The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists among it’s definitions of Scepticism: “the method of suspended judgement, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of sceptics.”
When faced with the virtue and infallibility of the most righteous figure or most fastidious belief, the sceptic is capable of doubting and scrutinising when logic evades others.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church gave an interview showing mixed feelings towards the event.
Although Francis (of course) condemned the violence, he prefaced his condemnation with the bizarre “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.”
Francis continued: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”
I frequently find myself reminding people of this interview when challenged with claims of Francis being an ever virtuous leader.
The fact is that not only can we criticise and poke fun: it is a vital part of not only the development of our own critical faculties to do so, but also the ability of any faith group to adjust and reform and avoid stagnation.
It is our duty as sceptics.
Not many would deny the virtue of Martin Luther King Jr. but perfect he was not, and it should be remembered lest we forget that it is in their discrepancies and shortfalls that we find the true ingredients for greatness in such people.
It is not uncommon knowledge that King had applied for a license to carry a concealed firearm before his death, despite his protestations against violence.
One historical martyr whose folly often goes unspoken is a certain Mohandas Gandhi.
Gandhi famously eschewed modern medicine, going even as far as to allow his wife Kasturba to die rather than allow her to accept a penicillin injection. Gandhi later accepted the treatment for himself, in a less than staunch show of principle.
Indeed, the flag of India still to this day bears the spinning wheel Gandhi used to make his own clothes, a symbol of both his quest for self reliance and simultaneous rejection of technology and the leaps forward in industry and living standards the rest of the world enjoyed during the time period.
Factors of formative stories such as these are not widely taught or particularly widely known beyond those that are interested enough to do their own research, and here is the crux of an old problem with very current circumstances.
The systems of education in the UK and other Western countries, in Europe and across Atlantic are not producing sceptics as they once did.
I believe this is demonstrably because of ‘safe space’ culture and and the tendency for student protest to shut down debate.
In this article, I’d like to look at the culture of language policing which is so overbearing in universities (first abroad and then in the UK), how it affects the rights of students and academics, and how this Orwellian culture is permeating our own wider sphere of thought and reducing scepticism in millenials.
Overseas Language Policing
In July 2015, the University of New Hampshire (USA) received widespread criticism for displaying on their website a speech code for students in their ‘inclusive excellence’ section.
The word ‘American’ was prohibited among others, which was the root of the subsequent outrage.
Forbes contributor David Davenport reported at the time that “The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education produces an annual report on the subject, finding most recently that 55% of 437 colleges and universities studied had such codes.”
We are reminded that this guide (along with presumably many others) was not actually being enforced and remained just that – a guide. It is however, part of a disturbing trend.
Davenport argues: “Since debates are about ideas, and ideas are expressed in language, limiting the language necessarily limits the debate. If students are not supposed to argue policies pertaining to the “rich” and “poor,” or should avoid talking about “Americans” or “illegal aliens,” obviously a lot of robust debate is lost.”
The response of condemnation was surely justified in this case, but while in 2015 language policing was far from over, nor was it a new phenomenon.
In 2014, Guardian writer Philip Oltermann wrote gleefully of new moves to speed up the evolution of the German tongue to be gender neutral:
“Now, with the federal justice ministry emphasising that all state bodies should stick to “gender-neutral” formulations in their paperwork, things are changing again.”
In the same article, Oltermann quotes German author Luise Pusch as saying: “Language should be comfortable and fair. At the moment, German is a very comfortable language, but a very unfair one.”
Perhaps this concept of “unfair” language can provide a clue as to the current crusade against hate speech and offensiveness.
It goes without saying that it’s an incredible accusation to name an entire language unfair just because it hasn’t developed it’s mannerisms at the same rate as a developed nation it’s attitudes.
Could there be wider ramifications to all this?
I suggest that the most grave consequence to the purposeful limiting of language – one which we can observe in our institutions – is the opening of a door to outright suppression of ideas and speech.
As David Davenport remarks in his aforementioned Forbes article:
“The chilling effect on free speech is precisely why the First Amendment guarantees it, and a government-run university is especially vulnerable to constitutional challenges to speech codes.”
