1 June 2018

Endangered speeches – it’s time for universities to speak out

By David Betz and M L R Smith

The full and unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was only published in Britain in 1960 by Penguin Books, over three decades after it was written, in contravention of the obscenity laws of the day. It led to one of the most famous court cases in the social history of the nation.

On one side, “progressives” claimed that Lawrence’s novel was one of the greats of 20th century literature. On the other “reactionaries” decried it as pornographic. The lead prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, seemingly epitomised a sort of cultural Colonel Blimp when he famously asked the jury if this was the sort of book that they would wish their “wife or servants to read”. He was laughed out of court, almost literally.

The times they were “a changing”. And they are “a changing” again. The Lady Chatterley trial might have been the precursor to a more liberated age, but the tools that enabled that liberation – freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom to challenge convention – are now under degrees of threat like never before.

Ideas are more heavily policed in Britain today than they have been in two generations, more now perhaps than at any time since 1946, when the wartime fascist turncoat Lord Haw Haw was executed in Wandsworth Prison for treason.

Of course, no one cares about four letter words in books or films anymore. When High Street shops are flogging cheap tops to teens coyly labelled “FCUK”, you know that particular battle has long been lost, or won, depending on your point of view. But the Government, and groups and individuals abetted by government, are in other ways increasingly interested in restricting what people read, see and hear across a range of issues – and they are getting away with it.

For several decades a variety of social trends have been chipping away at the notion of free speech. The factors contributing to this movement include:

1) an era of over-vigilant, and certainly over-indulgent, parenting which has inhibited the maturation of some sections of the younger generation, making them unduly sensitive to criticism, and thus excessively dependent on the validation of authority figures

2) the growth within psychology of a school of thought that privileges “feelings” over thoughts, accentuating notions of vulnerability and that certain ideas can cause “harm”

3) the emergence of “post-truth” discourse in academia, which announces that truth is not really truth, and free speech is not free speech but merely a disguise to privilege dominant ideas and uphold existing power inequalities

4) the rise of identity politics that collectivises people into groups, negating the concept of individual autonomy, and dividing people into categories of oppression – the “voiceless” should be allowed to speak, the traditionally dominant majority should not

5) state-licensed policies of multiculturalism that endorse almost all of the above, and wish to protect “vulnerable minorities” from offence (particularly if they have a habit of letting that offence manifest itself in acts of violence), while seeking to crack down on any form of activity that dissents from this state-enforced ideology.

One could go on.

In recent years we have seen what happens when people seek to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy: they have ended up being been banned from entry to the UK because they intended to give speeches that “might not be conducive to the public good” – a broad and highly elusive net that has ensnared elected politicians of other EU countries, as well as journalists and YouTube bloggers.

They have been put on trial for making jokes that are deemed to be offensive. They have been arrested for making comments on social media perceived to be hateful… to someone, somewhere.

Further afield, public institutions have been bullied into dis-inviting speakers considered controversial by noisy interest groups. Many speakers have been subject to de-platforming efforts – often successful; and where such efforts have been unsuccessful hecklers have disrupted speaking events. In some instances, individuals have been subject to arrest and secret incarceration, actions that at the very least raise disturbing questions about the abuse of state power.

Within the confines of the university sphere, where one might have expected the free exchange of ideas to thrive, speakers and audiences have even been violently attacked by protesters. Twice this has occurred at King’s College London alone, while at another British university Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was physically manhandled.

Elsewhere, universities have mandated the presence of paid “safe space” enforcers at public talks, academic journals pull articles from their pages – and their editors are hounded – when errant scholars happen to write on topics that are seen as contentious. Increasingly students themselves report that they feel compelled to self-censor in class and more generally while on campus because of a fear of the hostility of a narrow-minded and censorious intellectual climate.

It is a cliché to call this a free speech “crisis”. A hack playwright might see in this situation an ironic farce where the same sort of crowd which has lionised norm-transgressing in film, literature, music, and art, praising works from Piss Christ to Psycho as “exciting”, “shocking”, “daring”, “disturbing”, and “sickening”, as it stripped away one layer after another of what was socially acceptable, has descended into a scolding mob seemingly never more than one social interaction away from a paroxysm of vitriolic offence.

A better dramatist would be wont to call it tragedy. After all, this is the country which arguably before all others invented, championed, and fought bloodily and defiantly in the defence of freedom of speech.

Perhaps it is neither farce nor tragedy. It is, instead, both much less and much more. It is pathetic and weak that Britons as individuals, great British institutions like our universities, not to mention swathes of the House of Commons and the Lords, and much of the media and cultural concourse, have been browbeaten and gaslighted into meek submission of our inalienable right to speak our minds and conscience.

It is one thing to be conquered by the legions of Sauron, an epic and sad Gotterdammerung; it is another to have one’s liberty wheedled away by the inveiglements of Wormtongue. In the end, though, it is also exceedingly dangerous to the fabric of society. The right of individuals to speak freely is what permits an open, liberal, and democratic country to survive and to flourish over the long term.

Without free speech the best that can be hoped for is a Pharaonic society: moderately prosperous if unequal, potentially powerful, but static, stultifying, and unchanging, presided over by a dull, elite-ridden oligarchy, with a bureaucracy recreating itself forever more. The worst, of course, is what George Orwell was trying to warn us of in 1984.

The thing is that it is here. It has been staring us right in the FCUKing face. It has emerged ever so slowly but ever so rapidly people are starting to recognise it. If the British government was actively trying to foment societal unrest, revolution even, then it could hardly have done better than it has thus far in creating the conditions for that sort of eventuality.

As academics it has been depressing to observe the extent to which both the country and in particular its institutions of higher learning have retreated from the understanding of freedom of expression as the very essence of a liberal polity. As professors in the Department of War Studies we are all too aware of the direction to which events are driving us and the precipitousness of the fall should we continue on this path.

It is time to put a stop to the erosion of free speech. Universities in the UK, and any thinking academic worth their name, should be at the forefront of this effort. It is time to call out those who seek to suppress viewpoint diversity or extinguish legitimately expressed dissent from the ruling orthodoxy. And that includes calling out the actions of the universities, which through a soft-headed willingness to appease vocal groups often allow the forces of intolerance to further entrench themselves.

Staying silent or shrugging helplessly in the background will not only fail to do anything to improve the intellectual climate, it is ultimately to be complicit in the undermining of the very terms of the university as an enlightened project based on the evaluation of facts, evidence, reason and argument.

David Betz is Professor of War in the Modern World at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

M.L.R. Smith is Head of Department and Professor of Strategic Theory at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.