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View from Brussels: The campus threat to free speech

The new student generation has been called ‘intellectually fragile’, obsessed with privilege checks and identity politics. STEM departments appear to be hold-outs, but are they?

Is the Western world seeing the rise of a new generation that doesn’t care for free speech?

I haven’t followed the debate in Britain – haven’t seen any debate, and perhaps that’s a symptom of the problem. In America, always the land of free inquiry, for all its faults, there is a debate – and a counter-attack.

Correct me, dear readers, if I am wrong, but so far the science and engineering departments of the West have been immune from the baleful epidemic of political correctness. Instead, it seems, it all seems to have begun in the humanities faculties.

The phenomenon has spread. If science and engineering departments are indeed so far spared, social science faculties have been partially infected. Consequently, many American colleges (and, for all I know, British and European ones – if not yet then surely coming soon across the Atlantic ) seem to be redoubts of a thought police that has scared many professors into silence, with very little tolerance for diversity. While some colleges have been concerned to ensure racial and gender diversity at their campuses, they have sometimes seemed less concerned with creating diversity of opinion that, one might think, would occur when these diversities were satisfied. Students with strong Christian and politically conservative preferences usually think it best to keep a low profile.

It is a shame because university is the time when you ought to be exposed to a perspective entirely different from your own. But, as Frank Bruni, education expert and New York Times columnist, has put it, this is the bubble-wrap generation that has been raised by helicopter parents.

For my generation, which grew up in the 1980s, unsupervised play was normal and we took it as given we would give and take a few knocks. High-profile news stories about violence towards, and abductions of, children seem to have changed the parenting model sometime in the 1990s. In some American cities, parents can be prosecuted for allowing their children to play in the park unsupervised. Good God, I say. It is this supervised generation, some say the over-coddled generation, which has now entered college. And somewhere along the way, perhaps in high school, they picked up very left wing attitudes.

For American conservative commentators taking up the cudgel on the issue, today’s young, the over-supervised, bubble-wrapped generation, were not taught to fend for themselves but always had a parent or an authority figure to call on to resolve their conflicts in the playground. In its American university variant, it is the Bias Response teams whose telephone numbers are plastered across student bathrooms, which force professors to mind their words very carefully lest they challenge the preconceptions of students and raise their ire. Students can file charges, which obviously puts a Damoclean sword over professors’ heads and upsets the traditional authority relationship between a professor and his/her young students, between respected wisdom and inexperience looking for enlightenment.

Bruni says admissions tutors tell him, in strictest confidence: our students have never got better admissions grades than now, but we have never seen a more intellectually fragile generation. Ultra-prone to take offence, always ready to call the college thought cops.

You could say – if you are one of the ‘safe’ hard science and engineering departments – leave the humanities students to stew in their own ideological juices. Unfortunately people in the humanities often have high verbal skills and will, likelier than the numerate nerds in the hard subjects, go on to become tomorrow’s politicians and government officials who run the country.

So the malaise in the humanities must be challenged, must it not? But perhaps in a more structured way than the general disaffection with political correctness among the American public at student behaviour, which was one of the main contributing factors in the election of Trump (however good or bad he has since turned out to be in office.) Millions of working Americans were delighted at his trashing, during well-attended rallies, of every left-wing liberal student shibboleth - at the same time, of course, as Trump earned the undying hatred of millions of others, especially the young. Make no mistake: there is a culture war going on in the United States.

I said before that the social sciences are soft sciences (and humanities softer still) and the only traditional solution in these subjects was to expose people to different perspectives as a way of understanding the problem. At least it made people open-minded and maybe the best idea would win. So in the old days, you were taught to look at the liberal solution, the economists’ solution, and maybe the Marxist solution to a given political and social problem.

Today it is apparently the opposite. Instead of multiple perspectives for a single problem, to try and figure out the right solution (which incidentally promoted intellectual tolerance), students are taught to apply a single perspective – say the idea of an omnipotent white patriarchy – as the cause of all problems.

This totalising perspective ultimately does students a disservice when entering the real world. They just cannot understand that anyone adult can think differently – that there are people out there, for instance, who had perfectly good reasons to vote for Trump.

Encouraged by their peer groups on Twitter, today’s young use identity politics and emotional rage, not rational argument, to defeat the opponent. Insults, not logic.

We live in the world of the politics of the slur, with young people going to college to be exposed to three years of this kind of rhetorical training, as opposed to thinking. Emotion rules supreme; if you feel it is right, it is right. Bruni and other conservative American commenters, some with a foot in the education world, tell us that students are learning from their peers the art of discrediting their opponents rather than learning from and understanding their opponents’ argumentation in order to find holes in it. When middle-of-the road conservative social scientist Charles Murray is invited to speak, students stand with their backs to him and shriek “Not at our campus!”

The new student psychology, at least, as said, in American humanities and sometimes social science departments, is to divide the world into good and bad people, rather than good and bad arguments. And if you are a bad person – from a privileged and thus oppressing ethnicity, gender or other social category – your arguments can be disregarded, no matter how potentially intellectually meritorious.

Western civilisation is based on progress arising out of a conflict of ideas. In natural sciences, ideas are tested to destruction and the best ones win. The person’s social identity was intellectually irrelevant. Reality is reality independent of the person. It was based on object, not subject.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century liberal philosopher, writes that opponents should always be heard out, if only to make them see the errors of their ways, which is impossible if their ideas are not outed and exposed to the light of day. In addition, even people who are substantially wrong could get a few things right, which you could adopt and incorporate into your own substantially correct theory. There was a self-interest in hearing out the other side. It was important to make your theory watertight even if it was substantially correct: it represented an iterative approach to the ultimate truth.

As everyone knows, Voltaire said “I may disagree with you, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”

Those sort of sentiments no longer seem self-evident beliefs at universities. What will we see we see in Europe tomorrow when tomorrow’s intolerant graduate left get into senior political positions? A generation trained to spot micro aggressions, to call privilege checks, and to divide the world into good and bad identities, rather than into good and bad ideas?

Maybe I am being fuddy-duddy. I just worry a little about the future of free inquiry, and with it, the science and technology that are taken to be the products of free minds in competition. Or will it not matter, whatever the West becomes, as countries like Iran and China prove that authoritarian societies can coexist with the production of quite decent science? Of course, the West would no longer, in its embrace of unfreedom, quite be the West.

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