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2 April 2015

Life is full of people with bad ideas and awful opinions. Try to meet as many at university as you can

Universities should be havens of free speech. After all: where else can you find out what the Other Buggers Are Thinking?

By Helen Lewis

My family was never political – well, except my grandfather. My mum’s father was born in Motherwell in 1916 and before he became a teenager he was sent to a sanatorium. He was so thin that the doctors assumed he had TB. Miraculously, he left several years later still without TB and went to work as miner. He couldn’t have been more perfectly engineered to vote Labour if he’d been grown in a lab. Yet he read the Telegraph. One of my very few memories of him has his face peering over its flapping broadsheet pages. “Hen,” he would intone, “you have to know what the Other Buggers Are Thinking.”

Whether you’re talking about politics, or science, or chess, it helps to know what the Other Buggers Are Thinking – which is why the trend for students to complain about being exposed to unpleasant or unsettling views is concerning. The tactic of “no platform”, once reserved for violent fascists, is being extended stealthily to those with controversial opinions; universities, we are told, should be “safe spaces”.

What kinds of views must students be protected from? Here’s an example. In 2011, the National Union of Students LGBT conference passed a motion asserting that the radical feminist Julie Bindel “is vile”. It also condemned the Royal College of Psychiatrists “for having Bindle [sic] talk at the annual meeting on the subject of ‘There is no such a thing as a real woman’”. Yes, so toxic are Bindel’s views – gender is “harmful and a total social construct that serves to reinforce patriarchy” rather than an innate quality, she has argued – that the faint hearts at the Royal College of Psychiatrists need to be told off by students for listening to them.

The irony here is that, for a long time, I struggled to find out what Bindel’s views on gender were. A peculiar internet activist culture has sprung up that treats any form of intellectual curiosity as suspect. The good activist simply takes it on trust that some people are bad. You must not talk to the bad people, or they might infect you with their badness. Simply saying, “Sorry, could you outline the argument that you disagree with?” inflicts a kind of psychic violence. This symbolic violence is then conflated with fears of actual violence.

Student unions and societies that are run by students have the right to invite, or to ignore, whomever they please. And others have the right to protest – although disrupting a lecture until it has to be stopped, or idly threatening a protest in the knowledge that the cost of security will be more than the organisers can afford, implies that you believe that anyone who doesn’t share your values might as well not exist.

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In November 2014, a pro-life society invited two men to debate “abortion culture” at Christ Church, Oxford, but the college was pressured to withdraw its venue and the university society involved could not find an alternative. Were the two journalists involved “silenced”? Not really, given that they have other outlets. But was it fair to deny those students who wanted to hear them the opportunity to do so? No.

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More importantly, that ethos of needing protection from life’s unpleasant side cannot be allowed to leak into the classroom. A teacher friend tells me that her students were reluctant to read the section of her European history module on the Holocaust on the grounds that it was “upsetting”. Of course it’s upsetting: it’s the Holocaust, you pillock. If it’s upsetting you, just imagine the supreme effort it took survivors such as Primo Levi or my namesake Helen Lewis to recount their experiences. But they did it for a reason: they hoped that if we understood how the Holocaust could happen, we would understand enough to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. Last year, the Community Security Trust recorded 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents against Britain’s 291,000 Jews. In these circumstances, we have a duty to upset 18-year-olds.

What about listening to the kind of people whose rhetoric is designed to stir up racial tensions? The Home Secretary wants to ban “extremists” from campus even if what they are saying is not an incitement to violence. Although the Lib Dems fought off the idea, it seems certain to return if the Conservatives end up in power again (and don’t bet against Labour doing something similar). But who judges what is extremist? And does banning radical Islamist preachers do anything to decrease their allure to the young and disenchanted? I’m not sure that anyone at the Home Office has heard of “reverse psychology”. Perhaps Theresa May needn’t worry. If she just tells people that radical Islamists hold some very second-wave views on gender, progressive university societies will be falling over themselves to ban them. I hear that Abu Hamza is actually good friends with Julie Bindel. They used to go ten-pin bowling together.

To be clear, this is not special pleading. I disagree with many of the views of both radical Islamists and radical feminists and having an abortion debate with two men is missing the point spectacularly. But I don’t want to live swaddled in intellectual cotton wool, and universities in particular should uphold the exploration of unpopular, even unpleasant views.

Having grown up in a small city in the Midlands, surrounded by people who talked like me, thought like me and lived like me, I found university to be intoxicatingly full of difference. Terry Pratchett once wrote about how the “Brownian motion” of society kept us sane and honest. That’s what you should get through further and higher education. It’s why universities should strive to have diverse student bodies and should be open to as many people as possible.

Life is full of encounters with bad ideas and awful opinions. If you know what the Other Buggers Are Thinking, you know how to argue back.