Yesterday, in an incident that was beyond parody, Amber Rudd was no-platformed from Oxford University for allegedly “exacerbating racial and class tensions”.
What did this mean, exactly? Well, it turned out that the students were upset over her involvement in the Windrush scandal. Fair enough, one might say, but what wasn’t so fair was the way in which they put forward their objections.
Far from using the opportunity to debate and scrutinise Rudd, they held a committee meeting – probably resembling something out of Lord of the Flies – where they voted to cancel her talk.
Speaking of the decision, the UNWomen Oxford UK Student Society wrote: “We are deeply sorry for all and any hurt caused to our members and other wom*n and non binary people in Oxford over this event.”
But the only “hurt” they caused was presumably experienced by Rudd, who found herself on the receiving end of their pathetic zealotry (why else would they use the word “wom*n”?).
The whole debacle serves as an enormous wake-up call about how extreme the free speech crisis has become at universities – and, indeed, the West. So much so that the former Home Secretary is now treated as if she were Abu Hamza or Tommy Robinson.
The Left has historically called the free speech crisis concocted; they seem to think Tories are making it up, so that we can be offensive as possible. Every Guardian piece on the issue suggests we want regulations to disappear so that we can normalise hate speech.
This is a smear, obviously. The reality is that censorship has been used to shut down the most inoffensive of comments and ideas. Moderate voices are increasingly being removed from discussions at the whim of left-wing ideologues.
Censorship has, generally, created immense fear in our culture, having been used as a tool by faux liberals to eliminate political dissent and solidify left-wing groupthink. Far from actually being offended, one suspects censorious students get a kick out of cancelling others.
Fortunately, the Tories seem to understand how serious matters are. In their manifesto, they have pledged to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”, and have Dr Munira Mirza as one of their key advisors, who has a strong understanding of the censorship culture there.
Writing for The Times in February, Gavin Williamson has even gone so far as to declare that if universities didn’t take action to protect freedom of speech on campus the government would.
The issue, however, is that it’s not entirely obvious what mechanisms the Tories can use to do this. Williamson, for instance, has pointed out that intimidation, violence and threats of violence are crimes. But the “right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct”.
Herein lies the problem; non-violent protest is the main way in which students get their way. They cancel speakers, or ignore them, or create petitions, and the rest. Students technically haven’t broken any rules with these methods, so they’re very difficult to deal with.
It seems to me that the change will come from more serious reforms to universities. For one, we need to vet students better – to work out who will truly appreciate the experience. Clearly the Oxford brats are not suitable for higher education. One suspects they are a product of too many teenagers being shoved into the university system; thus they treat it in the same vein as school, as if someone forced them to go. No-platforming is their little rebellion.
We must also ensure that those running universities have more of a grip on the situation – which would be easier if they were not having to deal with such colossal numbers of students, as a result of universities becoming all about bums on seats. With academics having such little contact time with scholars, is it any wonder that young people – left to their own devices – are throwing their toys out of the pram?
Maybe universities should take disciplinary procedures more seriously, too – dare I say even go so far as to suspend or expel students who engage in censorious tactics (give them a taste of their own no-platforming medicine). They could enshrine free speech in their applications process, making sure that anyone who enrols at the university understands its importance, and will not engage in cancel tactics.
Fundamentally, something major has to be done to end this nonsense. Students may be students now, but one day they will be serious decision makers in the UK – lawyers, politicians and the rest. Do we really want people who get upset about Amber Rudd to be calling the shots? What is today’s daft story about university snowflakes puts in jeopardy our future ability to speak.