BBC Daily Politics: Shining A Spotlight On Student Illiberalism

 

Few politicians will dare to criticise today’s breed of authoritarian student activists – because odious and illiberal as their worldview undoubtedly is, both main political parties have something to gain from regulating our behaviour and speech

Yesterday, I went on the BBC Daily Politics to talk about the creeping tide of campus illiberalism and the tyranny of modern student activists who seek to turn their universities into fuzzy, unthreatening places where intellectual debate and reason are secondary to making people feel accepted and validated at all times.

The debate was framed around the question of whether Britain should consider raising the voting age, given the fact that so many student activists recoil from free speech and the boisterous exchange of ideas, preferring to cloister themselves in ideologically homogeneous “safe spaces” while viciously lashing out at anybody who dares to hold different ideas.

I had written a blog post back in November, following up on Glenn Reynolds’ (of Instapundit) column suggesting in the wake of the Yale and Mizzou controversies that if students could not tolerate hearing contradictory ideas, they had no business voting and participating in democracy. I think a lot of the points that Reynolds made were very strong, though I also agree with what he said when he walked back his statement the next week.

I was surprised to get the call from the BBC, but I thought it was worth accepting the invitation to push the broader message – not that we should go around banning groups of people from voting just because they wind us up, but that this insidious culture of identity, grievance and therapy, incubated in our universities and ignored for too long by the media, is going to have profound consequences for our society and our democracy as these people grow up and join the electorate.

The Daily Politics’ Soapbox feature is good for what it is, but when it comes to laying out a new and complex argument full of nuance and detail, there are obvious shortcomings. You get a two-minute video (which I filmed in Oxford, with particular thanks to the Oxford Union and its president) to make a brief pitch, but that pitch can only be around 200 words, the rest of the time being given to music and establishing shots. And then there is the live segment, broadcast after Prime Minister’s Questions, where you get to debate with Jo Coburn, Andrew Neil and the panel.

The video is shown at the top of this piece, and you can judge the results for yourself. I’m reasonably pleased with how it went, but also frustrated that we could only skim the surface of what is an important and fascinating issue – one with potentially profound consequences for education, free speech and democracy.

Notably, the two MPs on the panel that day – Ed Vaizey and Kate Green – didn’t want to delve into the real issue at all, choosing to get hung up on the specifics of the voting age element. Green in particular was in denial about there being any kind of problem, saying that she didn’t think it was a “new thing” and that “there have always been controversies in our universities”.

But Green then goes on to say “I think it is part of exploring boundaries and debating ideas and issues”.

No. This is precisely the problem. By high-handedly declaring that they speak for all students and elevating their personal feelings over any question of objectivity, truth or legitimate debate, these student activists – the New Age Censors – are specifically crushing the debate of ideas and issues, not just for themselves but for everyone so unfortunate as to be studying with them.

Kate Green tries to make the new academic dystopia of safe space rooms, trigger warnings on texts and campus speech codes something that is natural and commendable, part of exploring boundaries. But it is no such thing. At the time of the Yale controversy, the student (Jerelyn Luther) who had a full-on toddler’s meltdown over a harmless email about Halloween costumes raged:

“It is NOT about creating an intellectual space, it is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here! You are NOT doing that! You are going against that!”

So universities are not to be places of learning and intellectual debate any longer. Or if they are, this mission is very much secondary to the far more important task of making students feel comfortable and validated in whatever “identity” they happen to have assumed on that particular day.

This is what we are dealing with, and this is what neither Ed Vaizey or Kate Green wanted to grapple with. Of course, both have their reasons.

I was essentially describing a group of wobbly-lipped, permanently “vulnerable” perpetual victims who are in constant need of a strong authority presence to smite their enemies and protect them from emotional harm – in other words, I just described the current Labour Party’s ideal (if not yet typical) voter. No wonder Kate Green couldn’t bring herself to engage with the substance of my argument – to do so would be to alienate the very people whom Labour has been reaching out to since the Gordon Brown era.

And what could Ed Vaizey say in support of free speech and against its rapid erosion on university campuses across the country? His leader, David Cameron, flew to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and walked arm-in-arm with some of the world’s most brutal and repressive leaders in defence of “free speech”, while people continue to languish in British prisons, locked up simply for saying, singing or tweeting something that another person found “offensive”. The present Coke Zero Conservative government doesn’t look on these petty authoritarian students as a problem – it admires their attempts to ban speech and regulate freedom of expression.

