"In a free state, tongues too should be free,” wrote Erasmus 501 years ago. In truth, although Britain was often more tolerant than many countries, people have never been entirely free to speak their minds here. Blasphemy and sedition got you into trouble for centuries.
There was uproar when Ken Clarke invited Oswald Mosley to address the Cambridge Union in 1961. The law has always rightly forbidden incitement to violence.
But the Speaker John Bercow’s call to “no platform” President Trump was not based on any claim that he might incite violence, and nor are many of the bans on controversial speakers that are routine at universities today. They are about the giving and taking of offence. Julie Bindel, a radical feminist, was banned from speaking at Sheffield University because she was not “LGBT friendly”.
The annual survey of free speech at universities by the website Spiked finds a truly disturbing picture. Nearly two thirds of student unions and one quarter of university administrations get a “red” rating this year, meaning they have banned and actively censored ideas on campus. Oxford’s student union banned a student magazine, called No Offence, devoted to celebrating free speech; the University of East Anglia banned a restaurant from handing out free sombreros lest it offend Mexicans. Being pro-Israel, reading The Sun newspaper or being anti-abortion can get you banned, yet none of these qualify as incitement. At just three universities do administrators and student unions ban only what is illegal.
The habit of curbing free speech is being imported from America, where universities have become increasingly intolerant of anything that departs from a narrow orthodoxy. A howling mob surrounded the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis in 2015 after his wife Erika had expressed little sympathy with those who wanted Hallowe’en costumes outlawed. “Universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience,” she had written. “Increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
The University of California at Berkeley was the site of famous protests in 1964 by the “free speech movement” — demanding the university lift a ban on political activities on campus. Last month the same university witnessed violent riots as students — successfully — sought to prevent a gay, British-born, pro-Trump conservative, Milo Yiannopoulos, from speaking at all.
The effect was to propel his book Dangerous up the bestseller lists. Like many people, I have watched some of his speeches online to see what the fuss is about. He is highly articulate, critical of Islam and rude about feminists and the left. But it’s hard to find anything that justifies the frequent charges that he is a fascist or white supremacist, let alone to the point of incitement.
What is causing this intolerance? Why are so many students so keen to outlaw rather than answer opinions they disagree with? Long ago, when writing a book about the nature-nurture debate, I noticed a phenomenon that I think still goes largely unrecognised.
In controversial areas, we tend to read our allies’ accounts of an opponent’s arguments. We rarely go back to the source and see what was actually said, so we encounter only pejorative caricatures of the alternative view, straw men that are easily knocked down or hated.
In the age of social media this has grown much worse, because people live increasingly in political echo chambers. As universities and schools have largely purged their staffs of conservatives, and with Facebook and Twitter giving people mainly the views of those like them, it is little wonder that the only thing many students ever hear about conservatives is that they are racist, sexist and callous. The idea that you might support free markets because you think they create co-operation and social change would make them choke on their kale.
John Stuart Mill diagnosed what such “snowflakes” are missing, in On Liberty: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
But there is something else going on today: Islam. One of the most surprising features of the modern world — to me at least — is the degree to which the left is making common cause with any religion, let alone one that is so dominated by socially conservative opinion and so frequently associated with discrimination against women and homosexuals. Islamophobia is as great a crime as transphobia in the student world, and a greater one than criticism of Christianity or Judaism. You can mock Mormons all you like, and make a musical out of it, but woe betide you if you mock the Koran.
Consider the case of two women who have criticised each other recently. Guess which one has been no-platformed?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born champion of women’s rights who suffered genital mutilation; escaped an arranged marriage by seeking asylum in Holland; left Islam; became a Dutch MP; and wrote a film whose director was murdered by an Islamist, the killer leaving a note pinned to his victim’s chest warning her that she would be next. She calls for an Islamic reformation.
Linda Sarsour is a hijab-wearing Muslim who defends Sharia, was one of the organisers of the Women’s March after Mr Trump’s inauguration and has since deleted a tweet in which she said she wished that she could “take away” Ms Hirsi Ali’s vagina. In reply, Ms Hirsi Ali wrote: “There’s no principle that demeans, degrades and dehumanises women more than the principle of Sharia law. Linda Sarsour is a defender of that.”
Yet it was, incredibly, Ms Hirsi Ali who in 2014 was disinvited from receiving an honorary degree by Brandeis University. The episode revealed a deliberate attempt to portray criticism of Islam as equivalent to criticism of women or minorities. Few feminists spoke up for her. “The concern,” blathered one, “is that her intervention into the issue of gender equality in Muslim societies will strengthen racism rather than weaken sexism.”
This alliance of the feminist left with Islam cannot last. Mr Trump’s crass travel ban may have breathed new life into it, but the tensions are growing and the audiences for the likes of Mr Yiannopoulos with them.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.