Saturday 21 September 2019

Stepford Students safe in their little PC world

Brendan O'Neill was shouted down during a Trinity debate on the right to be offensive. Here's something else that's guaranteed to make them hiss

SHOCKER: Miley Cyrus won’t be addressing students any time soon
SHOCKER: Miley Cyrus won’t be addressing students any time soon

Brendan O'Neill

Remember when stud-ents were known for being free-wheelin', outspoken, always agitated by The Man and his attempts to tell them what they could think, say and do?

Those days are gone. Today's students, or at least student leaders, are among the most censorious people in society.

They might still look edgy, with their multi-coloured hair and eccentric clobber, but beneath the punkish veneer there lurks a word-policing urge that even Mary Whitehouse would have considered extreme.

I encountered some of these Stepford Students, as I call them, at Trinity this week. I was taking part in a debate on the right to be offensive. Pretty much every sentence I uttered was interrupted by students standing up to bark "Point of order!" or to hiss "Shame!"

What did I say that was so shameful? I defended freedom of speech. I argued that everyone should be allowed to say what they think, and everyone else should be free to hear them and to make up their minds about whether their words are valuable or claptrap.

And to the glaze-eyed Stepford Students, who create "Safe Spaces" in which fragile students can hide from hairy ideas and demand trigger warnings on books that might rattle students' sensibilities, no idea is more foul than freedom of speech.

I argued that there's a brilliant, ugly irony to today's war on offensiveness on campus which has seen controversial speakers No Platformed everywhere from Trinity to Oxford and has led to pop songs, newspapers and even sombreros being banned on campuses on the basis that they're "offensive".

The irony is that this mad effort to squash offensive ideas is itself fuelled by offensive ideas.

This campaign to ban from campuses any view that insults or offends certain groups is itself insulting, to just about everyone, and is offensive to the ideals of freedom and equality.

Students, I argued, should feel infinitely more offended by the paternalistic student bureaucrats who want to save them from the words of the far right or misogynists than by the words of the banned people themselves.

The new student intolerance of offence gives offence to women, whom it views as wilting wallflowers, so pathetic that they can't even hear Blurred Lines without crumbling into a distraught state. That silly sexist song has been banned on more than 30 campuses in Britain, on the basis that it might damage women's self-esteem.

It's offensive to Muslims, whom it treats as so fragile, so child-like, that they must be protected from criticisms of their religion. The reason given earlier this year for Trinity students' effective ban on Maryam Namazie, an Iranian secularist who criticises Islamism, is that her words would have "intimidated" Muslim students.

It gives offence to young men, whom it views as so rapacious, so robotic, that they can't be trusted to read the Sun or Zoo or Nuts - all of which have faced censorship on campus - without turning into beasts who will hurt women.

No one escapes the ironically offensive slurs of the anti-offence lobby. Every constituency on campus finds itself either patronised or demonised by these pseudo-radical censors.

It's the great paradox of political correctness (PC). It presents itself as fair and nice and concerned about other people's welfare. Yet it defames everyone. It treats everyone as fragile or wicked.

It depicts all "white men" as self-entitled rapists-in-waiting. It treats all "black women" - yes, they think all black women are exactly the same - as feeling beleaguered by sexist/racist words. It treats all Muslims - a group as socially and economically mixed as any other - as less capable of having their beliefs criticised than, say, white Christians.

In the very act of seeking to save minority groups from offence, the new PC mob dehumanises those groups, lumping them all together as an indistinguishable mass.

And it infantilises them, treating them as sorry creatures in need of protection from harm by enlightened student bureaucrats.

So when students' unions across the UK banned Blurred Lines on the basis that female students would find it "deeply offensive", it was like we'd gone back to the Victorian era, when women had chaperones to protect them from hearing gruff words.

When students' unions ban speakers who might offend Muslims or blacks, it's like we've reverted to the era of the White Man's Burden, when the well-educated likewise thought they had a responsibility to guard fragile minorities from stupid beliefs.

Student leaders at Trinity have frequently offended the student body by seeking to save them from offensive ideas.

In 2002, Trinity students campaigned to No Platform Jorg Haider, the far-right Austrian politician, on the basis that his words would harm students.

In 2011, Trinity students successfully had a talk by the then BNP leader Nick Griffin cancelled on the basis that he would threaten students' mental and physical security.

And this year's effective ban on Namazie, who has nothing in common with Haider or Griffin, was justified on grounds that she would have made Muslim students feel distressed. The student body at Trinity should feel profoundly offended - not by the people who were invited to speak but by their own representatives and cowardly university management who conspired to protect them from thoughts, beliefs, mere words.

Yes, Nick Griffin would have brought some dodgy ideas to Trinity. But the student bureaucrats who had him banned did something far worse than that: they questioned students' capacity to hear those ideas. They questioned students' ability to be discerning, thoughtful, grown-up. Griffin could have said nothing at Trinity that would have been even nearly as offensive as that.

This is what censorship is always about: calling into question the capacity of adults to see and hear everything and to judge it for themselves. This prejudice drives all forms of censorship, whether it's enforced by the State, the Church or stud-ents; whether it's the Irish State still banning books about abortion or students' union bureaucrats banning Blurred Lines.

One might be a legal ban covering a whole country, and the other an SU ban covering campus, but the same paternalism drives both, a paternalism that says people can't be trusted. In this case women can't be trusted, either to read books on abortion or to hear a pop song that might fatally damage their self-esteem.

The State seeks to protect us from moral pollution; students' unions seek to protect students from mental harm. The former sounds authoritarian, the latter caring. But both are fuelled by the same foul idea: that They - officialdom or priests or SUs - know what is best for Us, the fragile plebs.

I argued at Trinity that there are two simple reasons why we must defend the right to be offensive. First, because it's good to give offence. And second, because it is good to be offended.

It's good to give offence because it helps drive technological and social leaps forward. As GBS said: "All great truths begin as blasphemies." If earlier brave warriors hadn't blasphemed against the idea that women were too visceral to be allowed to vote, or that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, then we would live in a poorer, more ignorant world. Their offensiveness helped to make us freer and happier.

And it's good to be offended, because it keeps your mind alive. Being challenged allows us to work out whether what we believe is right or wrong. It invites us to change our minds where necessary, or to get sharper at articulating our worldview.

If we "Safe Space" ourselves from offence, we become dogmatic. We never test our ideas, or ourselves, and we become shallow and shrill. Subjecting ourselves to public criticism, even ridicule, is the only way we can grow intellectually. As Cardinal John Henry Newman said: "The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow."

If you hide yourself from opposition, you become stupid. Censorship is the mother of cretinism. I pleaded with Trinity's students to reject censorship, in all circumstances, and instead allow everyone to speak and, more importantly, allow yourselves the great joy, the great human experience, of thinking for yourselves.

Their response? "Shame! Shame! Shame!" I said they could think for themselves, and they effectively retorted: "No, we can't." What a sad, searing indictment of Ireland's once finest university.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss