Nick Cohen on Britain’s hypocritical students

September 26, 2015 • 12:00 pm

This is just to call your attention to another article defending free speech by the wonderful Nick Cohen: a Spectator piece called “Britain’s hypocritical universities are naked before their enemies“. It was written after Cohen participated in a Guardian-sponsored debate on free speech at King’s College London. The audience was apparently outraged by the British government’s proposal to ban nonviolent Islamic “extremists” from speaking at universities. But this outrage was hypocritical because, as Cohen notes, less extreme Muslims, or even ex-Muslims,  are regularly banned by British universities themselves (see my piece yesterday on Maryam Namazie). And not just those discussing Islam, but those talking on many controversial issues.

Cohen (my emphasis):

I spoke at a Guardian debate on free speech before an audience of students at King’s College London last night. I’ve argued with racists and Putinists in my time and – to put it as mildly as I can – these little bastions of academia were up there with them in their contempt for basic freedoms.

Contempt is perhaps not quite the right word. Most simply did not understand what freedom was, and could not grasp the need for universal human rights. They could not see themselves as others saw them, or understand that by giving up on basic principles, because they are difficult to live with, they had left themselves naked before their enemies.

The students, and the academics on the platform, were outraged by the government’s plans to ban “non-violent” Islamist extremists from speaking on campuses. By non-violent, ministers mean men, who may preach all the reactionary prejudices about women, Jews, homosexuals, and apostates, but stop short of advocating terrorism.

I said they had every right to be angry. The only justification for censoring opinion is when it incites violence. You can use every other weapon a free country gives you to confront speakers you oppose. You can fact check them, mock and undermine them, expose their fallacies and overwhelm their defences. But you cannot ban them. Give up on that principle, and you lay yourself open to every variety of dictator and heresy hunter rigging debates and suppressing contrary opinions.

Cohen should be seen by liberals as a British National Treasure—the Orwell of our day. But he’s largely crying in the wilderness, because even the Liberal party doesn’t favor untrammeled free speech; rather, they favor universities adjudicating potential speakers on a case-by-case basis.

For years the National Union of Students blacklisted feminists because they had once said in frank language that trans-sexual women weren’t real women. In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; officials at London Southbank took down an atheist society’s “flying spaghetti monster” poster because it might cause religious offence; the students union at UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”; and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Meanwhile half the campuses in Brtain have banned the Sun. You may be transsexual, God-bothering, pro-abortion, egalitarian, supporter of the Leveson inquiry. But you cannot pretend that any of these individuals, groups or images promoted violence.

Unless universities reformed they would be wide open to attack by the state, I told the audience. How could academics and students even keep a straight face when they told the Home Office it had no right to do what they were already doing?

Northern Ireland, also part of the UK, isn’t immune to this kind of censorship. As I reported in April, Queen’s University in Belfast cancelled a planned symposium on Charlie Hebdo because it posed a “security risk” (something you can always say if Islam is involved) and also threatened the university’s “reputation” (how was not specified).

I happen to favor abortion, don’t care whether transsexuals call themselves men or women, and see extreme Islam, even if nonviolent, as a danger to democracy. But never would I suggest that speakers whose views oppose mine should be banned simply because they’d offend me. These debates need to be had, and the very principle of democracy is that through free debate an enlightened society will emerge. Well, that’s not inevitably true, but one thing is for sure: without free debate—by structuring society so that nobody says anything deemed offensive by others—we move toward a totalitarian system where those who run the government decide what views are publicly acceptable.

And how could we change society for the better without free debate, for such change involves overturning entrenched institutions, like heterosexual marriage, whose supporters would be offended?

30 thoughts on “Nick Cohen on Britain’s hypocritical students

  1. The only justification for censoring opinion is when it incites violence.</blockquote.

    Not even then. Only for immediate violence — incitement to riot.

