The most important liberty 6

The Third Jillian Becker Annual Lecture is being delivered in London today, February 3, 2020, under the auspices of The Freedom Association, this year by our fellow atheist conservative Professor Simon Heffer of the University of Buckingham. He is an historian, author, and political commentator. He writes a regular column in the Sunday Telegraph, and is an active and influential Brexiteer.

We will post the YouTube video of the lecture when it becomes available.

Meanwhile, here are extracts from the lecture. The examples Professor Heffer cites to illustrate the points he makes are from Britain, but the lessons to be taken from them apply equally to America.

If any of you imagines we live in a country where freedom of speech still pertains, I fear that what I am about to say in the next 40 minutes or so may be the final act of disabusing you of that notion. Some of what I am about to tell you in support of this contention will be familiar; but some of what is familiar is so shocking that it bears repeating; and what is truly shocking is that such damage to our freedom of speech is allowed to happen, and is well-known, and yet too few people with the power to do so wish to raise a finger to stop it, thereby becoming complicit in the erosion of perhaps our most important liberty. And it must be stressed that, while some in public life and in high positions have more power than most to reverse what has become a disturbing trend, we all have a part to play in ensuring that discourse in our society is not closed down. For discourse is, in the end, the means by which rational and civilised people arrive at the truth. …

Few dare to teach history in a way that does not apply the values of a liberal elite in the 21st century to the questions of the past; and anyone who attempts to look at historical questions in their own context, to evaluate why what happened at the time happened, is regarded as a reactionary. By their behaviour they override the fundamental principle of learning, which is to arrive at the truth. But they also, by creating an atmosphere within academia of hostility and hatred, make an important part of the expansion of knowledge nearly impossible, by restricting civilised discussion between those of differing views.

Of course, this hijacking of academic disciplines for the purposes of thought-policing and the propagation of leftist tropes is not restricted to the discipline of history. English literature has long been given similar treatment, though some of the texts that have to be read are now, famously, issued with ‘trigger warnings’, because there so much in Shakespeare … that could upset the sensibilities of the average member of what is cruelly called ‘the snowflake generation’….

It is little wonder that, in their spare time, the students who endure what passes for this sort of teaching now try to close down expressions of opinion with which they disagree, usually for the preposterous reason that those expressions might cause offence, as if being offended is, to use another unfortunate modern expression, a hate crime – which many people think causing offence seriously is. We have lived with this for years. I recall an attempt at Cambridge when I was an undergraduate to ban a Conservative cabinet minister from speaking in the university by a group whose motto was ‘No Platform for Racists and Fascists’. For many of them, simply serving in the Thatcher government was sufficient to earn the label of a racist or a fascist …

Five years ago … [the feminist] Germaine Greer was no-platformed at Cardiff University because she wished to state her opinion that just because a man had had a series of operations to turn him into a woman did not make him like someone who had been female from birth. The University ordered the students to let the meeting go ahead, but said it would not condone ‘discriminatory language’. Professor Greer retorted that this stand by the university was ‘weak as piss’; she was not discriminating against anyone, merely hurting their feelings. Well, she said, her feelings were hurt all the time, and she just got on with it; but she refused to speak in an atmosphere of such unpleasantness, and cancelled her meeting altogether.

Then another celebrated ‘reactionary’, Peter Tatchell – one of the most principled men I have ever met, I hasten to add, principles he demonstrated in his repeated and courageous demonstrations against the aforementioned vicious tyrant, Robert Mugabe – was no-platformed at Canterbury Christ Church University for speaking out in defence of Professor Greer. For defending her right to express her views openly, Mr Tatchell was denounced as ‘racist’ – the catch-all chant for every bigot these days – and ‘transphobic’.

But then there are now many views that it is simply unacceptable to hold in our society today. The Church of England – possibly miraculously – sticks to the view that same-sex couples cannot be married in church because of what many senior clergy feel is the direct opposition such an act would present to scriptural teachings. I think the church is right, and I do so, again, from the point of view of an atheist.

