Arif Ahmed , a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, has been appointed the UK’s first ‘free speech tsar’. The position – Ahmed’s official title will be director for freedom of speech and academic freedom – is a creation of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, which passed into law in May. Ahmed will work out of the Office for Students and have the power of ‘monitoring and enforcing’ regulations that impose on universities and student unions a new duty to ‘secure freedom of speech within the law’ for academics, students, staff and visiting speakers. What does this mean in practice? The Act is sweeping in ambition but light on detail. It does specify that the use of university premises cannot be ‘denied to any individual or body’ on the grounds of ‘their ideas or opinions’ or ‘policy or objectives’. It also says that academic staff have the right not to be ‘adversely affected’ in university hiring and promotion as a result of exercising the right to ‘question and test received wisdom’ and ‘to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’.
These are baffling provisions, stemming from a conflation – now commonplace – of free speech and academic freedom. Suppose that a climate change denier wants to speak at, or be employed by, Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. It is presumably within the rights of Oxford’s geography dons – world experts in ecological change and crisis – to deny him a platform or a job. Indeed, that is the whole point about academic freedom: it is the freedom to exercise academic expertise in order to discriminate between good and bad ideas, valid and invalid arguments, sound and hare-brained methods. This is what academics do when we curate syllabuses, make appointments, allocate graduate places and funding, peer-review papers and books, and invite speakers. In each of these cases we are exercising our professional judgment about the intellectual worth and seriousness of other people’s ideas.
Of course, academics can and sometimes do abuse their power: it wouldn’t be a protected exercise of academic freedom if a mathematics department refused to hire a first-rate mathematician just because she was a Tory, or a vocal critic of Israel. But much of what is under attack in the new Act, and the broader political onslaught on universities of which it is a part, is not the abuse of academic freedom, but academic freedom itself. My hypothetical example of a climate change sceptic applying for a job in Oxford’s geography department wasn’t idle: in a recent essay in the Times, Douglas Murray, a director of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, took as a sign of our putative crisis over free speech the difficulty someone who opposes a net zero emissions goal has in becoming a university vice chancellor. As Lord Wallace of Saltaire remarked in the Lords debate on the higher education legislation last year, ‘If challenging the allegedly oppressive liberal cultural elite means insisting on climate change sceptics being appointed to senior academic positions regardless of their attitudes to evidence and reasoned debate, then our universities and their reputation are, indeed, at risk.’ Quite. The university isn’t, and shouldn’t be, Hyde Park Corner, or the comment pages of the Times. Or, as a colleague and I once put it in a (peer-reviewed) paper:
It is permissible for disciplinary gatekeepers to exclude cranks and shills from valuable communicative platforms in academic contexts, because effective teaching and research requires that communicative privileges be given to some and not others, based on people’s disciplinary competence … The university would largely be a waste of time for teachers and students, and its subsidisation a waste of resources for the rest of society, were things to be otherwise.
To point out that right-wing culture warriors conflate academic freedom and free speech is, in a sense, to give them too much credit. In practice they subscribe to ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ only when, and to whichever ideological ends, it suits them. The new Higher Education Act was given royal assent just nine days after the passage of the Public Order Act, which eviscerates the right to peaceful protest in the UK – just in time to empower the Metropolitan Police to arrest six members of the anti-monarchy group Republic on the morning of the coronation, with little outcry from the free speech brigade. Rishi Sunak has defended the police and their new powers, saying that people have the right ‘to go about their day-to-day lives without facing serious disruption’. ‘Serious disruption’ – a phrase that appears 94 times in the Public Order Act – now legally includes many of the mildest tactics used by activist groups from the women of Greenham Common to Extinction Rebellion, including locking on, blocking roads and blockading oil terminals. It also includes, according to the Metropolitan Police, carrying rape alarms, for which three women’s safety volunteers were arrested ahead of the coronation.
Right-wing newspapers unironically celebrated Sunak’s appointment of a free speech tsar as another volley in his war on ‘woke nonsense’ – a campaign, as Sunak described it last year, against objectionable viewpoints that have ‘permeated public life’: that biology doesn’t determine gender, that language is malleable, that Britain must own up to its colonial past. You can seek to eradicate such viewpoints from universities. You can also believe that universities should become no-holds-barred venues for free and open debate. But it takes a certain mental flexibility to think that the one can be a way of achieving the other.
Does the right contradict itself? Very well then it contradicts itself. The new Higher Education Act appears on its face to be in conflict with the ‘Prevent duty’ created by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, sponsored by Theresa May when she was home secretary. The government guidance on Prevent says that universities should prohibit visiting speakers who are likely to express ‘extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups’, even where the expression of such views is legal. In 2020 the Department of Education issued guidance on implementing the statutory curriculum which included the requirement that ‘schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters,’ and listed as an example of an ‘extreme’ stance the ‘desire to abolish … capitalism’. Under a new speaker vetting scheme introduced by Jacob Rees-Mogg last year, eight people have been disinvited from speaking at government events, including Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons expert, and Kate Devlin, who studies the interaction between humans and technology. Both were told their invitations had been rescinded because they had criticised the Tories on social media.