Suppression of Speakers
In September 2002, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to speak in front of students at Canada’s Concordia University.
Protests in Montreal against the event turned into riots and 200 pro-Paestinians fought police in a brutish lunge at the right of Concordia students to invite and hear speakers who interest them.
Inside the venue, chairs were tossed at police and eventually it was the application pepper spray which saw off the rioters.
In an eerie utterance of what was to become a virtual ‘party line’ for left-wing activists in the decade and a half between then and now, one former student told the BBC “There’s no free speech for hate speech”.
A fellow Jew whose career has been hounded by protest and riot is conservative journalist and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulus poses a conundrum to those who would seek to shout him down rather than debate: he doesn’t fit any of the traditional names a wily activist might hurl to silence dissent.
Milo is not only Jewish by ethnicity, but a Catholic by faith and at the same time a gay man.
Those who follow Milo (or US news) will remember the riots inflicted upon the campus of University of California, Berkeley in February 2017 in attempts (sadly successful) to have a Yiannopoulus speech at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union cancelled.
According to a Guardian article following the rioting:
“The gathering was boisterous but peaceful until about 6pm, when several dozen protesters wearing black face masks and carrying glittering flags arrived. The group quickly attacked the police barricades, then began shooting firecrackers at the building. Some used barricades to smash windows.
After about 15 minutes, a police officer announced that the event was cancelled.
Some cheered when the police announced the cancellation, but others continued to jeer and call for the police to send Milo out to face the crowd.”
It occurs to me that this is not the behaviour of a movement confident in it’s convictions – quite the opposite, it is the last resort of the ideologically retarded.
In an echo of the sentiments of the Canadian rioter we heard from above (and in an extraordinary display of hypocrisy), one Antifa member present apparently said “We won’t put up with the violent rhetoric of Milo, Trump or the fascistic alt-right”.
Sadly, the Guardian article from which these accounts are gathered seems in it’s own way to quietly condone such property destruction and volatile attitudes, resorting to dragging up old ghosts and wearing political bias on it’s sleeve.
Yet another conservative (and Jewish) journalist who has been met with protest – though not much rioting thus far – is Daily Wire editor and founder Ben Shapiro.
One protester (of only 25 who turned up) at a Ben Shapiro talk at the University of Florida in April 2017 told (Florida newspaper) the Independent Daily Alligator “A lot of people believe his rhetoric about trans people. It’s harmful.”
He is referring to Shapiro’s insistence that Gender Dysphoria (formerly referred to as Gender Identity Disorder) is a mental disorder – something which in the twenty-first century is considered subversive “rhetoric” and worthy of protest.
Aside from all being Jewish and all having views which run counter to the narrative pushed on many campuses, what all three of these men have in common are accusations of Fascism and ironic attempts to silence them through distinctly ‘fascistic’ tactics.
They too have in common the accusation that their words are in some way ‘violent’ or ‘harmful’ – again, reminiscent of the attitudes of European Fascists during the last century to opposition voices.
The logic seems to go that if we call words violent, then actual violence becomes mere self defence and suppression of speech becomes valid peace keeping.
Language Policing in the UK
In April 2017, Olivia Rudgard of the Telegraph wrote:
“According to documents obtained by the Sunday Times, students are told to “be aware of the powerful and symbolic nature of language and use gender-sensitive formulations. Failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark.””
Rudgard’s article was one of the many to follow the release of a document (following a Freedom of Information request) showing that students at Hull University have been warned that should they not write within the parameters of what is deemed inoffensive they will be marked down.
According to the article, a lecturer on religion said “Should any student use language which is not deemed gender-neutral, they will be offered feedback as to why. Deduction of marks is taken on a case-by-case basis.”
Professor Frank Furedi of Kent University commented that “This linguistic policing is used as a coercive tool to impose a conformist outlook.”
In light of these accusations, universities in Bath and Cardiff have become targets of just criticism for their own language policies – although it seems that those establishments have at least refrained thus far from threatening to deduct marks for non-conformity.