    Our op-ed pages are filled with calls to violence against our enemies, echoing the same arguments of our politicians. “Support our troops” is one of the most common bumper stickers on the road. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about how we need to keep the death penalty. That nice little old lady Nancy Reagan just wouldn’t shut up about the War On (some) Drugs, and police have been most violent at her direction ever since. Even the Nazis had the right to march on Skokie.

    The only time you cross the line is when the violence you’re inciting is right here and right now. And, obviously, even then, we give a free pass to officers giving pep talks to their troops (including cops) before battle….



    1. What would be the difference between advocating violence immediately and as future possibility? Isn’t both destructive, and isn’t it easier to simply ban it? (I.e. what is “immediate”, now, next week, within a year?)

      1. Actually, isn’t “violence” – even if interpreted as riot – a bad delimitation, destructive or not? It should be about criminal violence, e.g. murders, possibly riots (depending on harm), terrorism, et cetera – and their planning. Other violence is okay (sadomasochism lectures, et cetera).

        1. Again, no; the incitement and immediacy is the delineating factor. Otherwise, you’re in the position of, for example, outlawing war movies, of making it illegal to publish a soldier’s diary, of burning Sun Tzu.

          The key difference is that the incitement is itself an act of violence; the rest are merely words.


      2. The immediate violence is in the context of, for example, somebody with a megaphone in front of a crowd and whipping them into a frenzy that leads to rioting. The social dynamics of that sort of thing are well understood; the people who riot wouldn’t have done so without the immediate agitation. The agitator is using the rioters as a weapon, using them as the lever to overturn the cars and what-not.

        That’s a far cry from a newspaper running an op-ed calling for military intervention in Iraq, for example. I don’t see how a free society could possibly justify shutting down debate over war, police use of force, and so on.



        1. I with Ben on this one, even though it can be difficult when a group you’re a part of is the target of the hatred.

          I wonder about geeing up soldiers before a battle and police before a riot too. When they’ve been whipped into a frenzy like that, they’re far less likely to make good judgment calls, and that’s when innocents are far more likely to become victims.

        2. On a related note, we now have candidate Ted Cruz hinting that we might have to assassinate the Ayatollah. And the crowd he was speaking to cheered him (of course).

          1. I’d actually suggest that assassination of heads of state may be the least morally offensive acts of war one can propose. Far better to kill the one person most responsible for your grievances than the thousands or millions who just want to live their lives in peace.


          2. The good ole Values Voter Summit, organized by that bastion of bigotry, the Family Research Council. Cruz spoke exactly like a fundamentalist preacher, and it was scary the way that crowd lapped up every word.

            Trump was there too, waving his Bible, offering proof he’s a good man: he believes in God and believes in the Bible.

  2. Overall I agree with the general gist of what is being said here.

    I am reminded of a network cancelling Trump’s shows. To minimize his exposure to the American public presumably. Should they have done this?

    I would agree Trump has every right to promote his nonsense on Hyde Park Corner, but I don’t think I am obliged to rent out my soap box to him.

    So for universities is it more of a factor they don’t promote a level playing field or that they are simply not providing a venue for certain ideologies.

    And as far banning Maryam that is a complete nonsense. She is a really thoughtful speaker and she has put her life on the line to promote her view and Warwick University has banned her?


    1. The banning of Trump was not to limit his TV exposure, and if that had been the reason I would’ve opposed it. It was in response to remarks he made that they found offensive. They were responding to a reaction by their viewers and funders and taking a stand against particular attitudes they find offensive. As a private organisation they have that right.

      Once upon a time Trump’s ignorant remarks wouldn’t have got that kind of reaction, so I think the fact that open debate has led to them being generally unacceptable is a good thing. However, in the public arena Trump should not be banned imo. He has the right to spout his rubbish.

      1. Fair enough …
        That I have find someone’s remarks offensive is reason to try and silence that person.

        I get what you are saying, is it just lawyers who don’t want to be associated with offensive remarks.