The Higher Education Act makes universities and student unions that are derelict in their duty to uphold free speech liable to investigations and fines by the free speech tsar, as well as to civil claims brought by anyone who feels they have suffered ‘adverse consequences’ because of a university or student union’s ‘action or inaction’. It’s not clear just what this covers, but here are some possibilities, ordered from the certainly actionable to the potentially so: a student union voting to no-platform fascists; a university failing to quash student protest at a visit from, say, a war criminal; a student group putting out a statement condemning a professor for being transphobic; faculty changing a syllabus in response to student complaints about its racist content; students peacefully protesting outside a lecture; a geography department voting not to hire a climate change denier. It isn’t difficult to imagine how these could be framed as violations of the new law; it is for this reason that its opponents worried, as the bill made its way through Parliament, about the vexatious claims it seems bound to generate. In a letter sent last year to the secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan, the president of the Union of Jewish Students, warned that the bill could ‘foreseeably allow a range of extremists, including Holocaust deniers, legal recourse to obtain compensation if they are denied a platform’. ‘Adverse consequences’ is an extremely low bar: anyone who has been picketed or called names on Twitter might feel they have grounds to make a legal claim. Traditionally, it has been thought that a commitment to free expression required universities not to intervene when students protest or when faculty members publicly criticise other academics or politicians. But the new law threatens to redefine such non-intervention as itself a failure to promote free speech.
These ambiguities serve a purpose. No university or student union wants to pay heavy fines or be dragged into court. The prudent course of action is to silence dissent before it happens. No doubt universities will start hiring free speech compliance officers – chosen perhaps from the network of conservative academics who helped draw up the new legislation – who will advise on which forms of speech and protest are now verboten. The result will be a chilling of speech: precisely what the Act’s architects and supporters claim they oppose.
Ideological contortions of this sort are familiar from the US, where ‘free speech’ has, on the right, been increasingly evacuated of principle. In January, the presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis inaugurated his second term as governor of ‘the free state of Florida’ by declaring, ‘We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die.’ His project to restore freedom to his state has so far involved, among other things, blocking TikTok on servers at all educational institutions; prohibiting teachers and fellow students from using trans students’ chosen pronouns in public schools; prohibiting the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools; barring minors from drag shows; prohibiting state universities from spending government funds on programmes that ‘advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism’; forbidding general education courses at state universities from including ‘a curriculum that teaches identity politics’ based on ‘theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities’; and mandating that schools review reading lists whenever a parent complains. Recently, one school in Florida restricted access to ‘The Hill We Climb’, the poem Amanda Gorman read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, after a parent complained that it contained ‘hate messages’.
DeSantis is an extreme example of the right’s doublethink around free speech. In that sense he is a boon for more moderate Republicans. His legislative absurdities allow subtler attacks on free speech and academic freedom to blend into the political background. The Texas legislature, one of the 24 state legislatures which in 2021 introduced gag orders on the teaching of various topics including ‘critical race theory’, recently codified new grounds for the revocation of tenure at public universities, one of which was ‘moral turpitude’. At the University of Illinois in 2014, trustees voted to block the appointment of a new professor, Steven Salaita, after students and donors complained about his tweets criticising Israel. The billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have donated huge sums to advance their project of converting university students to free-market fundamentalism and then placing them in positions of political power. At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Koch money was donated on the understanding that the university would disclose the email addresses of any students who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship, so that the Koch Foundation could ‘notify students of opportunities’. (‘No one else has this infrastructure,’ the foundation’s vice president bragged to supporters at an annual meeting.) The university was also asked not to speak to journalists about these programmes without first seeking the foundation’s approval. In 2007, the foundation proposed to donate $7 million to Florida State University’s economics department, on the condition that it hired faculty members and funded graduate students who were ideologically aligned with Charles Koch. The conservative non-profit Turning Point USA (which the Chronicle of Higher Education has called the ‘dominant force in campus conservatism’), runs a Professor Watchlist with the names and details of academics who it claims ‘discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom’.
It could never happen in the UK, you might think. But Turning Point USA now has a UK offshoot, whose Education Watch programme promises to collect incidents of lecturers demonstrating ‘left-wing bias’. Turning Point UK has received enthusiastic endorsements from Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg. A key architect of the new Higher Education Act, the Birkbeck political scientist Eric Kaufmann, is on record endorsing DeSantis’s approach to higher education. Writing in the Telegraph earlier this year, Kaufmann warned of the ‘leftist capture of higher education’ – citing as evidence the fact that most young Britons say their country is racist – and praised DeSantis for understanding ‘that the only way to push back is through legislation and follow-through’. Kaufmann described with admiration DeSantis’s banning of a ‘high school curriculum in African American history which featured numerous writers in the [critical race theory] tradition’; his ‘takeover of a progressive Florida university, replacing its president and trustees with conservative appointees’; and his defunding of equity and diversity programmes. While Kaufmann concedes that some of these proposals go ‘too far’ – academic freedom, he says, means that professors should get to write curriculums – he exhorts Britain’s conservatives to take inspiration from DeSantis’s legislative approach: ‘Until the Tories discover their inner DeSantis, the blob will continue to spread the woke gospel and conservatism will have no future.’ Kaufmann is the co-author of two reports, published in 2019 and 2020, by the conservative think tank Policy Exchange on ‘Academic Freedom in the UK’. Together they set out a blueprint for a new ‘Academic Freedom Bill’. It bears a remarkable similarity to the new Higher Education Act. Kaufmann and his co-authors recommend, among other things, the extension to student unions of the duty to ensure freedom of speech; making universities liable to civil claims for free speech breaches; and the establishment of a new free speech tsar.
Soon after the bill passed into law, Kaufmann published a post on ConservativeHome describing the three-year-long campaign to create and enact the new legislation, posting it on Twitter with the comment: ‘My thoughts on how our policy network of academics, think tank staff, journalists and politicians successfully legislated against the censorious campus left.’ That ‘network’ includes Arif Ahmed, the new tsar. Until recently, both Kaufmann and Ahmed served on the advisory council of the Free Speech Union, which vociferously campaigned for the new legislation; Ahmed stepped down at the end of last year, weeks before the Mail on Sunday reported that he was the favourite for the new post. The Free Speech Union describes itself as ‘non-partisan’. Its founder is Toby Young, whose inability to resist tweeting about women’s breasts led to his resignation from the Office for Students. Others involved include Nigel Biggar, the emeritus Oxford theologian who has insisted that the British Empire ‘was not essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent’; Douglas Murray, who has bemoaned the absence of climate sceptics in high places; and the Cambridge associate professor of divinity James Orr, who has hosted both Jordan Peterson and the notorious peddler of race science Charles Murray at events for Trinity Forum Europe, a conservative Christian charity.
