Free intellectual inquiry is under serious threat at universities across the Anglosphere. At the very places designed to inspire a battle of diverse ideas, there are now relentless efforts to censor debate. And, as recent events in United States, United Kingdom and Australia highlight, it’s often students themselves who seek to censor opposing voices.
At Middlebury College earlier this month, prominent American sociologist Charles Murray was loudly shouted down. Students began by reading a prepared statement in a loud, robotic, and cult-like manner, and then through chants that prevented Murray from speaking to the public lecture. In an encouraging sign, Murray was moved by university administrators to a private recording studio for a streamed debate. However, the students managed to track him down, bang against the walls, and set off a fire alarm. When he left the studio the angry mob surrounded Murray, an accompanying academic was injured, and his car was banged and rocked. The students then followed Murray to dinner, forcing him to make a quick exit.
At Lincoln University, in northern England, Conservative students faced censorship this month after pointing out that their university is intolerant of free speech. The spiked Free Speech University Rankings 2017 found that 64 per cent of British universities now actively censor speech, and 31 per cent stifle speech through excessive regulation. These figures have been increasing over the past three years.
The Conservative Society posted the meagre result for their university on their Facebook. In a blatant display of ironic lack of self-awareness, their student union responded by suspending the society’s social media accounts. It’s now a thought crime to question the state of free speech on some campuses. This comes after students at London universities voted to ban a range of major newspapers from their campuses late last year.
Sadly, the situation is little different in Australia. The Institute of Public Affairs’ Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 found that eight-in-ten Australian universities have policies or have taken action that unambiguously threatens free speech. Just one university has no threats. Last week, among the furore against Coopers following their sponsorship of a debate on same-sex marriage by the Bible Society, the University of Technology Sydney’s student union bar, The Loft, announced that it would no longer be selling Coopers. This is, of course, a commercial decision that they are free to make. However, as many have pointed out, the furious response to sponsoring what was a calm and civilised debate between two MPs is farcical.
The shutting down of opposing viewpoints is a particularly worrying sign for a student organisation. The UTS student bar was quite explicit on this point, declaring in a self-righteous Facebook status that “same-sex marriage should not even be a debate”. Not only is this counterproductive to the cause – how does one achieve same-sex marriage if you’re not willing to make the case? – it shows that those who should be most attracted to intellectual debate, students, are no longer willing to engage.
The grievances of the Middlebury College protesters provide telling insight. The students, who were encouraged by some faculty members, claimed Murray is a racist, white nationalist, pseudoscientist, sexist, eugenicist, and anti-gay. The last point raises the spectre of just how ridiculous these claims are – Murray is a supporter of same-sex marriage.
The protesters have never actually bothered to read Murray’s work or engage with the case he makes. They were fighting against a devil-like construct that simply does not exist. This makes the Middlebury College episode a serious concern. Murray is controversial but not intentionally offensive. He is no Milo Yiannopoulos, he does not go out there to provoke, he undertakes academically deep research and speaks on his findings.
Murray was at Middlebury to discuss his latest work, Coming Apart. A book not about racial difference, but rather an exploration of cultural divide between rich and poor whites in American society. He finds Americans live in geographic enclaves with people like themselves, and the poor have lost connection with the core institutions which made America successful. These insights are helpful to understand attempts to censor today.
Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves recently crunched the numbers on which American universities are most likely to disinvite speakers. His analysis had an intriguing conclusion: the more economically exclusive the institution, the more likely the students have attempted to hinder free speech. It is the array of wealthy students, who, as Murray has found, live in enclaves disconnected from much of the rest of American society, that are most likely to censor speech.
After the protest at Middlebury an academic at Princeton University, who had organised a less dramatic protest against Murray on her Ivy League campus, was interviewed on Fox News. “At some point we have to stop paying attention to [his views],” she said justifying attempts to silence Murray. The state of universities could not be more sufficiently summarised. Academics and students live in a bubble, assume their viewpoints are right and are to be taken for granted, and no longer wish to engage with debate. People who disagree with their worldview are persona non grata – rarely invited to campus and censored when they do.
Universities should be places where controversial ideas are debated and discussed, where students and academics from different stripes challenge each other. Universities need people with different worldviews. This is the most effective way to increase our understandings of problems. There is nothing rigorous about academic work that is unchallenged, however too often this is just the case.
The relentless effort to censor differing views is damaging to universities, a core institution that has helped the West achieve substantial progress. Each case of censorship has a further chilling effect that will only make this worse. Universities will naturally want to avoid similar furores and publicity, and accordingly are unlikely to invite controversial speakers in future. The tragedy of modern academia deepens.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.
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