By the time children turn 18, society agrees they are old enough to think for themselves. They are adults. We trust that they’re able to make up their own minds. Yet, by the time they do turn 18, they may find themselves at university. And what’s more, they may also find that they are, in fact, not trusted to make up their own minds. No, for it seems a growing trend of censoring debate is worryingly on the rise at many university campuses. But all this cosseting comes at a cost.
A few weeks ago, the writer Germaine Greer made controversial statements about transgender people. She said that transwomen are not “real women” and that “surgery does not turn a man into a woman.” She also cast doubt on the existence of transphobia: “I didn’t even know there was such a thing.”
To be clear, I do not agree with Greer’s views. I think they’re limited and insular. Gender and gender identification is much more nuanced and complicated than mere biology. Reducing the subject to black and white is the wrong approach. The matter is not of the body but of the brain, making it – by association – grey.
However, not long after Greer’s opinions were made public, an online petition was launched seeking to ban her from giving a lecture at Cardiff University. The petition stated her “problematic” opinions on transgender people as being the motive for the censure.
The petition was started by the woman’s officer at the university’s student union, claiming Greer has “misogynist views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether.”
The petition itself states:
“Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society. Such attitudes contribute to the high levels of stigma, hatred and violence towards trans people – particularly trans women – both in the UK and across the world.
“While debate in a university should be encouraged, hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups is dangerous. Allowing Greer a platform endorses her views, and by extension, the transmisogyny which she continues to perpetuate.”
The most interesting sentence is the last one: “Allowing Greer a platform endorses her views”. This defective reasoning is becoming more and more common amongst university students. They believe that offering someone a platform of differing opinion renders one immediately acquiescent. They think that simply allowing a person to speak equates to automatic approval of the views expressed.
What’s even more troubling (or baffling, depending on your perspective) is that Greer was not expected to give a lecture on transgender people at all. She was invited to speak about women and power in the twentieth century. In other words, there were those who disagreed with her on a completely different topic and wanted to ban her from speaking entirely.
This is upsetting on a number of levels.
Firstly, it eliminates a potentially healthy environment wherein students could openly debate Ms. Greer and confront her views on transgender people. It could have opened a dialogue between speaker and listener, allowing ideas and opinions to be exchanged and challenged. This is exactly the kind of environment a university should seek to create.
Secondly, this does transgender people no favours. Anti-trans violence is a real and growing problem, predicated on the belief that being transgender is both unnatural and wrong. But one does not have to explicitly call for violence against transgender people for it to occur. Although Greer never advocated a hate crime, dehumanising rhetoric and denying them their sense of self will incite violence all the same.
However, such a mind-set does not go away by silencing. It can only be accomplished by changing attitudes. And you cannot change someone’s mind by turning off their mike. It can only be done through discourse and discussion.
Censoring ideas by those who firmly disagree with them is a dangerous path. And it is never a path that should find its way onto university grounds. Pandering to people’s sensitivities and gratifying their wish to remain unchallenged – whether intellectually or emotionally – is harmful for everyone involved. Shutting down those with whom you disagree gets you nowhere. Silencing your critics solves nothing. Universities shouldn’t be treated as intellectual safe spaces. Covering the world in bubble wrap only makes you live in inside a bubble.
This is not, however, an isolated incident. In 2014, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the International Monetary Fund’s managing director Christine Lagarde were disinvited from speaking at Rutgers University and Smith College, respectively.
Both women are highly successful and could have been role models for female students and minorities. Rice was the first black female secretary of state and Lagarde was the first female head of the IMF.
But because some students objected to Rice’s role in the Iraq War, and took issue with some of the IMF’s policies, their thoughts and perspectives were refused an audience.
In fact, according to data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, no fewer than 240 campaigns have been launched at U.S. universities alone, since 2000, aiming to prevent public figures from appearing at campus events. This is thoughtfully discussed by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their excellent essay “The Coddling of the American Mind” published in August by The Atlantic.
It is of course horribly ironic that those who claim to be on the side of tolerance can be so vehemently intolerant. But the scale on which one measures “tolerance” and “intolerance” is not straight, but circular. Provided you take a moment to stand back and examine your position, you may find yourself on the opposite side of what you actually believe.
The debacle at Cardiff is perhaps even more ironic when you factor in Greer’s reputation as one of the major feminist voices of the second half of the twentieth century. There are now students – many of whom identifying as feminists themselves – who want to silence that voice and deny her a podium, despite likely agreeing on innumerable other issues.
But sadly we’re obsessed as a culture with denying those a platform that don’t conform to our own views. Our intentions may be magnanimous, but our methods are unsound. The negating of opinions is too often favoured over the debating of opinions. But opinion should never be cause for prohibition. Trust students to make up their own minds. Allow them to think for themselves. Discussion should always exist and freedom of speech should always prevail. Especially at the very institutions that need them the most.