These men, together with other right-wing academics, reportedly began meeting in Cambridge shortly after Donald Trump’s election to discuss the threats to conservative values on campus, in particular the campaign for trans rights. Other key participants are said to have been Charles Vaughan, chief of staff of Thiel Capital, owned by the billionaire former Trump supporter Peter Thiel, and Jordan Peterson, who was invited by Orr and other academics to be a visiting fellow at the Cambridge Faculty of Divinity in 2019. After a photo emerged of Peterson with a man wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘I’m a proud Islamaphobe,’ misspelling and all, Cambridge disinvited Peterson; in the Policy Exchange report from 2020, Kaufmann and his co-authors cite this case in support of their proposed legislation – it would have allowed Peterson to sue Cambridge. ‘I remember this,’ Peterson said in a discussion with Ahmed and Orr on his podcast in 2021. ‘It was a T-shirt outlining his criticisms of Islam – of radical Islam – as he saw it … And I looked at it, and I looked at him … And then I thought: “Well, you know, that’s your T-shirt mate, that’s up to you to wear that.”’ Orr responds feelingly: ‘Just listening to you recount your experiences … is pretty moving to watch and difficult to hear.’
Under their shrill homilies about free speech, one can detect – as Kaufmann makes explicit in his Telegraph article – an anxiety about the diminishing place of conservatism on university campuses. It is true that a majority of UK academics are left of centre – though you’ll find far fewer on the actual left than GB News would have you believe – and that a majority of university students too are left-leaning. In their 2020 Policy Exchange report, Kaufmann et al claim that conservatives in the academy are subject to ‘a structural discriminatory effect’. This notion isn’t without its ironies. Elsewhere, Kaufmann has derided the idea of structural discrimination as it pertains to race and sex, arguing that its proponents’ ‘only measure of such structures – disparities – is also what they are claiming to explain, a classic instance of circular reasoning’. This is false when it comes to racial and sexual discrimination, for which there are substantial bodies of evidence. But it makes more sense when applied to the claim that conservatives face structural discrimination in universities, of a kind that would explain their minority status.
People are as a rule politically biased, and it would be surprising if liberal lecturers didn’t sometimes discriminate against conservative ones, and vice versa. In one of their Policy Exchange reports, Kaufmann and his co-authors discuss a survey of 820 UK academics which suggests that a significant minority are willing to discriminate on ideological grounds. But the results indicate that it is right-wing academics who are most inclined to discriminate politically in hiring: 20 per cent of conservatives evinced a willingness to hire an inferior centrist candidate over a better qualified leftist candidate, while 15 per cent of leftists would hire a less qualified left-winger over a centrist. Half the conservatives indicated that, faced with two equally good candidates, they would choose a Brexiter over a Corbyn supporter, while only 40 per cent of those on the left said they would do the inverse.
It is a robust sociological finding that the more education a person receives, the likelier they are to lean left; by the same token, less education is correlated with political conservatism. There is also growing generational polarisation, with younger people – the people who go to university and, increasingly, the people who teach at them – tacking further to the left than their elders. In other words, it is only to be expected that the people who study and work at universities are to the left of the average person. As the authors of the Policy Exchange reports themselves acknowledge: ‘There is, therefore, a benign possible explanation – that highly educated people self-select into academic jobs – for much of why academia “leans left”.’
It would, therefore, require social engineering – of the kind conservatives oppose when it comes to remedying the under-representation of ethnic minority groups – to ensure that the university remains a stronghold of conservatism. Smart conservatives know this, which is the reason Kaufmann has praised the right’s use of its disproportionately deep pockets to fund initiatives like those of the Koch Foundation, and expressed admiration for DeSantis’s strategy of stacking universities with conservative presidents and trustees. Because conservatives are in a demographic minority within the academy, it is probable that political discrimination has a more pronounced effect on them, even if they are more likely than their left colleagues to discriminate. Even so, a ‘free marketplace of ideas’, cleansed of all political discrimination, would not produce a right-wing university. Only deliberate intervention will do that.
It isn’t obvious exactly how Arif Ahmed fits into the conservative battle to retake the academy. He is a serious scholar – he works on a range of topics across epistemology, metaphysics and the history of philosophy – and is also a fierce atheist and libertarian. In debates and interviews, he frequently cites left-wing positions – criticising Israel, or defending homosexuality and interracial marriage – as examples of speech that needs to be defended. He is on the record as opposing the Prevent legislation and Gavin Williamson’s instruction that universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which gives as an example ‘claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour’. In a piece for the Times announcing his appointment, Ahmed wrote that he would ‘defend free speech within the law for all views and approaches: postcolonial theory as much as gender critical feminism’.
