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Hitchens at 67: Our Student Leaders Have Learned Nothing From His Defence of Free Speech


Wednesday would have been the late Christopher Hitchens's 67th birthday. Perhaps the most prominent of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism in his lifetime, many of his remarks and speeches remain inspiring - from his debate against Tony Blair on whether religion is good for the world, to his seminal takedown of the "anti-war" ideology of George Galloway, to his declaration in front of an audience of the ultra-conservative Catholic League that homosexuality is a form of love. My own personal favourite is his speech in November 2006 to Hart House in defence of freedom of speech - to my mind one of the greatest speeches ever written, and one which I can almost recite from memory. It's also a speech which remains fundamentally true to this day, and from which many seem to have sadly learned nothing.

Four of Hitchens's points seem most relevant nearly ten years later. The first of these is that the asinine injunction against shouting fire in a crowded theatre only works when there is no fire in the theatre. It is an assumption on which much no-platforming today is based: an assumption that it is so obvious that there is no metaphorical fire in the theatre that anyone who disagrees is to be dismissed out of hand. Is it self-evident that the only criterion for one to be considered a woman is identifying as one, or does Germaine Greer have a point when she states that gender reassignment surgery (which she does not oppose, nor does she oppose using preferred gender pronouns) does not make someone a woman? This seems to be far from a question on which we can say that there is no room for reasonable disagreement, yet for holding the "wrong" opinions on this issue, there have been attempts to no-platform her even from delivering lectures on completely unrelated topics - such as on women and power in Cardiff. Indeed, the New Left's doctrine of "no reasonable disagreement" appears to hold not just that one must agree on every topic, but that failure to do so disqualifies one from speaking on any topic.

The second of these, and perhaps one of the most prominent today, is that there is surely nobody whose views are so self-evidently correct that they have the right to decide for others what they may read or hear. Yet that is how Student Union censors across the country seem to perceive themselves: as possessed of a self-evident truth in their views that they have resolved questions which have vexed humanity for centuries, or of an incorruptibility to obscene or extreme views such that they will not blindly believe them as must be bound to happen to ordinary people like myself. It is a damning indictment on how far things have gone the other way, that were Hitchens to ask today whether anyone had a nominee to decide what everyone can read or hear, many SU censors would - if they were honest - nominate themselves.

Our current situation on many campuses is a sad parody of the original purpose of some student unions, notably Oxford's, which proudly boasts that it was founded partly to defend the free speech rights of ISIS Magazine, and yet today bans No Offence magazine from freshers fair, by its own admission, because it disagreed ideologically with the content. More recently still, the latest NUS LGBT Conference even explicitly passed a motion declaring that censorship on ideological grounds was permissible, as if it is indeed the job of SU Dear Leaders to restrict the rights of students often barely younger, or even older, than themselves to information. Hitchens famously stated that the audience of a speech has a corresponding right to listen to it as the speaker has to speak, and that by refusing to listen, you make yourself a prisoner of said action. What he perhaps should have added is that while you are certainly free to lock yourself in the metaphorical prison, you have no right to frog-march the rest of the student body into the cell with you against their wills.

Thirdly, and also of increasing prominence, are his remarks on the mysterious blind spot that many censors have when it comes to Islamist extremism. Not that this blind spot is anything new; when Peter Tatchell protested Islamist homophobia (one of the asinine reasons given by Fran Cowling for refusing to share a platform with him), some of his allies were arrested under the infamous now-repealed provision of the Public Order Act on "insulting" behaviour while Islamists calling for them to be killed were not. Nowadays, the NUS - which purports to act in all our interests - works openly with pro-Islamist group CAGE, whose public face would not condemn stoning to death for adultery at Exeter University last month. More damning still is that, for the last two years, the NUS LGBT Conference has used the voices of gay men to condemn them: firstly for white gay men allegedly "appropriating black women", and then for all gay men for not being oppressed enough (perhaps a trip to Russia would change their minds). By contrast, many on the NUS NEC believe it is "racist" to condemn ISIS, a group whose victims are mostly Muslim (so how, exactly, is it "Islamophobic" to condemn them?) and which throws gay men off buildings. Evidently, Hitchens's question of "Where are your priorities?" is no closer to an answer.

His fourth point, however, gets perhaps to the heart of what is so insidious about the culture of censorship from the student New Left today: namely, that we should be very wary of "drivelling and sickly" invocations for our sympathy by the censors, who routinely accuse speakers of being offensive to entire groups or even potentially "triggering" people with the bare knowledge that they are anywhere in the city in the case of Marine Le Pen's visit to Oxford. The idea that all Muslims, for instance, will be offended by the presence of Maryam Namazie is one which cannot be justified, yet such statements are dishearteningly common.

More common still is the regular accusation that those who criticise the use of trigger warnings, whether in specific instances or more generally, do not care about mental health - even when some of this criticism is coming from people dealing with mental health issues and who think that avoiding their triggers will only make their conditions worse. Such emotional blackmail, that people don't care about the groups being homogenised as offended or threatened by a speech which nobody is obliged to attend, should be resisted out of hand. If anything, it is the censors who purport to speak for everyone in a group, and often bully and silence dissenting voices within said group just look at the treatment of Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell for signing a letter against no-platform, or Maajid Nawaz for challenging extremism) who deserve condemnation for homogenising and infantalising groups of people in the name of censoring speakers with whom they personally disagree.

When Hitchens finished his speech, he was met with rapturous applause, which may even be repeated today. Sadly, the actions of many on the New Left ten years later betray that they have learned nothing in the intervening ten years. If Hitchens was wrong, and there is indeed an afterlife, I doubt very much that he would be impressed with the state of our more-or-less self-anointed student leaders in SUs and the NUS as he looks down on the world. Yet increasingly, a backlash against this culture of censorship is growing, and long may that continue.

I am grateful to Anna Lukina and Elrica Degirman for reading this piece in draft

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