Universities have always been hives of activism—and long may that continueby Kieran Devlin / September 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
As the new academic year approaches, we are once more subjected to the fallacy that students are suppressing ideas which conflict with their left-wing biases. That university campuses are places of free speech fascism thanks to “snowflake” students banning controversial speakers. Ignoring the obvious irony—those complaining about “snowflakes” themselves throw tantrums at the hint of a “no-platform” policy—the claim that students today are in any way “tyrannical” is nonsense. The fact is that they have always fought for what they believe in—and are right to do so.
The misconception is everywhere. Take, for instance, this recent piece in the Spectator by Brendan O’ Neill. It’s worth unpicking what’s happening here step by step.
First of all, whatever conservative commentators would have you believe, protests on campus aren’t new. Universities have always been hubs of activism. Historians record that students in 13th century Paris and Bologna staged demonstrations against compulsory gown use, while in the UK, as civic university colleges emerged in the latter half of the 19th century, students formed councils to represent their interests at a national level. (This was before the National Union of Students was established in 1921.) The examples get more serious: from the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Anti-Apartheid Movement to the 2010 fees hike marches, it’s no secret that students have always campaigned against injustice. Protest is as intrinsic to the university experience as two-day hangovers and library all-nighters.
True, sometimes the line is crossed and the ends—a fair society for all—do not justify the means. But the suppression of free thought depicted in the press is largely exaggerated. Instances of genuine censorship are disagreeable but hardly earth-shattering, and the plural of anecdote is not data. The portrayal of campuses as repressive dystopias for social conservatives, where no one dare start an Ayn Rand bookclub, is disingenuous.
“Protest is as intrinsic to the university experience as two-day hangovers and library allnighters”
It isn’t tyranny to no-platform those with abhorrent views—as UC Berkeley did when it cancelled a speech from ex-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos following student pressure. Rather, it is satisfying a moral obligation to invalidate what is awful by the standards of civil society. The line which distinguishes what speech is valid and what isn’t is invariably murky, but there are ideas that can be agreed upon as intolerable because they are demonstrably dishonest or…