It would be a mistake to think any of this disingenuous on Ahmed’s part; a highly permissive attitude towards political criticism, homosexuality and interracial marriage should be of a part with any coherent libertarianism. Indeed, his libertarianism places him at odds with many of his ‘free speech’ allies, such as Biggar and Orr, who long for a more traditional – often explicitly Christian – social morality. But he is hardly a person of the left. When Peterson was disinvited by Cambridge, Ahmed led the charge to reinvite him. This wasn’t a case of Ahmed disapproving of what Peterson says but defending his right to say it. Ahmed is clearly a fan. After Peterson’s lecture at Lady Mitchell Hall in 2021 – during which he quipped that ‘educated women’ were ‘very annoying’ – Ahmed described it as ‘a brilliant talk from which we’ve all learned so much’, and presented Peterson with a first edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. (I wrote to Ahmed to ask who paid for the book, a similar copy of which was recently auctioned at Sotheby’s for £5670; he said he didn’t know, but that he believed it was the event’s hosts. I then wrote to Orr, who had extended the formal invitation to Peterson, but didn’t receive a reply.) In a piece for Spiked called ‘How we uncancelled Jordan Peterson’, Ahmed says that Peterson – who has linked feminism to school shootings, approvingly cited The Bell Curve and been denounced by scientists for giving succour to climate deniers – espouses a ‘moderate conservativism’ and is ‘no right-wing firebrand’. Writing in 2021 on the proposed higher education bill, with its provision for a newly empowered Office for Students, Ahmed commented: ‘Of course in practice everything will depend on whether the regulator will use these powers impartially and with vigour.’ He is now the person on whom this ‘everything’ depends.
On 5 March, the New York Times published an editorial headlined ‘Florida Is Trying to Take Away the American Right to Speak Freely’, which described some of Ron DeSantis’s recent activities. A letter to the editor followed two days later, from Ronald J. Murray of Stamford, Connecticut:
Losing the ability to speak freely goes beyond what may be happening in a state with a Republican governor. This is a problem facing the entire country. The so-called progressive movement and the related social media have made it very difficult for people who have different views to, for example, be hired by so-called elite colleges, be treated fairly in the media, express their views if working for a company intimidated by the ‘progressives’, etc. Years ago ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’ was considered the appropriate American approach. Now the view too widely accepted by the ‘progressives’ and their supporters seems to be: ‘I disagree with what you say and therefore you are a racist and a bigot, I want nothing to do with you, and I will try to limit your ability to make your obviously erroneous views known to the public.’
Anyone attempting to get to grips with the deep psychology of today’s culture wars, in particular its confused cathexis onto the notion of ‘free speech’, might well begin here. How is one to make sense of the letter’s identification of the authoritarian legislative activities of a reactionary state governor with the increased willingness of ‘progressives’ to call people out for bigotry? The letter-writer cites gatekeeping at elite universities and companies in his complaint, but his emphasis is on what progressives say – namely, that other people are racists and bigots. On one hand, we have the state-sanctioned restriction of people’s legal rights to speech. On the other, we have a cultural tendency – both facilitated and made visible by social media – towards the vocal political criticism of other people. The former is a direct attack on free speech; the latter is an exercise – however wise or unwise, virtuous or vicious – of it.
No doubt it can be painful, infuriating or upsetting to be called a racist or a bigot or a sexist or a transphobe. Most of us would find it horrible to be told that we aren’t worth engaging with, that our views are socially unacceptable or merely a function of demography. But that it is painful to be on the receiving end of such remarks doesn’t mean that one’s own rights to ‘free speech’ are thereby imperilled; it might simply be a reminder that speech can wound. The failure properly to metabolise this point is what leads to the ludicrous spectacle of people with enormous speaking platforms complaining about having been ‘cancelled’. In 2020, the conservative broadcaster Andrew Neil tweeted that the left-wing journalist Owen Jones had ‘tried – and failed – to cancel my BBC career many times’. He was referring to Jones’s persistent criticisms of the far-right content that appears in the Spectator, of which Neil is the chairman: an exercise of Jones’s free speech rights that John Stuart Mill would have recognised as a paradigm.
Owen Jones, meanwhile, is subject to an endless stream of vitriol from politicians and journalists, as well as ordinary Twitter users, and was assaulted by a man on the extreme right who recognised him in a pub. Another prominent left-wing journalist, Ash Sarkar, comes in for a huge amount of racist and sexist abuse on social media and in the mainstream press, and her appearance in a BBC documentary about the Nazis was objected to on grounds of her vocal pro-Palestine politics. Many of Jones and Sarkar’s critics attempt to reduce their views to their identities, as a gay man and woman of colour respectively, and to place them beyond the political pale. And yet neither is held up as – or indeed sees themselves as – a victim of cancellation. The Telegraph once called my book, The Right to Sex, a ‘Soviet-style’ ‘Orwellian tract’. I thought it was an idiotic take but it didn’t occur to me to complain I was being cancelled, just as it didn’t on the occasions I have been subject to Twitter pile-ons. It’s not that I’m especially psychically robust. It’s just that these events, however unpleasant, do not imperil my right to speak or my access to platforms from which to do so.
There’s something more here. It would sound plain weird to say that someone has been ‘cancelled’ by the right. If I said to you ‘Owen Jones has been cancelled,’ you would immediately infer that he was being lambasted by fellow leftists, not – as he routinely is – by conservatives. In this way, the notion of ‘cancellation’ is an exemplary bit of ideology. It appears to be content-neutral – a purely procedural complaint about ‘intolerance’ and the failures of the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ – but in fact is substantively political. Cancellation is something the left does; when the right does it, it’s an exercise of free speech (‘triggering libs’).
It would be natural to conclude that the right has been very clever in the way it has made the notion of cancellation a cudgel that can be wielded only in its own political interests. But the asymmetries of ‘cancellation’ also answer to a widespread and deeply felt sense of who is and who is not entitled to occupy the public sphere. Certain people with certain views – people like Andrew Neil, or household figures like J.K. Rowling – are seen as having a right not only to free speech but, more important, to be treated with respect, and to have their views taken seriously. (Of course everyone does have a right – a genuine right – not to be subjected to death threats or harassment, which applies in Rowling’s case just as it does in Jones’s and Sarkar’s.) When such people are accused by those on the political margins of being racist or sexist or transphobic, this is a violation of a tacit social agreement, which we call the ‘right to free speech’ but in fact is something else, what we might call the right to a respectful public hearing. It is for this reason, I think, that the New York Times letter-writer feels able to set up an equivalence between the criminalisation of leftist speech in Florida and the calling-out of conservatives as racist on Twitter: the latter is as much a violation of an assumed entitlement as the former.
