Princeton University sends out the right message about free speech and critical enquiry

(Image credit: brett jordan via flickr)

I was surprised but encouraged to come across some advice issued by academics at Princeton University to students who are about to start university life. They say they have distilled their advice into three words:

Think for yourself

They rightly point out that it isn’t easy to do so, especially when you’re battling against the tide of popularity, groupthink, and a general consensus about what the ‘correct’ opinion is.

Its very easy to read or listen to an apparently well-educated person talk about something, and to take on board every sentiment they’ve just expressed, just because they claim to be or appear to be an authority. You then go and parrot the exact same opinion to your friends, and generally hope that they’ll agree too.

As the Princeton academics say, ‘In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink’.

Further, they point out that the best way to come to a position on something is to become well-informed on the topic yourself, to consider what you regard the strongest argument to be, even if it flies in the face of popular opinion.

‘The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.’

So, the central message is to step outside the echo chamber, think for yourself, and don’t take a position on something as part of an effort to be ‘popular’. Often, people who are honest and open about what they really think are also respected and praised by many of the people they thought they disagreed with. And occasionally, you might persuade a few people over to your position too!

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The danger of self-censorship

George Orwell, in his fantastic essay, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, which was originally written as a preface to Animal Farm, wrote about the danger of self-censorship.

He argued that it wasn’t the spectre of an ‘official ban’ which ‘silenced’ unpopular ideas. Rather, it was societal orthodoxy which often stifled free speech.

‘At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.’

Though its unclear why, Orwell’s timeless musings were not actually published as the preface to his famous tome, and only appeared when they were released under the above title by Bernard Crick in a 1972 edition of the Times Literary Supplement. 

Orwell regarded it a ‘sinister’ fact that ‘literary censorship’ in Britain was largely voluntary, that people policed their own words for fear of public backlash.

Today, Orwell’s essay carries enormous relevance. There are a great variety of issues in which there is an orthodoxy, and to step outside it and pronounce an alternative view is to potentially invite opprobrium.

In the recent past, it was topics like immigration and multiculturalism which had an accepted narrative. For the former, the said narrative ran along the lines that mass immigration was economically and culturally beneficial to Britain, and anyone who said otherwise probably had racist motives.

The spiel of the latter was that various cultures could exist within a society harmoniously, and that all cultures had equal value. Therefore, criticising unfamiliar and questionable cultural practices was again an act which apparently bordered on the racist and unacceptable.

Despite the fact that this narrative has come under significant pressure in recent years, British Labour politician Sarah Champion, the Member of Parliament for Rotherham and the then shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, recently discovered to her disadvantage the extent to which a deviation from a generally accepted narrative can harm peoples’ careers.

Champion wrote a piece in the much-criticised The Sun newspaper, in which – under the headline ‘British Pakistani men are raping and exploiting white girls… and its time we faced up to it‘ – she made some challenging but truthful claims. Its worth noting to start of with that Champion probably didn’t write the headline, which was what caused much of the controversy.

British Labour politician Sarah Champion

In her actual piece, the Labour politician was measured in her words. She laid out the main, shocking facts, that more than 1,200 vulnerable white girls were abused by mainly British Pakistani men in the Rotherham area between 1997 and 2013. Further, she highlighted the horrific truth that many of the pleas of the victims failed to be acted on by local borough council.

None of these assertions should have been controversial, for they were all true, and have been repeated and republished as such by the likes of the BBC only recently.

Such unfathomable evidence of wrongdoing on the part of British citizens, and of negligence on the part of the council and the police, was all contained in Professor Alexis Jay’s report into the litany of crimes.

Yet, despite the watertight nature of the claims made by Champion, and her dogged insistence to lay out the facts regardless of the backlash, she was still forced to resign.

Her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, failed to support her, and instead trotted out the familiar and tired trope, that it was not fair to “blame” or “stigmatise any particular group”.

Corbyn’s failure to back one of his party’s leading female figures led Trevor Philips, the former chair of the Equality and Human rights Commission, to tell The Telegraph that, “I am absolutely gobsmacked, this is not the Labour party I know, even in the darkest days I don’t remember people being asked to stand down for trying to represent their constituents, which is what I think Sarah Champion was trying to do”.

Indeed, Phillips’ words should surely make us think twice before we condemn people for saying and writing ‘controversial’ things. If something truthful happens to be difficult to listen to, then it is likely that there is a significant problem which needs to be dealt with.