Equally pervasive in UK university culture is the National Union of Students (NUS) ‘No Platform’ policy. The policy is designed to prevent ideological opponents – be they individuals or organisations – from being given an opportunity to speak alongside, or ‘share a platform’ with NUS officers.
The original and most visible target of the policy has been the British National Party (BNP) amid accusations of racism. Of course, many NUS members will never have the opportunity to hear the beliefs of BNP members in their own words because of this very policy.
The policy has not gone without challenge among the student population, but remains in force and has fallen prey to aforementioned paranoia about Fascists.
A British Backlash
In a Telegraph article from January 2016 entitled ‘Why I’m finding it harder to call myself a liberal student’, University of Sheffield student Hallam Roffey expresses with eloquence and humour his struggle to maintain his liberal stance without becoming associated with overbearing progressives.
Roffey pokes his fellow students, calling them “illiberal liberals” and characterising them as infantile: “They are clad not in shining suits of armor, but nappies – several sizes too small.”
Roffey defines the brand of progressivism rampant on campus as “stopping universities from being hubs of intellectual debate and conversation and turning them into comfortable padded play-areas.”
When speaking of subject matter often shut down in these institutions, Islam must surely be among the most common, as Roffey confirms: “I am regularly shouted down and ostracised for suggesting Islamist terror attacks have at least something to do with Islam.”
“Whether it is Cardiff University students attempting to suppress Germaine Greer’s speech because they disagreed with her views on transgendered women, Goldsmith’s LGBTQ Society disrupting Maryam Namazie’s talk, or UCL banning the Nietzsche Club for ‘promoting far-right, fascist ideology which directly threatened the safety of the UCL student body’, no-platforming has become the primary tool for a new puritanism.”
Roffey’s comparison to puritanism is a disturbing one, but requires addressing nonetheless.
One of the most troubling examples (for me personally) of thought policing in the UK was said banning of University College London’s Nietzsche Club for a promotional poster bearing the slogan “equality is a false god”.
A Tab report which followed poignantly pointed out that “Nietzsche in particular is viewed by some as a hero of free thought, and the irony of the ban will not be lost on his fans given he foresaw the intolerant tendencies in liberal thought, observing that “all higher values devalue themselves”.”
The most perplexing part of the story was the allegation that ideology could do harm to students, but the implicit suggestion that suppression of ideology could not.
Another Tab piece from 2016 reported on comments made by PM Theresa May on ‘safe spaces’ during Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The PM said “We want our universities not just to be places of learning but places where there is open debate. which is challenged and people can get involved in that,” and continued “I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary, frankly.”
It is heart warming to hear the occasional student voice (and not to mention a head of state) pushing back against the torrent of progressive coddling, but they are sadly few and far between – or at least don’t seem to gain much traction in 2017.
Safe Space Spill-over
The movement towards censorship and black and white, echo-chamber thinking is worrying enough when it is confined to campuses, but becomes another beast entirely when placed outside of those parameters.
We saw a very public display of this thinking following the recent Westminster attack – perversely it was predominantly far-right groups who took the heaviest preemptive criticism in the media for any retaliations that might occur, while the Muslim community was soothed with a resounding ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.
The Westminster attack of March 2017 saw Khalid Masood (born Adrian Russell) drive into pedestrians as he sped across Westminster Bridge, crash the car and stab a police officer before being shot and eventually dying at St. Mary’s hospital.
The attack itself was something far less than shocking to anyone who follows the news in Europe – even the tactic of driving into civilians is a now commonplace feature of Islamic attacks.
What was shocking (and continues to be in every instance) was the attitude of the media and the establishment towards the motivations of Masood.
Simultaneously, there was much fear mongering that there would be a backlash from the anti-Islamic movements in the UK – particularly the English Defence League (EDL).
One Huffington Post contributor Yusuf Tamanna published just days after the onslaught a piece titled ‘In The Wake Of The Westminster Attacks, Londoners Need To Call Out Islamophobia’.
If words fail you, here are some: astounding, unapologetic, hypocrite.