I am not saying that there is nothing worrying in the Twitterification of the public sphere. We would all benefit from a less punitive culture, one with fewer gleeful pile-ons, greater appetite for complexity, less anxiety over self-expression, and more allowance made for mistake-making and personal change. But such a culture will not be ushered in by those, whatever promises they make, who oppose themselves to ‘cancel culture’. That posture is just another move in the old, nihilistic game.
Perhaps the most frustrating effect of the right’s ideological war in defence of ‘academic freedom’ is that it has made it so difficult for the rest of us to talk about the actual state of university life without playing into the right’s hands. To anyone who teaches at a British or US university, it is obvious that the way students exercise power has changed in the last ten years or so. There has been a noticeable increase in no-platforming and disinvitation campaigns, especially against trans-exclusionary feminists, and in demands to diversify and decolonise curriculums, to transform sexual harassment procedures and policies, to fire faculty members perceived to have objectionable views, and to make the university more hospitable to people from marginalised backgrounds. I welcome some of these developments and worry about others, as do most other academics on the left. On a recent visit to speak at a US university, I had a conversation with my host – a leftist feminist – about her students on the drive back from campus. We talked about their generational investment in being good and the way that can shade into moral censoriousness; their attachment to a politics of first-personal experience; their sometimes alarming trust in bureaucracies. These are the kinds of private conversation that nearly all university teachers have, and have always had. Teaching is by its nature an intergenerational affair, and inevitably involves trying to make sense of shifting cultural norms and worldviews.
At their worst these conversations become a lament for the way young people used to be, no doubt with a fair amount of historical amnesia. (Did Gen Z really invent the student complaint? Were we never censorious?) When they are had frankly and in good faith, they involve trying to disentangle justified concerns from kneejerk distrust of generational shifts, and are informed by the knowledge that young people are young, and do all sorts of things they will later regret or disavow, and that this is OK – not a failure of education but part of it. (Ironically, that people change and so should not be written off is a key conservative talking-point – sound enough as far as it goes, but again not fully metabolised by the right.) Increasingly, these are conversations that those of us on the left prefer to have in private, because it is all too easy to fuel a conservative narrative which holds that the biggest threat to academic freedom today is our students. The US university at which my feminist colleague teaches, and at which I had spoken, is a major recipient of Koch Foundation money. It’s in a Republican-controlled state which has proposed a new law that prohibits university employees from striking, and academic faculty from ‘seek[ing] to inculcate’ in their students views on ‘controversial’ topics, including climate change, foreign policy, immigration, equity, marriage and abortion.
Twenty years ago, when I was a freshman at Yale, I wrote a letter to the student newspaper criticising my college master for supporting an anti-union candidate for the New Haven Board of Aldermen. I defended, on the grounds of free speech, the master’s donations to the candidate’s campaign and his endorsement of the candidate in the student newspaper. But, I argued, the master had violated his pastoral duties by hosting a reception for the candidate in the master’s lodgings, to which he had invited all the students in college. ‘A residential college,’ I wrote, ‘should be a place of comfort and security.’ I was accusing the master of parting ways with that ideal. But it wasn’t really that the master’s expression of his anti-union views – and his attempt to get students to vote for a political candidate who shared them – made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I thought it was an abuse of power, but I also found his display of political assertiveness thrilling. Even then one of the things I loved most about being at university as opposed to school was my professors’ willingness to talk openly about their political views: I came to know them not only as teachers of philosophy, politics and literature, but also as Straussians and Burkeans, liberals and neocons, communitarians and (much more rarely) Marxists. I spent so much time with conservative professors – found their ways of reading texts so compelling – that many of them mistook me for one of their own.
So why did I write the letter? It was politics. I believed in and was campaigning for the incumbent, a keen supporter of the unions who represented Yale’s custodial and other workers. I had arrived at university just two months before, and was experiencing the headiness not merely of thinking about politics, but for the first time actually doing politics. Crucially, my complaint did not come from a sense of my own vulnerability as a student, even though I reached for a discourse of vulnerability to make my case. It came from my own awakening sense of political power.
Today I see a similar dynamic with many of my students. That is why I described the change in campus culture as a shift in the way students attempt to wield power, rather than as a symptom of students’ weakened constitutions – their putative evolution into ‘snowflakes’, easily triggered and fearful of difficult ideas. This is the thesis popularised by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind (2018). Granted, my students are more likely than we were to interpret their stress (rightly or wrongly) as a mental health issue, not just as part of what it is to be a student. (Then again, my generation, in the UK at least, wasn’t saddled with crushing amounts of student debt, and our job prospects, which seemed dismal at the time, retrospectively look good compared with theirs.) But, in the main, what I detect in students’ demands for syllabus reform, or the no-platforming of trans-exclusionary feminists, or even (perhaps especially) for professors to be fired, is not an expression of weakness, but an attempted assertion of power. Or, more precisely, their self-description and sometimes self-understanding as weak, disempowered agents has become, for them, itself a form of agency.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Too often it leads students to seek to exercise power through university bureaucracies, evincing a trust in institutional authority that sits in tension with any properly leftist politics. Once I was told by a departmental administrator that some students had complained about the blog posts of another student, which they said they found threatening and offensive. I read the posts; they were reactionary, poorly argued and mildly disturbing. But more disturbing to me was the fact that these students had thought it appropriate to complain to a university administrator about them. What powers were the students hoping that the university would arrogate to itself in dealing with this matter, and how and against whom did they think such power might be wielded in the future? Did they want their own online political musings to be subject to the disciplinary gaze of the university? These are the sorts of question that many university students, across the political spectrum, do not ask themselves often enough. Moral righteousness, a Maoist drive for ideological purity, brisk punitive action: these are the hallmarks of nearly all student politics. Levers of power are there to be pulled, just as surely as mum and dad, sir and miss, are there for dobbing-in.
