An odd, silly and dangerous movement has now taken a poisonous hold in the public square. The result is that free speech, hand in hand with freedom of religion, is now an endangered species.
Back in the 1980s the British National Union of Students initiated its No Platform policy. They adopted the very ‘liberal’ line of banning union affiliates from debating with members of what they called ‘extremist’ groups. No one paid that much notice. It was all a matter of students being students and what they were doing did not have that much baring on mainstream society. Has something changed? Yes it has, with a vengeance.
In a speech given at King’s College London as part of the new and very healthy ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign, Tom Slater, assistant editor at Spiked.com, sees in this the greatest threat of all to the very idea of the university.
In the United Kingdom the University of Derby’s student union, Tom Slater tells us,“has attempted to ban the entirety of UKIP on the grounds that the burble of the notoriously gaffe-prone party poses a threat to student safety.”What kind of democratic mentality wants to gag its opponents rather than debate the truth with them?The same kind of mentality as that of the University of Cardiff’s student union which keeps trying to pass a motion that would effectively outlaw ‘pro-life’ societies and demonstrations on campus.
Anna Furedi is a leading UK opponent of all those who maintain that life begins at conception and of those who maintain that it deserves protection, as all human life does, from that moment. She found herself turned on recently by her own supporters, becoming a high-profile target of the No Platform brigade.
She arrived at Cambridge University’s Trinity College to take part in a discussion on abortion. For the first time in her life she encountered a political protest asking people not to attend a debate. For her it was a sad sign of the times. The debate was organised by Cambridge Students for Life, who oppose abortion, and Cambridge Medicine Society. The motion was: ‘Genetics and disability should not be used as grounds for abortion.’
It was all too much for the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign which was out in force to persuade people not to attend the debate. Anna tried to reason with them that their time would be better spent IN the hall, arguing for women’s reproductive choice. They were having none of it. Their reasons:
‘The motion is biased’
Yes, she responded, that’s because it’s a debate and one side supports the motion and the other opposes it, and so a neutral motion wouldn’t work very well. The irony was lost on them. They then tried with:
‘The speakers are biased because they’ve been selected by the anti-abortion side. They will have deliberately asked weaker people to oppose it.’
“Ouch. That hurt”, commented Anna, one of the UK’s most formidable proponents of abortion as a woman’s right.
They finally told her that No Platform polices exist so that people don’t hear their opponents’ arguments. She countered this by saying it might suggest that they want to silence their opposition because they can’t match their arguments? “In other words, you don’t want to let them speak out because you’re afraid you can’t convince people that they are wrong.”
‘Well, we are afraid of that.’ They admitted.
Understandably that left Anna speechless.
“That students at one of Britain’s leading universities”, she reflected, “should sink to such intellectual depths is nothing short of tragic. Had the protesters attended the debate they would have seen an intelligent discussion between people with different views about morals and principles, the nature of human life and its value. The debate was fair, the speakers were considered, and the questions and points from the audience deserved to be answered. This was a sensible and respectful discussion. I listened to my opposition, and I learned. I came away with none of my pro-choice convictions diluted – just a better sense of how to present what I believe in a way that may be more convincing.
“Abortion is a political issue that causes us to consider metaphysics and moral values, definitions of life, the limits of personal autonomy, and the limits on women’s equality. It is absurd to claim that debate is, by its nature, ‘violent’. Pitting your arguments against someone who disagrees with you is one of the best ways to learn to be more clear, concise and precise. Frankly, taking on able and informed opponents of my views was a challenge, but my opponents in the debate were far less hostile than the row of protesters who purported to agree with me about women’s rights but whose signs told me explicitly to ‘Fuck off’.
“You don’t have to be a Cambridge intellectual to understand why debate and discussion should be encouraged. When you try to silence someone, you simply tell the world that you fear what they might say.”
We might ask ourselves if this is what is really happening here? Have the arguments of the liberal left run into the ground, leaving nothing but froth on the surface? Have they become so aware of the shallowness of the metaphysical and moral value of their view of mankind that they can now only see one option – gag the voices of their opponents?
Tom Slater believes that of all the supposedly dangerous ideas running rampant on university campuses at the moment, the idea that restricting what students can say, read or listen to is in any way a positive step poses the greatest threat of all to the very idea of the university. As far as he is concerned the truth is that when student unions ban a speaker they are not challenging dodgy ideas, they are not helping to push for a more progressive society – they are merely saying that the students are too fragile and stupid to listen to sense.
Linked to the challenge to free speech is the challenge to freedom of religion. Where this challenge is appearing increasingly aggressive is within the school system – right across the Christian world. Three recent headlines tell part of the story:
“Teachers cannot opt out of teaching gay ‘marriage’ in school sex-education classes” – that is in Scotland. “No parental opt-out from any course, including sex-education. Teachers cannot opt out of teaching gay ‘marriage’ in school” – that is in Manitoba, Canada. While in Toronto the school board also tells parents they can’t opt kids out of pro-homosexual classes.
In Wakefield Rhode Island in the US, controversy has erupted at a Roman Catholic school after students and parents reacted with outrage to Church teaching on sexuality as presented at a school assembly. This follows the same pattern as events at a school in Charlotte, North Carolina some weeks earlier.
Meanwhile in Paris a French government minister accused those who assert the teaching of the Catholic Church of trying to wage an ideological war from another era. In all cases the story seems to be the same. Read more about these stories here.
Where is it all going to end? Well, one place it might end is with a renewal of the determination of all Christians stand by the teaching which marks them out as such and to teach it to others, whether opportunely or inopportunely.
As Anna Furedi said, “When you try to silence someone, you simply tell the world that you fear what they might say.” Surely that is one of the most despicable fears of all? Alliance Vita, Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman, Sister Mary Tracy in Seattle and Sister Jane Dominic Laurel in North Carolina are an example to us all.