The Old Divinity School. This Lent, the Divinity Faculty was divided by concerns over right-wing influence, in a particularly esoteric chapter of Cambridge's free speech warsThe wub

Content note: this article mentions sexual assault

For an institution flooded with students and faculty incapable of shutting up, Cambridge University people are very paranoid about free speech. This past term demonstrated an extremely obsessive hunt for censorship, opening with the unveiling of a “secretive right-wing network” – so secretive it brought Jordan Peterson to speak at an event open to all University members – and ending with an exposé of emails inviting Tory ministers to speak in a non “confrontational” setting at the Cambridge Union. Of course, despite the controversy, none of the Union’s invitations were actually accepted.

How shocking it is that after another day of bullying people out of her party, calling Extinction Rebellion activists ‘criminals’, or unlawfully seizing asylum seekers’ phones, Priti Patel did not feel the need to unwind in the non-judgmental environment of the Union. However, the fact that a student felt the need to appeal to a right-wing minister in an email alluringly sprinkled with censorship tells us a lot more about the way we perceive political speech than about politics itself. Especially in bubbled-up ivory towers such as Cambridge, discussions tend to be based on theory rather than reality, and words slowly detach from real-life events until they turn into events themselves. While the fact that people cannot walk around spitting slurs as they go is definitely good, we cannot think it is the main road to social justice. The battle over free speech remains largely detached and counterproductive – on both ends. If you want to change the world, it is better to truly hear the people you are fighting with and against.

“Words detach from real life until they turn into events themselves”

The nice thing about words is that they are very very easy to reshape. It is far easier to say or omit a couple of syllables than it is to change the stock-market, or end police brutality, racial discrimination, and domestic violence. Solving resource-distribution inequality and shipping Jeff Bezos indefinitely into space also remain difficult. Many young people truly fear for the world and want to make it into a better place, and they consume a lot of reality through words on their screens, creating the illusion that reshaping the discussion of events could retroactively change their nature. As the verbal plane is also a space relatively free from the most direct forms of violence, the field of speech becomes the main vehicle for changing the world, censoring violence out of the page, cancelling cruelty out of sight.

This approach reaches new peaks in campus environments; Brandeis University even added ‘rule of thumb’ to their list of words to avoid last summer. The speech obsession seems to have three main effects: it exhausts the political energy of activists, constantly on the hunt for the new correct form of speech, reshaping and re-censoring their vocabulary. Secondly, it alienates many people who are not at the centre of the new-speech discourse, are incapable of keeping up to date with the linguistic zeitgeist, and thus find themselves too exasperated to even enter left-wing discourse. The sad irony is that those people are usually those whose everyday racial, gender, or socio-economic battles the left is supposed to be fighting. And third and foremost – it plays immediately into the hands of the right – handing them the alluring position of the ‘silenced’ voice. The voice of the victim, hushed away, forced into secretive networks, requiring reassuring invitations from university students’ debating forums. Nothing is more appealing than a mysterious, misunderstood underdog - as apparently proved by Jess from Gilmore Girls, and any other campus reactionary who thinks they are a free-speech fire-fighter.

“The battle over speech is more imprisoning for those trying to censor”


Mountain View

This House believes it is the centre of the universe

When we censor people out - they do not change their opinions, and there is no need to be shocked that they form semi-secret spaces to maintain discussion without interruption. Only then, when there is no opportunity for true dialogue and debate, opinions can get way more unregulated and violent. It is also way harder to fight an opponent whose true motives and beliefs remain unexposed; I have never heard anyone in Cambridge disclose their belief that sexual assault is a nice weekend activity, yet many of them practice it on a regular basis. Nice, gender-inclusive students are not seized at night by a strange Mr Hyde-like inner force, it is simply that they all adopted the new speech, without need for any new actions. This is not at all to say that right-wing students or faculty are inherently linked to sexual assault, but to exemplify how the battle over speech is way more imprisoning for those trying to censor speech than for those being censored, as the former find themselves ever-chained to the field of words, whilst the latter can just reshape their sentence and move on with their day.

This is why, whilst the left may hold the domain of speech, the right seems to hold every actual socio-economic source of power. We are all so feminist and green (even H&M!) - until the real world is concerned. But who cares about the real world, when we can gaslight ourselves into the battles of language? In the Plato-cave of Twitter, it is way nicer to graffiti on the walls and believe we changed the objects moving outside. We shouldn’t let that happen. True change requires patience, and discomfort, but it has real world-changing consequences. Many people truly care and their care should be channelled into meaningful actions, not wasted on serving the public relations of their opponents. Yes, words hold power, yet it is time that we use that power for reality, and let words serve us instead of serving them. On the edge of a fresh new spring, the end of this term is a great opportunity for that - as well as a great time for picking up some points from the Union on how not to invite people to your birthday party.