You can become alarmed at all this, or you can choose to treat it as a recurring phenomenon that often isn’t of any real consequence. The administrator who received the complaint about the blog consulted a few colleagues – all left-leaning, as it happens – and then told the students it was a protected exercise of free speech and that nothing could or should be done. That was the end of that. A few years ago, when a group of Oxford students launched a campaign to stop the emeritus law professor John Finnis from teaching on the grounds of his vocal opposition to homosexuality and immigration, the chief consequence was that the students were dragged through the national press as enemies of freedom.
The US-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), led by Greg Lukianoff, keeps a database of ‘disinvitation incidents’ on US campuses. It currently lists 553 such incidents dating back to 1998 – measured generously, that’s about 0.015 incidents per US college per year. The FIRE database includes both successful and unsuccessful attempts at disinvitation, as well as events that were subject to what it calls ‘substantial disruption’, which includes heckling. According to FIRE, the mere fact of students protesting against the invitation of a speaker – or audibly interrupting a speaker – is a sign of ‘a culture of censorship’. Most of these ‘incidents’ – about 67 per cent – come from people to the left of the invited speaker, suggesting that this ‘culture’ is mostly a feature of the left. But the picture is more complicated than that. Of the 553 ‘disinvitation incidents’ in the database, only 164 – about 30 per cent – involved the revoking of an invitation. Forty per cent of these were the result of protests ‘from the right’ of the speaker (51 per cent were the result of pressure from liberals and leftists). And what we might call the ‘success rate’ for disinvitation attempts is twice as high for right-wing protesters (44 per cent) as for left-wing protesters (22 per cent). The left is good at making noise when it objects to speakers, but the right is better at shutting them up.
Lumping together successful and unsuccessful disinvitation attempts, as well as including ‘substantial disruption’ in the category of ‘censorship’, is in any case unhelpful. Arguably, every instance in which students protest against an invitation and the speaker appears anyway is an instance of things going precisely as they should on a free and intellectually diverse campus. No-platforming and calls for cancelled invitations are first and foremost expressive actions. They signal opposition not only to a speaker’s views, but very often to the political programme of which they are a part, which the students who issued the invitation may deliberately be bolstering. Seventeen of the disinvitation attempts listed in the FIRE database were directed at the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The conservative student groups who invited Yiannopoulos to campus weren’t doing so to ‘hear him out’. They knew, because everyone knew, what Yiannopoulos stood for – white nationalism, misogyny, xenophobia – and they wanted to give those politics a platform. That was perhaps their right. But it was also the right of their fellow students to call on them to think better of that morally questionable decision. Had a conservative student group done so – had they decided that, on reflection, they didn’t want to give cover to Yiannopoulos’s reactionary extremism – would it have been a failure of free speech?
It was such a scenario that led to the disinvitation of Amber Rudd by an Oxford student group in 2020. Rudd had been invited to speak by UNWomen Oxford at an event celebrating her as a champion of ‘equality as chairperson of the all-party parliamentary group for sex equality’. Some students objected, arguing that Rudd’s involvement in the Windrush scandal made her an unsuitable spokesperson for equality. Three days before the event was scheduled to take place, UNWomen Oxford set up an online form soliciting students’ views on Rudd’s appearance. An hour before she was due to speak, the group’s committee announced that it had held a vote on whether to rescind the invitation; a majority had voted to do so. On Twitter, Rudd called the eleventh-hour decision ‘badly judged & rude’. She was of course right. But would it have been a victory for free speech had the student group been legally bound to host Rudd – on the pain of fines or a civil claim – even when a majority of its committee were convinced they had made a mistake? Speaking after the incident, the then education secretary Gavin Williamson warned that ‘if universities are not prepared to defend free speech, the government will.’
And so it has. In April, Oxford’s LGBTQ+ Society called on the Oxford Union – not the student union, but the debating society and private club whose members are drawn largely from the university’s students – to reverse its decision to host the ‘gender critical’ feminist philosopher Kathleen Stock. The national furore that predictably followed led to the society’s members receiving hateful messages; the Telegraph thought it important to report that the society’s president had ‘retweeted anti-monarchist posts’. Then, the Oxford University Student Union forced the leaders of its own LGBTQ+ Campaign to rescind its call that the invitation be cancelled, on the grounds that it might not be compliant with the new Higher Education Act. Given that the Oxford Union isn’t technically affiliated with the university, this seems unlikely – but again the ambiguity of the law is useful to those who would like to apply it zealously. On Twitter, the Free Speech Union celebrated the result, citing it as evidence that the legislation for which it had campaigned was ‘already making a difference’.
Whatever one thinks of the protests against the Union’s decision to give Stock a platform, the spectacle of the state coercively regulating student activism in this way should give any non-authoritarian pause. In 1961, Oswald Mosley’s address to the Oxford Humanist Group on ‘Racial Purity’ was drowned out by heckling, hissing and boos from the student audience. (The pro-Mosley students replied with a chorus of ‘Sieg Heil’.) In 1966, the neo-Nazi Colin Jordan was invited and then disinvited by the Oxford Union, which had decided that given the potential for student disruption at the event, it wasn’t worth the trouble. In 1974, the Oxford branch of the Monday Club – a conservative pressure group, at the time known for its resistance to decolonisation – hosted the MP and Monday Club vice chairman Harold Soref. A group of students forced their way into the meeting while Soref fled down a back staircase. Oxford’s Conservative, Labour and Liberal clubs all condemned the protesters’ action. In 1985, the Oxford Union cancelled an event with members of South Africa’s apartheid government after student protests led to the speakers’ withdrawal. In 2001, the Union rescinded an invitation to the Holocaust denier David Irving, again after widespread protests.Would the state of Britain’s democracy or universities be better off today if this activity had been subject to state inquisition?