Tamanna first bemoans the horror put upon him by “subtle micro-ragressions”, before making but one valid point (if by accident) when he says “let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that when people hear the word terrorist or terrorism, they don’t instantly think of Muslim men with beards or women in hijabs.”
(Of course they do, and given that the top three terror groups on the planet are Islamic it seems a fair perception!)
The article closes with the selfish and pathetic plea “All I ask is this: If you see or hear any Islamophobic commentary in the wake of what happened in Westminster, please say something.”
“Islamophobia” will be a familiar term to many, particularly Canadians whose government recently passed the M-103 motion to ‘stand’ against it (without bothering to define what it is in their view).
The fact is that calling someone an ‘Islamophobe’ is neither an argument nor productive, and is too often used in the UK to silence any criticism of the ‘religion of peace’.
This is not compatible with the value of scepticism in thought or the British value of free speech and free debate.
Elsewhere in the UK psyche, it was widely reported in March 2017 that HSBC was introducing a full 10 new options for titles (as opposed to the old Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc.).
The list (Mx, Ind, M, Mre, Msr, Myr, Pr, Sai, Ser or Misc) was purportedly supposed to make trans and ‘non-binary’ customers feel more comfortable.
Of course the change will not make legitimately transgender customers feel more comfortable because they will simply continue to put themselves down as whatever gender they have transitioned to: male or female.
In truth, changes like these come from the echo-chambers of universities where strange sociological arguments about gender take precedence over anything based in biology or demonstrable with the scientific method.
Metro reported that “They say that ‘for gender-neutral title changes where you’re not changing your name, this does not require any proof to be submitted for the change to be implemented’.”
This was all done in conjunction with ‘Internationl Day of Visibility’, and marks yet another attempt at pandering to the ‘trans-trend’ adherents through marketing (something HSBC are understandably keen to do given their issues over share prices in recent months).
The re-writing of language to protect the feelings of a minority and the touting of words like ‘Islamophobia’ and gender neutral pronouns are a less than admirable features of the authoritarian-left ideology predominant in social science departments far and wide, and should be resisted ardently as they spill out into wider society.
When writing about the cancellation of a speech by (EDL founder, activist and journalist) Tommy Robinson at Oxford Brookes University amid fears of protest turning into riot, Spiked contributor Hardeep Singh wrote “whatever your views on the man, censorship enforced by a protesters’ veto is not a victory over Robinson, it’s a victory for censorship.”
Returning to Scepticism
Scepticism should hold an exalted place in our universities and in our mindsets not just because it is the only route forward (both in personal development and in the growth of movements and ideas) but because without scepticism and the free expression of it we have no avenue other than violence.
Is it any wonder that the most strongly anti free speech regimes in the world often produce the most violent backlash?
As President John F. Kennedy wisely pointed out: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Therefore, the allowance of scepticism and freedom of speech are cornerstones of non-violent solutions.
The cornerstones appear to be crumbling.
During the writing of this article it came out that a California high school had attempted to expel a student for wearing a vaguely political hat (in support of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and had failed to address the bullying that student Jacob Labosky had dealt with because of his politics.
It also came out this week that controversial University of Toronto Professor Jordan B. Peterson has been refused a research grant because of his refusal to adhere to speech codes surrounding non-binary gender identities – a topic entirely unrelated to his work.
In further current news, the University of Missouri in the US is closing down three dorms next academic year because of low enrolment.
This comes in light of the university’s infamy in recent years for being a hot bed of far-left activism and a series of viral YouTube videos, one showing Missouri professor Melissa Click calling for “muscle” to oust a journalist from a protest, a second showing the same professor verbally abusing a police officer at another protest, and a third showing members of a student meeting trying to make student journalist Mark Schierbecker leave their assembly because he was white.
And so, we seem to have a problem on our hands: as campuses become more and more the domain of the far-left and freedom of speech, debate and above all scepticism towards certain ideas and narratives are diminished: will free thinking, inquiring, creative young minds not turn away from these institutions in their droves?
And if they do, what will become of the seminal value we call scepticism which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once called “the basis of all accurate observation”?