The recent protests in university towns and on campuses in the UK and the US have exposed something very serious. Far from exemplifying liberal tolerance, they reveal the determination of educated millennials to destroy those ideals of liberty, equality and progress that have allowed universities to flourish for centuries.
In his 1987 book ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ Allan Bloom lamented the state of universities at the end of the twentieth century. He suggested that “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.” Focusing particularly on the emergence of relativism as a moral and cultural philosophy, Bloom points out that the ‘openness’ asserted by relativism actually undermines critical thinking and so paradoxically leads to the ‘closing’ of minds as referenced in the title of his book.
Thirty years have elapsed since Bloom’s theories were published, yet the events of the past week have demonstrated how right he was to be concerned. On Monday we saw Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart Editor and self-proclaimed voice of the alt-right, being prevented from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley. The no-platforming of ‘controversial’ speakers at universities has been in vogue for some years now, but the violent nature of the protests against Milo, coupled with the historic significance of Berkeley as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, implies that something very dark is at work on our university campuses today.
Leaving a trail of shattered glass and fires in their wake, the so-called ‘anti-fascist protestors’ smashed windows and pepper-sprayed other students who were hoping to attend the event. One protester had a placard reading ‘This is War!” Oh, the irony. For the war that they are waging is not against Nazism or Fascism – it is against equality and freedom of speech; principles that universities encouraged long before they became mainstream.
The second irony is that the Berkeley protests of 1964-65, under the banner of the Free Speech Movement, called for the university administration to lift the ban on on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom. But the once liberal ideals of the Free Speech Movement have morphed into something unrecognisable and destructive.
What was more concerning than the rioters was the news that a dozen professors from UC Berkeley petitioned for Milo to be banned from the campus, citing his history of “harassment, slander, defamation, and hate speech.” It is no wonder that our students are unable to accept those who hold different views to them, when the lecturers under whom they study are leading the way in attacking free speech on campuses.
The events at UC Berkeley are by no means isolated. On Thursday the conservative writer and political commentator Gavin McInnes was pepper-sprayed by protestors as he tried to speak at an event at New York University. This time the ‘anti-fascists’ stormed the event chanting “Nazi scum, your time has come”. Again, one of the most vocal protestors was a university professor who accused the police of “protecting the Nazis”. Putting this flagrant abuse of history to one side, the inability of liberals to accept different opinions embodies fascism far more than Milo or Gavin or indeed many of the speakers and commentators who have been branded Nazis in recent weeks for not kowtowing to the liberal worldview.
Although we haven’t yet had pepper spray and fires on this side of the Atlantic, the war on free speech at British universities has been raging unchecked for years. From the 2014 protests at Oxford University, which successfully shut down a debate on abortion, to the widespread condemnation of the Cambridge Union for hosting a debate on liberalising prostitution, supposedly ‘tolerant’ students have repeatedly shown themselves to be totally intolerant and unwilling to allow those with different views express themselves.
The violent attacks over the past couple of weeks mark a significant step up from the moaning and petitioning that has gone before. The virtue-signalling of ‘generation snowflake’ is no longer a laughing matter. Brushing these people off as millennials who have always been given a medal for coming last is no longer sufficient. Their brainwashing has been thorough and their anger is real. And they are threatening the Enlightenment principles that for too long we have taken for granted at the very universities that have for centuries been pioneers of equality and bastions of free thought.
Bloom wrote that true liberal tolerance includes being willing to hear the arguments of those with whom you disagree. “The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”
It would be wise for those students who are rioting and protesting in the name of anti-fascism to consider these words carefully. The ‘no-platforming’ of speakers and the unwillingness to engage in intelligent debate is putting these students in grave danger of becoming the very thing they purport to hate. And our universities, once the forums of intellectual discussion and the breeding grounds of philosophies and thoughts, are fast-becoming the most closed-minded places in the western world.