Heavyweight feminist intellectual Germaine Greer has recently attracted the ire of the Thought Police for her comments about transgender people. At time of writing, a petition calling for her to be 'no-platformed' (the modern equivalent of the stocks and rotten tomatoes) is being lodged, in typically nauseating fashion, by representatives of Cardiff University Students Union and the Professor has been forced into defending herself. To her credit, she has stood up for her opinions (irrespective of what you think about them) and also, more importantly, for her right to have them and express them at a university, where no opinions, regardless of their unorthodoxy, ought to be shut down. In speaking to The Guardian, Professor Greer succinctly summed up the situation, "I do not know why universities cannot hear unpopular views and think about what they mean."
Professor Greer is, at least on this point, correct.
Germaine Greer is only the most recent victim of the ethos of comfort-based-conformity, which has taken hold of our university campuses. Where once universities were the bastions of free expression, enquiry and rebellion against anything that even looked like orthodoxy, now you are far more likely to find "safe spaces" (although no one, except Kenny Loggins, has yet to show me the corresponding "danger zone"), policies of "zero tolerance", checks of "privilege" (which are, as Mick Hume explains, the difference between you-can't-say-THAT and YOU-can't-say-that), "trigger warnings" and all sorts of molly-coddling tosh which seems to be raising a generation of entitled, spoiled brats each of whom has fallen victim to the delusion that they are very important indeed, thank you very much. It takes a lot of pricks to burst that many bubbles, if you see what I mean.
The victims of the "Stepford student" mentality, described perfectly in Brendan O'Neil's brilliant article for The Spectator, seem, at first, to be unconnected. They include Mr. O'Neil himself who had the temerity to try to debate abortion - the debate was shut down - while also being a chap, which was a step too far for students at Oxford University. More recently, Professor Greer joins Guardian journalist Julie Bindel, the gay conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos and the entire party of UKIP on the ever-growing list of casualties to no-platform policies and attempts to enforce them.
I myself, in my own way, felt the impact during my days as a student at Stirling University. Granted mine may have been one of the more freedom-tolerant campuses around but I was, on two separate occasions, cautioned to be careful about what I said prior to a debate. One event in particular comes to mind, during my time at Stirling we had an incident in which some members of one of our sports teams were caught singing a well-known drinking song on a bus, the incident was recorded and did the rounds on social media as well as coming to the attention of the national press, including the Mail, Telegraph, Independent and our very own Huffington Post.
Universal outrage, timid apologies, bans from campus etc. all followed; all very ordinary really. At the time, I hosted a radio news programme (once described as a combination of Glenn Beck and Craig Ferguson, if you can believe that) and was brought into a public debate about "lad culture" and the event in particular. I intended to provide a free speech/this is the price of freedom etc. argument and did so.
However, prior to the debate a good friend of mine advised me, out of concern for my welfare, to "be careful out there". The debate went ahead and I made it out with my integrity and friendships in tact - perhaps because I was only the defence counsel, not one of the condemned. I retell this story to show that I know what I'm talking about - the "Stepford students" are prevalent, and even where they are not present, their influence can be felt.
Some might be tempted to dismiss the severity of this velvet authoritarianism and ignore it as the folly of silly students who are doomed to eventually grow up; it might even be considered cruel to deny our special butterflies their warm and cozy, albeit temporary, cocoons. They are just silly students aren't they? Well, no and we would be making a huge mistake to dismiss them as such.
As much as universities, such as the one I am proud to have graduated from, feel like bubbles when you are there; they are most certainly not. Their influence leaks out into the wider community and into public life. Organisations such as NUS, NUS Scotland and other student groups wield power by virtue of being able to use modern technology better than most, being media savvy and being full of genuinely clever people.
Furthermore, it is not just universities that make demands of their students but students that make demands of their universities - students have tremendous clout over their institutions. Here we see the genuine threat of the 'Stepford students'' rise to power - they can, and do, place demands on society, trade unions, employers, their universities and other influencers from across society. If they are allowed to continue to dictate what can be said and by whom on their campuses then it is not inconceivable that this influence could leak into the rest of society. They may be the spotty, cultural Marxists of today but, at least a section of them, will grow into the (slightly) less spotty managers of the future with their censorious instincts still intact.
In the 1970s, the philosopher and author Ayn Rand called the universities the most "dangerous" places in the world because of their tendency to teach Kantian ethics and collectivist ideas; as the stuffy, censorious atmosphere of our university campuses continues it seems she may have been right - but identified the wrong source; it is not the academics but the students who want to crack down on freedom and individuality. It is, of course, not too late, but it would take a renaissance of liberty on our campuses to send them homeward to think again... or at least for themselves for once.