I should be clear that not all students – not even most students – are like the petty little tyrants in the headlines today. Spiked’s Tom Slater makes this point forcefully:

If there’s one thing that really gets on my nerves, it’s the idea that students today are uniquely intolerant. The explosion of campus censorship in recent years has made bashing campus politicos a kind of commentariat pastime, with fortysomething columnists wheeling the little blue-haired pillocks out each week to give them a good kicking. But while the students’ union censors deserve everything they get, all too often campus censorship has been painted as a generational phenomenon – as if undergraduates appeared from the womb with a Safe Space policy in hand.

I quite agree. And my one regret is that there was no time in my fleeting moment on the Daily Politics to explore the context in which these little campus tyrants are growing up, and what has made them the way they are. As Tom Slater, Brendan O’Neill, myself and a few others have pointed out, many of those “fortysomething” columnists and academics now criticising the student activists are themselves guilty of supporting the hate speech laws and therapy culture which have taught the New Age Censors that “sticks and stones may break their bones, but words will kill them stone dead”.

That being said, I think it was still a useful opportunity to raise an important issue and maybe raise awareness among a wider group of people, many of whom haven’t set foot on a university campus in years and would be horrified to discover the kind of illiberal dystopia that they have become in the name of “tolerance” and “inclusivity”.

But as Spiked is now doing, we all should give particular praise and encouragement to those few students – like George Lawlor from the University of Warwick – who have been brave enough to stand against against these illiberal trends on campus.

This fight will not be won in the television studios of Westminster or the columns of national newspapers. It is the brave students withstanding huge social pressures and even physical intimidation to take a stand for liberty and free speech on their own university campuses who must do the real fighting, as well as those professors and administrators with sufficient backbone to stand up to the shrill demands of the Safe Space Lobby.

But the rest of us should provide what air cover we can, as this blog has consistently done – and will continue to do going forward.

Safe Space Nook

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BBC Daily Politics: If Students Need Safe Spaces, They Have No Business Voting

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Today I will be a guest on the BBC’s flagship Daily Politics show, discussing the worrying and accelerating infantilisation of today’s university students and asking whether young people who need the protection of trigger warnings and safe spaces can possibly be trusted to responsibly exercise their democratic right to vote.

Last year, in response to a brilliantly provocative column by American law professor and political blogger Glenn Reynolds – in which he argued that today’s generation of coddled, micro-aggression fearing students have utterly failed to earn the right to vote – I went along for the ride, agreeing:

It is ironic that at the same time there is a push to lower the voting age in the UK – the Lords recently voted to allow sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to vote in the coming Brexit referendum – people only slightly older and now at university, who already have the vote, are busy regressing back into emotional childhood.

[..]  Given the increasing number of campus incidents of precious snowflake students demanding that the authorities curtail their liberties for their own “safety” – and the fact that increasing age is the last, best hope of gaining wisdom – the idea of raising the voting age does start to feel awfully tempting.

Response written, I then didn’t think much more of it. That is, until the other week when I was contacted by the BBC and asked whether I wanted to state the same case on their flagship political programme, the Daily Politics.

The context of the issue is known well enough, and I have blogged extensively about the worrying and absurd rise of calls to outlaw clapping and booing, tearful temper tantrums about dress codes, stifling ideas by labelling them ‘problematic’, the tedious insistence on “safe spaces” and mandatory sexual consent workshops, all of which are flourishing on British and American university campuses.

Now, do I really want to stomp around like a little authoritarian, summarily revoking the franchise from every group of people who happen to rile me up? Well, as readers of this blog already know, I would generally rather leave the screeching, sanctimonious authoritarianism to those who do it best – the student activists busy cocooning their young minds in an ideologically homogeneous bubble, and purging any dissenting viewpoints which threaten their “mental safety”.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the urgent case that if things continue on their current course – with children being raised to believe that “sticks and stones may break their bones, but words will kill them stone dead”, and growing up to become intolerant students intent on purging anybody who fails to fawn deferentially over their delicate sensibilities – then before long, none of us will possess the intellectual and social robustness required of an engaged citizenry. And none of us will make good voters.

I want to stop the rot before it gets that far. But doing so will require confronting some difficult truths. And among these truths are the fact that the world of academia (particularly in the US – but where America goes, Britain already follows) has become infected with a virus which produces legions of what can only be described as adult babies – people who are physically mature, but with the emotional and psychological resiliency of a toddler.

The extent of the rot was laid bare in Spiked’s 2016 university free speech rankings, which forensically detail the extent to which free speech is curtailed at every university campus and students union in the country.

To give just a few examples, at present there are 30 students union which have banned newspapers (no prizes for guessing which publications), 25 which have banned mainstream hit songs for being “offensive” and 20 which have banned clubs or societies. But they only take their cue from the universities themselves, nearly half of which enforce “No Platform” policies against controversial speakers and a fifth of which have already moved to import American-style “safe space” policy onto their campuses.