The long history of student protest raises another question: are today’s students unprecedentedly censorious? Perhaps. I suspect I am more likely to be subject to a student complaint for something I say in a lecture or seminar than I would have been ten years ago. I know an English professor in the US whose dean made her apologise to students for making them read a paper about sex-differentiated behaviour in mice, which she argued was evidence against the idea that gender is socially constructed. A graduate student once complained to me and my co-convenor that we had not put a content warning on Catharine MacKinnon’s ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State’, even though we had at the start of the course issued a blanket policy that permitted students to skip any class meeting, without explanation – which we had done in recognition that the reading for the seminar was emotionally demanding. Another student, an undergraduate, told me she didn’t want to read MacKinnon’s work because she had heard (from her brother) that MacKinnon was a ‘TERF’ (she is not). A student asked me why I thought it was worthwhile to discuss in a lecture what sort of metaphysics of gender was required to vindicate the identities of trans women as women and trans men as men, given that he (a trans man) already knew that he was a man.
It is hard to insulate the evidential force of these anecdotes from the mainstream narrative of crisis. The PPE syllabus at Oxford features thinkers who were adamant in their defence of racial hierarchy, slavery, imperialism and patriarchy. I have taught many students how to read and love Plato while rejecting his aristocratic politics. I have argued in my classes that feminists should be suspicious of the idea of an innate gender identity, that mainstream pro-abortion politics needs to reckon with the vulnerability of the human foetus, that none of us has perfect authority over our own ‘lived experience’, and that much contemporary ‘identity politics’ is a political dead-end. My undergraduate student who was worried about reading MacKinnon read her and loved her. The graduate student who complained about the lack of a content warning never took any action apart from writing us a polite if high-handed email. The student who challenged me about my lecture on the metaphysics of trans identities did so face to face, and what’s more convinced me that my single-minded focus on metaphysical questions when teaching transfeminism was an intellectual error. I have used the wrong pronouns for a non-binary student who did nothing but graciously accept my apology when I realised my mistake.
I am not saying that there is nothing to worry about. But what there is, and how much worry it warrants, is hard to separate out from the general fug of hysteria. The frequency of no-platforming and disinvitation attempts, though still rare, appears to be on the rise in the UK, even as the percentage of actually cancelled events has fallen (without the intervention of legislation). A 2022 study by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, documents an apparent decrease in British students’ commitment to free speech since 2016. In the survey of a thousand students, 79 per cent agreed that ‘students [who] feel threatened should always have their demands for safety respected’ (up from 68 per cent in 2016). Asked whether, ‘when in doubt’, universities ‘should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech’, 61 per cent said yes, up from 37 per cent in 2016. These results seem to paint a picture. Yet in the same survey, only 20 per cent said that students should have the right to stop offensive events from happening. And nearly half said they supported the government’s proposal to create a free speech tsar.
Let’s leave aside statistical augury, and grant for the sake of argument that contemporary student culture is veering towards ideological intolerance. If so, what shall we do about it? The conservatives’ answer has been more government. But the worry is that this repeats the error many students make, which is to appeal to and thus embolden authorities and bureaucracies as a means of enacting cultural change. (And not just students. When Kathleen Stock was awarded an OBE in 2021, more than seven hundred philosophers wrote a letter of protest, as if we should have hoped for better from Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.) What would a government seriously committed to academic freedom do? Most obviously, it would repeal the Prevent duty. Less obvious, and more important, it would scrap student fees, thereby stopping students from seeing themselves as consumers entitled to having their preferences met, and universities from acting like commercial service-providers competing for student pounds. It would take measures to fight precarity among university workers, supporting academics’ calls for fair wages and a reduction in casualised contracts. In May, Brighton University announced plans to fire 110 staff because of a financing shortfall, naming more than four hundred academics at risk of redundancy. Students occupied the office of Brighton’s vice chancellor in protest.
The events at Brighton are hardly unprecedented – similar things have happened at the University of East Anglia, Roehampton, Goldsmiths, King’s College London and elsewhere. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that students increasingly think of academics as disposable; in the HEPI survey, 36 per cent of students said that academics should be fired if they ‘teach material that heavily offends some students’ (it was 15 per cent in 2016). That a substantial minority of students and many university senior managers share a common view of academic job security does not mean that they have equal power to put that view into practice. If you lose your job as a UK academic, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be because of an administrator’s bottom line, not because of whingeing woke students. Still, the spectre of offended students calling for a professor’s head would send a chill down any academic’s spine. At Hamline University in Minnesota, an art history adjunct’s contract wasn’t renewed after a Muslim student complained that the lecturer had shown – after giving the students a two-minute-long content warning – a 14th-century image of Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. In 2021, the political sociologist David Miller was sacked from his job at Bristol for his criticisms of Israel and Zionism, about which the University of Bristol Jewish Society complained, supported by more than a hundred MPs and peers and the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism.
As these cases remind us, the real danger comes not from complaining students, but from the university administrators who – sometimes under political pressure – too often cravenly seek to appease them. In the UK, the most notorious case of students calling for an academic to be sacked did not appear to fit this pattern. The campaign in 2021 against Kathleen Stock, who was then a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, was led by an anonymous student activist group called Anti Terf Sussex. Launched on Instagram, the campaign was a horrific spectacle, involving vague threats (‘Our demand is simple: fire Kathleen Stock. Until then, you’ll see us around’), consumerist entitlement (one poster read: ‘We’re not paying £9250 a year for transphobia’) and balaclava-clad protesters with smoke flares. Adam Tickell, then Sussex’s vice-chancellor, condemned the campaign, taking particular exception to the attempt to pressure the university into firing Stock (though some of her defenders argued that he was too late in doing so). She resigned nevertheless, citing as the primary reason not the student campaign but years of having been ‘bullied’ by colleagues for her views. Stock said that her colleagues had called her a bigot online, condemned her in their lectures, hung trans pride flags near spaces where she taught, socially ostracised her, and attended a rival trans-inclusive philosophy talk organised by graduate students when she was due to speak.