Similarly, topics like gender now appear to be subject to new, rising orthodoxy. The notion that gender is grounded in biological sex appears now to be a claim that, if repeated, can end up with someone being branded ‘transphobic’.

Instead of allowing a debate centred with facts and reason, seemingly sensible people give in to a narrow and aggressive view that gender is entirely socially constructed, and that someone’s opinion of what they ‘identify’ as is what really matters.

As a result, the likes of Germaine Greer are pilloried and branded ‘transphobic’, simply for asserting the above, that someone does not become a man or a woman simply because they say they feel that way.

Subjects in which societal opinion has shifted are a good way of demonstrating why we should always be keen to encourage and facilitate open and honest debate, no matter how difficult the topic may be or how obvious the right answer may seem.

Take the Iraq War as a final example. Amidst the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, political opinion – though not public opinion – was firmly on the pro-invasion side. Those brave voices who stood in opposition to this, such as the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, were pilloried and ridiculed by the Press and other politicians.

There existed a narrow political orthodoxy, which despite not being shared by the general public, was strong and assertive in the corridors of power.

Little did everyone know that Kennedy’s view would soon be vindicated, the Iraq invasion was indeed premised on flimsy intelligence and poor post-invasion planning, and his warnings should clearly have been heeded from the start.

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Jenni Murray and the liberal bigots

Yet another storm has been whipped up by supposed liberals over alleged ‘transphobic’ comments made by the broadcaster Jenni Murray in an article for the The Sunday Times.  

Murray, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, wrote in her piece – which was entitled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a real woman” – that transgender women who have previously lived as men “with all the privilege that entails”, have not experienced growing up female and are therefore not “real women”.

This piece isn’t about the ins and outs of what she wrote, nor does it intend to delve into transgender issues. However, the hysteria that has arisen is a little over the top. Murray’s lengthy article delved into the subject of transgenderism quite extensively, and she was at pains to denounce the likes of Germaine Greer for her abrasive comments on the same subject.

Yet, as is increasingly the case in this climate of illiberal intolerance, Murray’s view was seized on by other parts of the media, with India Willoughby, a news presenter and transgender woman, calling for Murray – who had referred to Willoughby in her piece – to be sacked from her role as the presenter of Women’s Hour.

Quoted in The Telegraph, Willoughby said, “honestly, I wouldn’t wish being trans on anyone, even Jenni. ‘Male privilege’ was never a privilege to me and is not something I benefited from.

“The fact that she’s still allowed to host Woman’s Hour while spouting this bile is ridiculous and she should finally be sacked”.

Indeed, the BBC has since said that it has reminded Murray of her responsibility to maintain an impartial view on controversial topics, despite the fact that Murray aired her views in an entirely separate publication and medium.

Further, students at Oxford, playing up to the now well-worn stereotype of intolerance that has become a common feature of student politics, have called for Murray to be uninvited from speaking about feminism and women’s history at the Oxford literary festival.

Their bizarre logic seems to be that Murray’s views on transgender issues invalidate her opinion on any other subject, and so she should be cast out into the imagined wilderness into which all deplorables who do not hold a certain set of opinions would ideally be sent.

Rachel Cohen, the executive director at Stonewall, went further, and said that Murray had no right to even question someone else’s identity.

“Whether you are trans or not, your identity is yours alone. I do not question your identity Jenni, and in return, I wouldn’t expect you to question mine – or anyone else’s. What right would you have to do so?”

Here, Cohen seems to forget that Murray and everyone else has a right to question whatever they like.

Similarly, Murray’s view wasn’t that people such as Willoughby do not have ‘the right’ to call themselves women, but that just because they say that they identify as a woman, or ‘feel like’ a woman, it doesn’t mean that they are a woman.

You could of course fire back that if you genuinely feel like a woman (or a man), then you are a woman, and you would be perfectly free to express that view, but it wouldn’t make you indisputably correct.

There is a distinct danger here that the sphere of tolerance, which I have written about in previous posts, will be further narrowed if people like Murray are silenced.

Bigotry is a disease suffered by all ideologies, but increasingly it is tsupposed liberals which suffer from it most acutely.

We need to re-discover tolerance in its genuine form, Murray has the right to say whatever she likes, and if people don’t like it, they should explain why with facts and reason, instead of resorting to shutting down the debate in order to be protected from offence.