One of the more depressing features of contemporary life is the number of people who effectively believe that all that matters is that they have an opinion and feelings. I draw this sad conclusion from a number of sources, most recently the furore over the latest ‘Band Aid’ song, and over my old University’s failure to stand up for free speech in the case of Tim Stanley and ‘abortion culture’. In the first case, I heard a Liberian woman on the radio saying that ‘Band Aid’ was patronising Africans and that since she was an African, she could not be challenged; no one had the wit to say: “OK, but since since we are talking about how to get money out of white people and you aren’t white, your opinion is irrelevant.” Similarly with Tim Stanley, ‘feminists’ objected to the idea of men discussing abortion; clearly only corporate bankers can discuss corporate banking, and only politicians can discuss politics. This represents a flight from reason and discussion. It is, perhaps, the place where relativism eats itself. After all, only I know what I really feel and think, and so what you think and feel is irrelevant to me; except, of course, we none of us live in a place where we have no interaction with others, and unless we expect to get our own way all the time (something most of us got over by the time we were three years old), compromise based on discussion and shared values is necessary.
Now I do not say that adolescents have not always had this tendency, but I do say that the leaders of our institutions have not always been so cowardly. It is unclear whether the official excuse for cancelling Tim Stanley’s debate was fear of unrest or fear that some students would have their feeling hurt. If the latter, we seem to have regressed to the late Victorian assumption that young women are such sensitive souls that they cannot be exposed to things which would shock them; that being so, it would raise the question of whether Universities are sit places for them – a view many Victorian men held strong views on. But this seems to be where that line of argument leads.
It abuts directly onto the continuing discussion about ‘British values’ and freedom of religion. I noticed somewhere on the Internet calls to ban ‘pro-choice’ speakers at some American College. I have to say I would have opposed any attempt to ban them. I disagree with their views, but I would defend their right to say what they think. But then I am one who believes in freedom of speech and who opposed the various well-meaning laws on ‘hate speech’ on precisely the grounds which have turned out to be prophetic – that they would lead to people shutting down the right to speak by denying it to those who held views which were not accepted by a consensus.
There was a recent survey which revealed, to not great surprise on my part, that people still hold racist and sexist views, even if they cannot say so in public. Of course they do, and if they cannot express them, how can they be challenged? How can we debate and discuss these things with them and seek to change minds if childish adolescents use their ‘hurt feelings’ and threats of violence to close down the opportunities to do so?