1 August 2021

Weekly Briefing: Pick battles, not fights

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Another week, another bunch of students apparently trying to censor views they don’t agree with. ‘LSE Class War’, an unofficial leftwing grouplet at the London School of Economics has issued a set of ‘demands’ that would be tragic if they weren’t so funny.

They range, on a descending scale of barminess, from naming a lecture theatre after leftwing academic David Graeber, to the usual ‘decolonising’ the university, to getting rid of private school students and dissolving the university’s Hayek Society because the great Austrian economist promotes “oppression of working class people” (a claim comprehensively taken apart by CapX regular Ryan Bourne earlier this week).

My instinct with this kind of weakly written, nonsensical agit-prop is to simply ignore it. Indeed, some have speculated that the whole thing may just be an elaborate, not especially amusing, prank from someone with too much time on their hands. It’s not 100% certain that whoever is behind the account is even a student at LSE, and the Instagram account that launched this ‘campaign’ had under 200 followers (and now seems to have disappeared). Nonetheless, this episode managed to generate a good deal of media coverage, with several national titles picking up the story.

Although I’m sympathetic to the need for vigilance, especially given some of the rather sinister posts from the main Class War Twitter account, we ought to be careful not to inflate the actions of tiny, unidentified groups into something bigger than they are.

Of course, there undoubtedly are students who support no-platforming, ‘cancelling’ and generally making their campus a ‘safe space’ – just look at the successful campaigns to remove the names of William Gladstone and David Hume from buildings at Liverpool and Edinburgh universities. But what really struck me about those cases, along with that of Edinburgh academic Neil Thin, was not the absurdity of the students’ demands, but the fact the university authorities went along with them.

The LSE Class War episode, meanwhile, stands out not so much as a case of excessive wokery or authoritarianism, but as an example of how easily a few attention-seeking half-wits with a social media account can generate publicity. The main lesson I’d draw is not that Gen Z are raving lefties (though many profess to be), but that the entry barrier for a culture war battle is now ridiculously low.

And given that a lot of these incidents end up being rather flimsy, it strikes me that those of us on the pro-freedom side of things should be discerning, rather than trying to wade into every confected row – because all you’re doing is giving the other side the oxygen of publicity. That’s doubly true for politicians, for whom getting involved in these arguments can easily backfire. Just look at the palaver various ministers got into over the England football team taking the knee, or Nigel Farage’s cack-handed attack on the RNLI this week, which ended up giving the charity a huge fundraising boost.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean standing aside and leaving the field clear for intolerant leftwingers – but if you want to advance the cause of free speech, pick battles, not fights.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.