I have a number of homosexual friends who go further even than that, and think the idea of same-sex marriage is patronising to them, and little more than a stunt. Try arguing this in one of our universities today and you would be shouted down, and would be likely to be the victim of a no-platforming campaign, with accusations of homophobia cast at you. The case, like that of Professor Greer stating what she believes to be an obvious fact about men who have sex changes, is an example of the failure by too many half-educated young people in our universities refusing, wilfully and often with the connivance of their teachers who should know better, to acknowledge a distinction between expressing a sincerely held belief, supported by factual evidence, and inciting others to commit some ghastly crime against those you are talking about. Professor Greer was inciting no-one to persecute transgender people; therefore Mr Tatchell was not defending a right for her to incite such people, for no such right exists or can exist in a civilised society; and saying one has a philosophical objection to the notion of same sex marriage is nothing like saying you dislike homosexual people, let alone that others ought to go out and make their lives a misery.

But these are the murky waters into which discourse in our universities has slipped, and, as one distinguished victim of such a process said to me last year, it has been allowed to slip there because of the refusal of heads of institutions or heads of faculties to law down the law with students who engage in this deliberate destruction of freedom of speech under the pretence of it being offensive to the closed minds of their students, and who do so because, in the end, they are afraid of those students.

It is little wonder that, in their spare time, the students who endure what passes for this sort of teaching now try to close down expressions of opinion with which they disagree, usually for the preposterous reason that those expressions might cause offence, as if being offended is, to use another unfortunate modern expression, a hate crime – which many people think causing offence seriously is. …

There is also one other current in some of our universities that I want to refer to, because it is a harbinger of a very unpleasant future unless we do something to check it. … Chinese money has helped develop facilities in some of our universities, but has from time to time occasioned the benefactors to seek to influence aspects of the curriculum. I believe those latter attempts have largely been resisted; but I hope any Chinese student in Britain who is put under pressure about his or her own activities should be able to tell his university authorities, and the authorities should give their full support. Sometimes students may feel their families back in China are at threat if they don’t conform. Universities have to think very carefully before they accept Chinese money about what they might be expected to do, or not do, in return.

Perhaps because the extremism of no platforming has been going on for so long now, many adults are now just as bad. Nearly 15 years ago I wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph about the death penalty. I said – and for what it is worth it is a belief I cling to today – that I felt some murders represented such an act of premeditated wickedness, whether the motive was financial gain or sexual gratification, that the only appropriate punishment given the enormity of the crime was a sentence of death; and that instead of the sentence being mandatory, as it had been for certain murders before abolition, it should be available to the jury, if convicting, to recommend to the judge before he passed sentence. The paper had a year or two before, in an attempt to appeal to that elusive younger reader, hired a right-on, or as we would now say, ‘woke’ comedian to write an arts column every week. He suddenly resigned, saying he could not continue to work for a newspaper that had another columnist (me) who believed in the death penalty, and would publish such a piece. It was my first, but not my last, direct confrontation with the phenomenon that does more to undermine freedom of speech than any other in our society: the professed and overt liberal who is completely intolerant of any opinion other than his or her own. Rather than engage in debate, they simply prefer to close it down. By treating another person, whose only crime is to have professed such an opinion, with the sort of disdain one would normally reserve for a paedophile or mass murderer, they hope to intimidate him or her, and anybody else who might be thinking of transgressing in such a way, into keeping their mouth shut in future, or, possibly, into making a full recantation. …

People have to understand that there is a difference between expressing a strong opinion that may cause offence to those who think entirely differently – such as a feminist arguing against another’s interpretation of transgender rights might – and someone who is inciting violence or hatred against the group they are criticising. In a free society, we just have to put up with the first; but we can never tolerate the second. Most of us are sufficiently mature to make a distinction between a point of view we find offensive – which to some on the left will include almost everything I am saying here today – and something that encourages people to act violently … To things that merely cause offence, all we should say is: grow up, get over it, and move on. We must as a culture stop putting out into adult life former students who have grown up thinking it is normal that people with the temerity to disagree with them should be silenced.

Posted under education, liberty by Jillian Becker on Monday, February 3, 2020

Tagged with , , , ,

This post has 6 comments.