It is hard, without knowing the details of these alleged incidents, to assess whether they rose to the level, as Stock claimed they did, of bullying or harassment. They might have. But there are versions of all these actions, consistent with the way Stock herself has described them, that would be unobjectionable from the perspective of academic freedom. As an academic, I have no right to be exempt from my colleagues’ criticisms or public condemnation; I cannot insist that they attend my lectures, or socialise with me; and I certainly cannot stop them from decorating their offices as they choose. I’d be in even less of a position to expect these things if I had, as Stock has, gone on social media to condemn my critics in ad hominem terms. (In 2018 a philosopher posted a Twitter thread advancing a substantive critique of Stock’s view that trans women should not be allowed into women-only spaces; in a now deleted reply, Stock described the thread as an act of ‘smug stupidity’, called those who supported the author’s position ‘morons’, and suggested that the author go back to writing their thesis.) The important question – one that few of us are in a position to answer – is whether Stock’s colleagues recognised her right to pursue her academic research with job security; whether they treated her fairly in promotion exercises and reviews; and whether she was included on equal terms in the day-to-day activities of the university.
Of course, most academics hope for more than just this. We hope that our colleagues won’t merely tolerate us, but will treat us as people like them, worthy of their time and intellectual respect, whatever our differences. We hope for, in a word, collegiality. This doesn’t mean, as it’s often imagined to, carefully litigating our disagreements from first principles. Often it means no more than avoiding contentious issues in order to have a friendly chat or get on with the business of co-marking exams. (One of my most enjoyable co-marking experiences was with my colleague William MacAskill, whose views I have criticised at length in the LRB.) When, occasionally, I have sensed an erosion of collegiality on the part of colleagues who are to my right politically, it has pained me. It’s the little things: the lack of a reply when I mentioned that a family member had gone to hospital with Covid; the silence from someone who used to send kind, funny notes when they read my pieces. I sometimes fantasise about pointing out to these colleagues that they are doing what they accuse the left of doing: that I am happy to separate out my admiration for their minds from my dislike of their politics, so why can’t they do the same with me? Sometimes I think about telling them I miss them.
Last term I had the students in my feminist theory seminar listen to the LRB podcast series by Meehan Crist on ‘Climate, Politics and Procreation’. Her guest in the first episode was the black feminist scholar and activist Loretta J. Ross. Their conversation began with a discussion of Ross’s work at the first rape crisis centre in the US. In 1979, when Ross was 25 and a survivor of repeated sexual violence, she began teaching black feminism to a group of incarcerated men serving life sentences for rape and often murder:
So I told the story of what happened to me – or one of the stories, because I didn’t tell them all of them – and next thing I knew I didn’t see them as anything but human beings. I wasn’t planning on having this rapport with them. As I said, I came down there angry, ready to curse them out. But it turns out that they were sincere in contacting the DC Rape Crisis Centre because they wanted to learn about black feminist theory and how not to maintain their status as rapists. And this was intellectually intriguing to me, because at the Rape Crisis Centre all we could do was put bandages on women and then send them back out to the world, often to get violated again. We had never quite figured out a process for preventing rape by talking to rapists.
In the 1990s, Ross went on to join an effort to deradicalise members of the Ku Klux Klan, which she described as ‘having difficult conversations with a whole lot of people I wouldn’t bring home for coffee. I don’t want them to be my friends, but I needed to have conversations with them as a community organiser.’ Chris Smalls, the president and founder of the new Amazon Labour Union, has described the historic drive to organise one of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses in similar terms:
We created our own culture. Amazon has its own culture that is run completely on metrics, numbers – no human interaction. While we interacted, we brought a human aspect to it, we cared for one another, we showed the workers every day that we cared for them. Even if they disliked us, we didn’t argue, we didn’t sit there and, you know, get into fights. We just continued to pretty much … kill them with kindness … I think workers respected that … We just stuck to the issues and built off that commonality.
Ross and Smalls are remarkable individuals, but their approach to dealing with political difference places them in a long tradition on the left. Liberals talk about civility and toleration; conservatives exhort us to acknowledge a universal moral imperfection. But it is the left that has made the act of engaging with people across deep ideological divides – crucial to its project of building power from the ground up – the basis of its defining practice: organising. ‘The point of organising,’ the political theorist Alyssa Battistoni writes, ‘is to reach beyond the people who are already on your side and win over as many others as you can. So you can’t assume the people you organise share your values; in fact, you should usually assume they don’t.’
It is true that not everyone who thinks of themselves as being on the left keeps faith with this vision of what it means to do politics. In the face of austerity and an unfolding climate crisis, it can be a rare and psychically satisfying exertion of power to trigger a Twitter pile-on, especially if it’s directed at someone whose views you consider dangerous. But the drive to eliminate ‘leftist ideology’ in the name of tolerance isn’t just logically self-defeating (presumably leftists have a point of view as worthy of tolerance as anyone else’s). It is also a threat to a form of politics which, at its best, demands and teaches something more than mere tolerance. In organising, winning over isn’t the same as winning the argument. Good organisers listen to people to figure out what it is they need – and then show them that, through the collective exercise of power, a world in which those needs are met is, contrary to appearances, possible. Along the way you point out that other people, different people, also at the sharp end of power, have unmet needs too. You ask: if they stand up for you, will you stand up for them?
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