        Just sent a quick note to the SU at Warwick Uni voicing my disappointment regarding Maryam.

        1. This edges into a challenging part of the issue of not blocking offensive speech. A television channel has to consider not only the right to free (but offensive) speech, but the rights of their viewers to change the channel, and whatever pressures their sponsors have on them to not broadcast a moron so the sponsors who pay for commercial time can sell more soap.
          Sometimes the needs for allowing free speech runs into capitalism, and then it can be hard to hold up ones’ principles.

  3. If we can’t have open discourse where someone is offended then free speech is dead. It has to automatically have that which we do not like in order to be heard and examined.

    When you are empowered taking offense is slight. If you are weak any offense is a major blow you may not recover. Why white men are still the major whipping boy, they can take it.

    People confuse taking offense with it must be censored even if 9 out of 10 do not. Even if only 1 out of 10 like it it should not be suppressed.

    1. I agree. If you are offended, the thing to do is make a better argument, not ban the argument you don’t like.

      Not so long ago that would have been difficult of course.

  4. Although I don’t like “security risk” as a reason for cancelling anything, it has the merit of being far more honest- not engaging in Orwellian doublespeak- than any of these other reasons.

    1. I’d like them to specify the security risk – name whichever group is likely to get violent in the circumstances. That, of course, will also be seen as causing a “security risk.”

      1. This is a superlative point.

        Either they’re aware of a specific and credible threat of violence or they don’t. If they don’t, they have no excuse for canceling. If they do, then they’re themselves criminally negligent for failing to present the evidence to the police.

        Any time “security concerns” are cited and the delay is other than a temporary one pending the results of an active police investigation…those citing the concerns are either liars or the true criminals.


        1. I pretty much agree. But, I can imagine cases where the organizing body does not have the funds to run a secure event given the risks involved. In that case, it seems they have the right to deny a speaker. Let’s say the University has reason to believe the event will be bombed but the police do not think it likely. What can they do? If they go forward with the event and lives are lost, they would be blamed for a lack of vigilance and due diligence.

          1. If they’ve brought their concerns to the police, it’s up to the police to provide security or tell them to cancel the event. It’s not the place of the university to make that call — at least, not without the input from the police.

            If there really is some vague and ill-defined but real and persistent security threat, then nobody at the university is actually safe with the current levels of security they’re providing, regardless of what events take place at the university. But if the campus is generally safe, then it’s safe to hold the event unless they have specific reason to think otherwise. And if they have specific reason and they haven’t brought in the police, then they are themselves accomplices to the terrorism.

            If there’s anybody here in the UK, I think it would be most fruitful to contact the various local police jurisdictions and ask them for updates on the statuses of the relevant investigations. When, as I suspect, the police respond that there actually isn’t any investigation…tell that to the muckraking press and let them have a field day with it.

            This shit needs to stop, and rubbing the cowardly would-be tyrants’s noses in their bullshit would be a great way to do that….


            1. I think you are correct. The police should be very much involved given a serious threat. And if the police cannot create a safe climate, then the University should complain loudly about the police, and about who it is that are creating the threat. At that point it might be the wise thing, regardless, to cancel or postpone the event until conditions change.
              In fact, I think the University is just unwilling to put in the effort to do the right thing.

              1. In fact, I think the University is just unwilling to put in the effort to do the right thing.

                More like, the University is itself sympathetic to the Islamists but is too cowardly to come out and say as much. Probably naively sympathetic, not wanting to hurt the fweewings of brown-skinned people, but no matter.


  5. “The only justification for censoring opinion is when it incites violence.”

    This is not sufficient. There will always be people who will be incited to violence by ostensibly inoffensive words or pictures.

    Religion is mostly to blame, but it is the combination of ignorance and lack of self-confidence that leads to offense. If a believer was truly at peace with the universe, like some enlightened Buddha, that person would, by definition, be unoffendable. Sticks and stones, love.

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