation, students demanded: ‘Trigger warnings must be regular practice at lectures and seminars.’
Again, all too many British university authorities, instead of standing up for free speech and challenging this warped thinking, give in to this hectoring totalitarianism. At Durham University, a circular issued to arts and humanities lecturers indicated that they would have to gain approval from an ethics committee if they wished to offer lectures and tutorials on topics that might offend students, such as abortion and euthanasia. What is so depressing is that this demand for trigger warnings comes, not from the institutions, but from the students themselves.

In the past, it was the other way round; censorship was imposed by authorities, while those demanding further crackdowns, such as TV clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse, were widely seen as prudes and reactionaries. In fighting for greater freedoms, student activists in the Sixties and the Seventies were among the biggest rebels against the traditional values of conservatism. Today, the pattern is reversed, with the student bodies in the vanguard of the thought police. It should go without saying that this drive for censorship is highly dangerous, not just because it is an attack on basic freedoms, but also because it infantalises students, enfeebling their minds while inflating their egos. Indeed, much of this is, I believe, a childish form of narcissism, with some students, like oversized toddlers, eager to draw attention to themselves by making a drama of something ‘unacceptable’ in their studies. It is a kind of attention-seeking self-indulgence, using a self-diagnosis of vulnerability as a vehicle for parading one’s championing of ‘victimhood’ and thereby gaining social status.

If, as some activists at the University of California claimed recently, certain lectures could trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, then those students affected really would have lost all sense of perspective and resilience. I would go further and say that some of those bleating about the need for warnings have shown that they are unfit for their chosen professions.

At Harvard last year, some students on a law course complained that lectures about the legal status of rape covered ground that was considered unacceptable to them. One student even argued that the very use of the word ‘violate’ was traumatising. How on earth, I wonder, would she cope with real victims of crime? It is utterly absurd to pretend that students can be wrapped in a cocoon and be protected from the truth, but that is exactly what some universities are doing with their pathetic talk of ‘safe spaces’ free of anything offensive. In fact, some educational institutions have given physical manifestations to this infantalised concept of the so-called ‘safe space’.

At the Ivy League’s Brown University in the U.S., there is a special room set aside for students, who feel they have been ‘triggered’, that contains, wait for it — cookies, Play-Doh, and videos of puppies.
This is no way to equip young people for the adult world.

What’s more, my fear is that this kind of thinking will soon leach insidiously outwards, both into schools, and the wider society. Universities should be intellectually challenging, not lazily comforting. In particular, reading and thinking should be demanding tasks. That is why the great canon of Western literature is so powerful — precisely because it does contain elements that are thought-provoking, heart- rending and disturbing.

The 17th-century English poet John Milton believed that readers ‘possessed a fundamental capacity to judge, endowing them with importance and dignity’. However, that respect for individual freedom and judgment is just what these modern censors refuse to accept. When feminists start to attack Germaine Greer, you know that we really are living in a topsy-turvy world.

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