Cambridge University came up with a policy to defend free speech in March. Staff, students and visitors should have free speech, says the university’s council statement, so long as they are “respectful” of differing opinions and of “the diverse identity of others”.
It sounds reasonable. One naturally wants people to show respect in their dealings with others. But wait: how can one make people respect opinions which they find appalling? As Stephen Fry points out, such respect is a thing of the heart; it cannot be commanded. Like millions, I think fascism and communism should not be respected, and for the same reason – that they are totalitarian. I cannot respect what I see as doctrines of cruelty.
What one can reasonably be asked to do, however, is tolerate the expression of such views. Indeed, the very concept of tolerance arises from disapproval. It is the only way to protect freedom of speech when people profoundly disagree.
Once you try to tie freedom of speech to respect for “the diverse identity of others”, the situation gets worse still. Under recent practice, it takes only one person in an institution to say their identity is offended by some remark for the speaker to be censored and disciplined.
The current dismissal case at Eton, in which a master put on YouTube his talk to boys on the subject of masculinity, is only the latest example of how such a process can be triggered. The complainant against his words – or so the Head Master thought – had the law on his/her side. Free speech lasted only for so long as no one complained, so it was not free at all.
Substantial numbers of Cambridge dons are worried by the university’s free speech statement as it stands. They propose amendments which would take out “respect” and insert “tolerance” and have called a ballot of all senior members of the university. The vote closes on December 8.
The history of the Cambridge statement is telling. In March last year, a visiting fellowship for the conservative social thinker Jordan Peterson was rescinded after a photograph appeared of him standing with a man wearing a T-shirt which said: “I am a proud Islamophobe”.
The vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, justified the cancelling of Professor Peterson: “Robust debate can scarcely occur … when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity.”
Thus did Prof Toope, in a manner worthy of a satire by George Orwell, justify the removal of free speech in the name of free speech. Perturbed by this, dons tried to get free speech formally protected – hence the statement. But Prof Toope and his allies were prepared to cooperate only if his concepts of “identity” and “respect” were included.
Unamended, his council’s statement risks empowering the Thought Police it is supposed to prevent.
Once the National Trust decided it would start flagging up its properties’ relationships with slavery and what it calls “colonialism” (as if all agree on the definition of that word), it bought itself controversy without end.
Part of its process has been to appoint an exterior expert panel under Rita Mclean, a “museums and heritage consultant”. The trust says the group is “made up of professionals from a range of backgrounds including academics and specialists from the museum and heritage sector. Their work is to help steer and inform our internal progress towards high-quality interpretation and contextualisation at properties where colonial histories are particularly relevant.”
I have asked who is on the panel, but have been told that, “because of possible abuse and threats, we won’t be announcing individual members”. Can you think of a method less likely to inspire confidence than to have experts telling the trust what to do, yet not to tell its members who they are?
The fate of Kent – the whole of it cast into Covid Tier 3 – reawakens old rivalries. For aeons, the county has divided itself at the River Medway. If you come from the west of the Medway, you are a Kentish Man (or Maid); if from the east, a Man (or Maid) of Kent.
Traditionally, the Men of Kent have rather looked down on the Kentish Men. They claim longer settlement, and stouter resistance to William the Conqueror. The county motto Invicta (“undefeated”) refers to them.
In recent times, however, the Kentish Men have started to get the upper hand. On the whole, the west is posher nowadays. Property prices are higher, countryside lusher. And now the Kentish Men are inclined to blame the Men of Kent for the county’s unwelcome Tier-3 status. It’s the fault of all those scuzzy bits in the north-east, they say: look at Sheppey with its three prisons; look at those nasty rough people in Sittingbourne.
Angry Men of Kent fight back from their ancient redoubts such as Canterbury and beautiful landscapes such as the Isle of Oxney. They make unkind remarks about the M25 and Dartford.
As a Sussex neighbour, I view all this with condescending detachment. But at the back of my mind lies the consciousness that it needs only the stroke of a bureaucratic pen for us, too, to be relegated to the Covid third division, probably provoked by alleged misdemeanours in Brighton or Crawley.
To promote anti-Covid vaccination, the Government is looking for “sensible celebrities”. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?