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19 October 2017

The threat to free speech on campus is a right-wing fantasy

Nobody is actually being censored at all – they’re just being spoken back to.

By Laurie Penny

May I speak freely? Of course I may. In the course of the next eighty lines, as long as I don’t libel anyone with enough money to sue this magazine, I can pretty much say whatever I like. That’s news, however, to a certain spluttering centre-right chorus, which has accepted as doctrine the idea that our political conversation is drowning in censorship – from the left, from activists, and particularly from students.

The higher education minister, Jo “Brother-of-the-more-famous” Johnson, in the absence of any actual policies, is apparently looking to ban “no-platforming and safe spaces” from British campuses. The nonsensical consensus amongst the centre-right that today’s students are a bunch of censorious cry-babies plays well with the base, so Johnson Minor has jumped on the rickety bandwagon barreling down the road to the palace of convenient fictions, where a delicate banquet of delusion will be served to those whose cash and status protect them from ever having to hear their opinions questioned by a bunch of rowdy kids.

This is a non-controversy, and it’s unbelievable that otherwise intelligent commentators are taking it seriously. “No-platforming” is just another word for student protest – the practice of opposing invited speakers with bigoted views is a time-honoured one. The cooked-up row over “student censorship” is led by the sort of trembly-whiskered outrage-merchants for whom “censorship” means “making me feel bad about holding certain views”.

If anyone’s over-sensitive here, it’s the old guard, not students. Every community has a right to decide what kind of language it will and will not tolerate. What is happening is that certain ideas that were liberal orthodoxy are becoming less socially palatable, and that makes the people who hold them feel bad about themselves. Hence the chicken-hearted, drawn-out discussions of what public intellectuals are and are not allowed to say, when in reality nobody is actually being censored at all – they’re just being spoken back to.

The most important thing to remember about this virulent epidemic of student censorship is that it doesn’t exist. It’s made-up. In the past few years the bloviating, hand-wringing articles and books and whining interventions about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” have far, far outnumbered the actual use of these fairly moderate tactics on campus. It’s a right-wing fantasy. People desperately want it to be true that young people today can’t cope with new ideas, because otherwise they’d have to take the new ideas these silly kids have about social justice seriously.

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But it’s not true, and it never has been. The “free-speech on campus” non-debate is the discursive pimple that just won’t be popped. And now the state is involved.

In his polished statement for the papers, Johnson echoed the pig-headed hypothesis that the youth of today aren’t open to new ideas, despite the fact that the ideas they’re taking issue with aren’t new at all. In fact, it’s the older generation who are so uncomfortable with the new ideas about anti-racism and women’s liberation that they want to shut the whole thing down with a few hand-wavy excuses about “encouraging diverse thinking”. 

They don’t want to encourage diverse thinking. They want to ensure that the racist and sexist ideas they grew up with remain part of public discourse. They’ve an image of themselves as brave free-speech defenders but they’re the first to demand that the state step in when young people get a bit too progressive. 

“The young left hates free speech” is the “stop hitting yourself” of modern public discourse. It’s a disingenuous, wilfully ignorant tactic for allowing people whose watery pseudo-radicalism began to evaporate in 1982 to continue feeling good about their own boring, redundant opinions. It’s the fallback position of cringing invertebrates who are alarmed that the world is moving on without them, who want to feel progressive without actually having to, you know, progress.

This is what the writer Marlon James refers to as “the liberal limit”. Anything that young and progressive people are saying that challenges my prejudices and makes me feel uncomfortable must be an act of censorship, rather than the very definition of the free speech Johnson claims to want to protect.

There is, I ought to say, a rhetorical difference here that causes some confusion. Today’s students are simply more likely to use the language of empathy and trauma in their politics. They’re more likely, initially, to say “this book about how women aren’t really human might make some of us feel unsafe” than they are to say “this book is bullshit”. They’re more likely to say “you’re doing harm” than they are to say “fuck you”.

This is partly because a lot of today’s young radicals come from demographics for whom it’s far more dangerous to say “fuck you”. They are young women, young queer people, young people of colour. Their way of questioning authority is simply less actively aggressive. Today’s angry young people are more likely to show you their scars than their fists. That might be passive-aggressive, but it’s not politically unsound. Yes, sometimes it’s taken a tad too far. But being wet is not the same as being weak, and criticism is not the same as censorship.

If there’s a problem with the “no-platform” tactic, it’s that it is ideologically sound but tactically silly, in that it only gives the people being no-platformed what every irrelevant blowhard desperately wants – a chance to feel edgy and martyred and radical again. These people are desperate to be censored. They dream of saying something so shocking that they will one day be featured on a “banned books” list.

The whole controversy is concocted. Most so-called “no-platform” protests are actually just regular protests which get too large for fussy school security services to be comfortable with, and almost every armchair authoritarian who has been “no-platformed” ends up getting more attention out of it – which is why a fair few people claim to have been no-platformed when actually they haven’t been, and also why the tactic tends to backfire.

But that’s just my opinion. It’s not my job to tell anyone else how to do their activism, and I’m hardly going to call for a no-platform policy for no-platforming, and frankly I’d rather chew cardboard than be involved in this nonsensical non-argument a second longer.

The people who are too cowardly to contemplate new ideas aren’t students and young radicals. It’s Johnson and his ilk who are so scared of having their prejudices questioned that they’re clamping down on free speech on campus in the name of protecting it.