The dystopian nightmare of free speech on campus

free speech wasteland

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Rhiannon Doherty

Rhys Harper
Writer

In an era of unprecedented stagnating wage growth, rapid inflation, housing market failure and excessive generational redistribution of wealth from youngest to oldest, the brightest minds on the right have clubbed together and, as usual, come up with another dead cat strategy. The latest culture war, though, isn’t built around “real and legitimate concerns” about too many brown faces on our streets or the sexual proclivities of strangers: the big threat now is to “free speech on campus”.

You might assume that restrictions on free speech are a problem for citizens in Russia or China, illiberal bastions of corruption where human rights are violated by the state every day. Well you’d be wrong. The real threat to free speech is that Murdo, 22, can’t even voice his support for the abolition of the NHS in a Politics tutorial without getting funny looks from his peers. Sometimes they even voice disagreement with his opinions (“But private healthcare systems cost the state more.”) A chilling dystopian nightmare: we can’t go on like this. #Justice4Murdo

Conservatism/ Libertarianism/ looming oligarchy being unpopular among (predominantly) young students on a university campus is neither surprising nor unusual: it’s demographics. Support for unfettered, unregulated capitalism is least popular among those with little to no prospect of owning capital in the next few decades, who knew? Were I to strut into an area disproportionately dominated by elderly homeowners who acquired their assets at a fraction of their modern value during the Right to Buy looting of the 80s, and voice my support for the Dilnot Commission’s recommendation that social care costs should be paid partly out of an individual’s housing wealth, I would not – and should not – expect to express my opinion unchallenged. This is the crux of the problem with the “free speech on campus” narrative: the belief that being publicly disagreed with is, in and of itself, a free speech violation. It’s not.

Perversely, the right-wing contrarians that thrive from this imagined enemy – the Milo Yiannopoulos’ or Jordan Petersons of this world (both former Glasgow Uni rectorial candidates, embarrassingly) – thirst for these protests. It’s their only claim to relevancy: that protesting students, themselves exercising their free speech, are “shutting down debate” for making it publicly known that they think these guys are arseholes. The insinuation that antagonistic bores are being silenced is often enough to convince wee boys on Facebook with anime profile

pictures and a misplaced sense of masculinity that the real problem on university campuses is not the white nationalist speaker on campus but the people leafleting outside the venue of the white nationalist speaker on campus. The reality that both parties are actively expressing their views – their “freedom of speech” – goes amiss.

The free speech paranoia has of course, by now, spread to Gimorehill. We see it in the blink-and you’ll-miss-it mini-controversy over The Medusa Review, a student publication seeking to challenge the supposed chilling of free speech on campus by publishing dull articles by people who don’t have the social skills to pitch their ideas convincingly in a campus student media setting. Similarly the Glasgow Uni Students For Liberty, an agglomeration of all the worst people you have ever met at flat parties, recently hosted a minor pro-Trump, pro-Brexit YouTube personality, with a disproportionately inflated sense of self, to preach to the choir in the Boyd Orr Building. Among the usual vapidity of alt-right takes (audience questions included, “Do you think it’s dangerous that the media are so quick to use the labels Nazi and Fascist?”), playing all the hits to the fans, Mark Meechan inadvertently said something quite revealing about the movement’s wider intent: “Things are happening on campuses that are reversing this. Universities should be apolitical. It will start to reverse as soon as people pulling out their funding.”

Is that where we are now? Professional university lecturers and researchers who have spent years – sometimes decades – devoting themselves to the study of a particular area, should be intimidated out of sharing their professional opinions? Should a lecturer in Transport Policy be browbeaten out of criticising railway privatisation for fear of offending a right-winger in the class who takes offence to the academic literature? Wanting to remould academic discourse in your own image is not a traditional feature of libertarianism, but maybe the Glasgow Uni Students For Liberty are just using a new definition of the term previously unknown to mankind.

Being disagreed with is not an infringement on free speech. If you believe that healthcare should be privatised or that private landlords are overly regulated: say it. Just say it. Not feeling comfortable expressing your opinion in a campus social or academic setting is not the fault of the rest of the world, it is the fault of your own timidity. Maybe there’s not a free speech conspiracy on campus; maybe you’re just unlikeable.