I’m due to debate with Conservative MP and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, as well as Labour MP Kate Green. It will be very interesting to see whether I am able even to extract any acknowledgement that there is a problem which needs to be tackled. However, with the Conservative government leaning hard on universities to protect the fragile minds of their students by banning extremist speakers and Labour poised to benefit disproportionately from the authoritarian student vote, I’m not expecting a tremendously sympathetic hearing.

Watch this space!

Watch me debate on Wednesday’s edition of the Daily Politics, broadcast on BBC Two at 11:30 for the start of the programme (and PMQs), and at 12:20 onwards for my segment.

Alternatively, watch live or catch-up on BBC iPlayer.

Safe Space Cartoon - 1

Bottom image: Honey Badger Brigade

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Are People Waking Up To Left Wing Virtue-Signalling?

When it comes to the British political debate, what you say now matters more than what you do. The BBC has apparently just noticed this trend

The standard Daily Politics slapstick comedy treatment makes it almost unwatchably patronising, but this segment of the BBC’s dumbed-down flagship political programme is actually on to something.

Last week, the Daily Politics invited journalist James Bartholomew – coiner of the phrase “virtue signalling” – on the show to talk about why more and more of us stop after stating our good intentions rather than following through by acting on them.

First, we get this candid and refreshingly frank take on the virtue-signallers:

“Virtue signalling without actually doing anything is not true virtue. It is self-righteous, vain and silly. It’s not what you say or think that matters, it’s what you do.”

Bartholomew then offers this interesting angle:

“I think the welfare state is a lot to do with it. People feel that they have outsourced their decency. I’ve paid my taxes, therefore I don’t have to do anything. I think that’s part of the cause, why virtue signalling without actually doing anything has increased.

[..] But what really irritates me is those people who I’ve met, in contrast to people who do real good, the people who think ‘oh, I can say I hate the Daily Mail and I hate UKIP, and I vote Labour once every five years. I’m a morally superior person.’ And that really irritates me because there are people who go out and make sacrifices and effort.”

I think there’s a lot of truth in this idea that the welfare state leads us to outsource our decency. Obviously there are many people who both contribute to the welfare state through their taxes and also find the time and resources to do additional good in their communities. But there are also many of us who do not.

There are too many of us who think that an angry Facebook meme or a lazy re-tweet counts as doing something meaningful and helpful. You could argue that we see the same phenomena every time something like the Ice Bucket Challenge sweeps the internet – a well intentioned fundraising initiative that soon led to large numbers of (particularly young) people uploading their own videos out of a desire to participate and show off, without then going on to make the all-important cash donation to MND charities.

This phenomena is an annoyance when it is confined to the social or charitable arena, but it becomes most problematic – and distorting – when it starts taking over the field of politics. Bartholomew himself has written about how the virtue signalling Left make any serious discussion about the future of British healthcare almost impossible:

It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious, as it is with Whole Foods. Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.

One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word ‘belief’. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness — the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to ‘the best’ healthcare. The virtue lies in the wish. But hatred waits in reserve even with the NHS. ‘The Tories want to privatise the NHS!’ you assert angrily. Gosh, you must be virtuous to be so cross!

This blog made the same point on the NHS only yesterday.

But whether it’s worshipping the NHS, opposing the bedroom tax or hating George Osborne’s plans for tax credits, it is clear that millions of people are willing to share a supportive tweet or Facebook post, but less willing to do anything else – even so much as vote in accordance with their own social media timelines, as Ed Miliband discovered to his cost on May 7.

Why is this? Are people that self-centred that they’ll give the poor a swipe of their thumb if they come across a lefty meme on their phones while commuting to work, but won’t march down to their local polling booth? Or are these lefty memes being shared not because people have given serious thought to the issues at stake, but rather because Politics via Social Media encourages everyone to treat their political opinions like this season’s fashion, casually adopting or discarding opinions in order to fit in with the group and gain acceptance by one’s peers?

Both factors are probably at play. But one thing is clear: when we are all so busy “raising awareness” of our pet causes on social media, we neglect the people actually making real-world policy at our own peril.

NOTE: It should be pointed out that virtue-signalling exists on the political Right, too, though not to the same extent. In the United States, some of the more craven military-fetishising and quasi-religious #humblebrags (“Feeling so blessed that the Lord has graced me with this promotion / pay rise / new washing machine”) would certainly count as virtue-signalling. And elements of the online meme-sharing Tea Party clearly got caught up in a bubble of their own and deluded themselves into expecting a Mitt Romney victory in the 2012 presidential election. So the phenomenon does cut both ways.

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Social Justice Warrior

h/t Guido Fawkes

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