Protests against DSK's appearance at the Union in 2012: when does protest against a speaker turn into no platforming?Flickr: Devon Buchanan

Tim Squirrell should be expelled.  Turfed out of Cambridge.  The reasons I’m getting together a movement to have him chucked out is that he’s written an article that annoys me – sorry, “is deeply offensive to me”, about the controversy surrounding a cancelled abortion debate in Oxford.  And if I succeed in this effort, as he packs his things together, he will have learned a salutatory lesson of the difference between merely being against government censorship and being in favour of free speech.

There’s so much rubbish written about this subject that the fundamental point of freedom of speech is obscured. It isn’t so much about the other chap’s right to speak as about your right to listen.  It’s about your right to be challenged, to be exposed to further information, to be able to really learn. That right is undermined by social intolerance almost as much as by government censorship.

If everyone else in the world agrees on a subject, and one person dissents, then that person does not merely have a right to speak. She has even more of a right to speak, because whatever she has to say must have cost some thought, might contain something worth knowing, and would at least force us to re-examine our own views. 

It doesn’t matter how awful a person is, the chances of them being completely wrong about everything is negligible.  Professor Raul Hilberg, who wrote one of the first studies of the Holocaust, says plainly that he has used material that comes from neo-Nazi publishing houses.  Similarly, it was the Hitler-sympathising historian David Irving who showed that Oswald Mosley was in direct receipt of payment from Joseph Goebbels, and I learned much more about the nature of modern day European fascism from one speech by Nick Griffin than from any handwringing Guardian article.

Just to expand that last one, I came across a rather long speech given by Griffin at a European conference of likeminded types, in which he expressed a deep fear of far-right violence.  At the time, I thought that if The Guardian is worrying about far-right violence, it’s probably Tuesday; if Nick Griffin is getting worried about it, I might want to pay attention.  Following a course of study which involved having to buy some rather odd books, I was able to write several articles for Standpoint about the emergence of a new form of super-fascism quite capable of succeeding where the BNP’s Cro-Magnon membership never can.  The point is that I would not have been able to write any of that, had I simply decided that Griffin wasn’t ‘entitled to a platform’.

Of course, there’s a time and a place.  At my workplace, political and religious discussion is left at the door, and that’s understandable.  However, there has to be a place where even the most outlandish or vile ideas can be freely aired and discussed, and university is precisely that place.  The point of university isn’t to train you in what to think, but how to think.  How can you possibly have any confidence in your own ideas if you have not tested them in the business of debate?  In his article for the Tab, Squirrell proclaims that “some things simply aren’t up for discussion”, and gives as an example the question “Should we euthanize all the gays?” In other words, he is proclaiming that we should not be able to argue against euthanizing all the gays, and his only strategy is to hope the question never comes up.  Similarly, when our feminist society prefers to get debates cancelled and bully and defame the pro-life society rather than engage with them, they announce that they don’t actually have any real arguments against the pro-life position.

Try this motion: ‘This house believes black people are on average genetically less intelligent than white people’.  Would you be willing to argue in that debate?  I actually have done so, and I learned two things.  The first is that it’s not that hard to argue against that motion.  The second is that, even so, the purveyors of racialist pseudoscience typically slice and dice most mainstream opponents, because those mainstream opponents have never been obliged to properly defend their position.  In short, they’ve never learned how to support racial equality with reason, facts and logic, and are reduced to hoping that it can be supported by faith.

This is dreary, tiresome and ineffective.  It is also an insult to all those who struggled for racial equality.  Men like Nelson Mandela faced censorship, constant threat of death and long imprisonment, and still managed to win because they had right and reason on their side, and knew how to use them.  No one is asking delicate blooms like Squirrell to face anything like that sort of pressure.  All that is asked is that they learn how to stand up and make a good argument – a responsibility that he apparently finds too onerous.   He writes that certain speakers are not acceptable because they “can make people feel unsafe”.  If you are so weak and vacillating that the mere presence of someone in a debating society causes you fear, then how on earth will you ever stand up to a real threat in the real world?  Squirrell praises the NUS’s no platform policy.  This would be the same NUS that recently voted not to condemn the Islamic State. 

Feminists in particular are foolish for embracing the tactics of intimidation and bullying in lieu of argument and persuasion.  Skip the moral question – the practical matter is that those people who really do think that a woman’s place is Kinder, Küche , Kirche – that is, Children, Kitchen and, er, Religious Establishment – are much, much better at that game.

The University should be a ‘safe space’.  What it should not be is a soporific one.  The point of a university is to train young minds, and that’s done by exposing them to the broadest possible range of ideas, and training them how to engage with them all.  And the reason that’s done is because out in the real world, the bad people don’t go away just because you yell, “I’m offended!”

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