Anyone who regularly spends time at a university can’t fail to notice the gulf between the popular image of students and the quieter, far more boring reality. In the past couple of years I’ve spoken at universities across the UK and at colleges throughout the US. Each time I expect to be greeted by students campaigning to have speakers no-platformed, demanding trigger warnings, tearing down posters, burning newspapers and shrieking accusations of racism, misogyny and transphobia. Each time I have been disappointed.
Clearly, activist students determined to bring social justice to their campus exist. This week, in the UK, it is Balliol College at the University of Oxford which is under the microscope for banning — and then reinstating — the Christian Union from its Freshers’ Fair. The long-established Christian society was initially labelled “harmful” by the fair’s organizers who went on to claim that Christianity’s historic use as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism” meant its presence might “alienate” new students. Meanwhile, in the US, students at the College of William and Mary made headlines for disrupting a talk by the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Virginia chapter on free speech. Students holding placards shouted down the speaker with chants of “ACLU, free speech for who?” and “The oppressed are not impressed.”
While these highly-charged free speech controversies grab headlines, they do so against the backdrop of a student experience which is in many ways less political than in the past. The campus left-wing factionalism of yesteryear is no more than a distant memory. In the UK, a majority of students may have voted for Corbyn in the general election but at last month’s meeting of the NUS’s National Executive Committee a motion backing a demonstration in support of free education wasn’t even discussed let alone approved.
Many people who work or study at a university are busy just getting on with their lives. Academics try to squeeze time for teaching and research in between meetings and administration. Students attend classes, complete assignments and hang out. Some have jobs, relationships, financial problems and complicated family situations. In short, most universities, most of the time, are best characterized not by social justice warriors disinviting speakers and protesting a Eurocentric curriculum but by a humdrum busy-ness and a lack of interest in politics. Talk to students at random and the impression you’re left with is an overwhelming niceness and an urge not to offend.
The conundrum, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that campus disputes in one part of the country co-exist with students quietly getting on with life elsewhere. Perhaps contrary to expectations, protests against visiting speakers, recalcitrant academics, fancy dress costumes or culturally-appropriating canteen fare are more likely to erupt at elite institutions. Universities that are academically highly selective and, in the US at least, most expensive, do not admit a greater proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds than institutions lower down the league tables. Instead, middle class, wealthy students have more time to dedicate to being offended by microaggressions and need to work far harder to prove their own suffering or to demonstrate their empathy with perceived victims. Academically successful students are likely to have best imbibed the seminar room message that words can wound.
Practical differences also make protests more likely to occur at some places rather than others. At the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and liberal arts colleges in the US, students of similar age and social class background live and study side by side in small communities. The reality check provided by friends and classmates with lives and jobs away from college is lessened. New moral norms can rapidly become established and challenging dominant voices carries a far higher risk of ostracisation.
The imperative to “be nice” can mean that students passively go along with protests when they are carried out under the banner of social justice and don’t challenge censorship. This is particularly the case when free speech as a value is held in low regard. A 2016 survey of UK university students showed that only 33% of male students and 22% of female students completely agreed that universities should never limit free speech. This reluctance to challenge enables the views of small groups of student activists to appear more dominant than they really are and this, in turn, allows protests to develop a momentum of their own.
Particularly in the US, campus culture wars further inflame debates about free speech. The more free speech is presented as harmful to the cause of social justice with topics such as rape culture or “trans politics” placed beyond all discussion, the more this is met by a knee-jerk desire to shock. Speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos parachute onto campus accompanied by much hype but with little of political or intellectual substance to add to any debate. A reasoned exchange of ideas becomes impossible and the ensuing hysteria appears to reflect the battle lines for free speech.
It is this hysteria that stands in such stark contrast to the daily experiences of staff and students on campus. But the existence of this disjuncture means it is possible to talk to students about challenging and controversial ideas. On my most recent trip to the US I spoke to students and faculty at very different institutions. Each time, I criticized current directions in feminism, intersectionality and identity politics. I challenged the need for trigger warnings, argued against the concepts of cultural appropriation and microaggression and made the case for free speech.
The students I met seemed to welcome an opportunity to confront head-on issues that pervade campus life today but are rarely openly discussed. I was fortunate enough in each case to have been invited by professors who were determined to make the event work and introduced me to students and faculty so I could properly understand the particular institutional context. In my talk I tried to move beyond sloganeering to explain both why free speech is important to me personally and the academic basis for the current problematizing of free speech. This led to engaging and rigorous discussions. I certainly received challenging questions and criticisms but no one was traumatized or needed a safe space in which to recover.