One of the reasons I switched my degree from International Relations to a joint honours degree with Art History is because I did not personally believe that the University could protect my right to freedom of speech.
After years of being silenced in tutorials for having opinions that differed from my tutors’ and classmates’, I sought clarification from my advisor: if I was to continue to explore particularly ‘edgy’ topics in International Relations, would my grades be impacted? Would I see a similar pattern to what I’ve already seen? Essentially: would I be punished for an opinion that goes against the mainstream? “I can’t possibly answer,” he replied. Why not just say ‘yes’ if that’s clearly what you’re saying? I switched my degree that afternoon.
I simply could not have my entire degree in the hands of people who would rather ruin it than entertain different opinions. Of course, this is not the case for the entire department, nor the University. My current International Relations tutor is incredibly fair. But what my own experience, my friends’ experiences, and now research tells me is that the toxicity of academic groupthink (that has already infected universities back in my home country of Australia, and especially in the United States) seems to be making its way to the United Kingdom, where bullying those with different opinions is masked as enlightenment.
At Sydney University in 2017, a screening of Red Pill Movie – a documentary by former feminist Cassie Jaye critiquing the feminist movement – was defunded by the student union, as they claimed the film promoted violence against women. Anyone who has actually seen the film would know this is not true. Similarly, free speech used to be a hallmark of university life at the University of California, Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement originated there, with students holding mass protests against limitations on academic freedom and free speech on university campuses US-wide. But today’s UC Berkeley? It has become a cariacature of itself. In recent years, its students have attacked and banned ‘controversial’ speakers instead of debating them. Attacked! Banned! Hardly what the Free Speech Movement fought for.
This probably won’t be news to many. We’ve been reading for years about how free speech rights at universities are rapidly diminishing in Australia and the US. It’s one of the reasons I chose to come to the UK instead of staying at home – it’s the birthplace of human rights philosophy and one of the last stands for free speech in academia.
But last week I read that this may no longer be the case. Policy Exchange released a study called ‘Academic Freedom in the UK’ which found that students seemed to approve of the banning of speakers whose views go against the mainstream. 41% of students polled agreed with Cambridge University’s decision to rescind Canadian commentator and psychologist Jordan Peterson’s offer of a fellowship, while only 31% disagreed. When asked whether Cardiff University should have overruled protestors to allow feminist Germaine Greer to speak, 44% disagreed, with only 35% taking the free speech position. The rest were undecided or didn’t know.
The paper also suggested a culture of intimidation towards students who support leaving the European Union was occurring in British classrooms: 89% of those who voted to remain in the EU said that they felt comfortable saying their views in class, with only 39% of those who voted to leave thinking similarly. I certainly know I don’t feel comfortable expressing my opinions in tutorials. I feel I need to stay silent if I want to be, you know, liked.
So instead of exercising my right to freedom of expression, and participating in healthy academic discourse as I should be doing at University, catch me in the back politely giving my preferred pronouns when asked, nodding along to anti-Trump, anti-Tory and anti-capitalism jokes (“Haha! How fresh and original! Well said!”), and desperately searching my handbag for any pen that doesn’t have #BACKBORIS on it to hand to the new exchange student from Maine.
I’m envious of those whose views are mainstream enough that they can have loud, bright stickers on their laptops advertising their ‘wokeness’ to everyone. It must be nice to know you’ve intimidated anyone who disagrees with you into staying silent, meaning you are, by forfeit, the winner of any debate.
But this is not right. If an opinion – any opinion – is truly wrong, then it would be proved as such in a debate. Our university’s responsibility is to ensure such debates occur, which falls into the hands of the academics and the students to create environments for healthy academic discourse. I would hate to see St Andrews go the way of Oxford University, which is “severely” restricting free speech according to the Free Speech University Rankings.
We’re already beating them in university rankings. Let’s make sure they never overtake our freedom, either. So to those in class with me, I’m going to be speaking up a bit more now if I disagree with you. Sorry. But if we can have a civil debate about it, I swear we can still be friends – remember when I lent you that pen?