By Robert J Davies
YOU know that something is fundamentally wrong with your country, when those who express unfashionable views are vilified, intimidated and in some cases deprived of their careers. That this should actually happen in the name of tolerance is deeply unfunny.
As we are now discovering, the kind of society we seem determined to create – egalitarian, identity-conscious, minority-obsessed, diverse and multicultural – cannot be achieved without the sacrifice of something very precious: our freedom of speech. With no over-arching belief system and shared values to glue us all together any more, another form of adhesive is needed: repression.
Speaking one’s mind is now a risky business, as Dr Stephen Pax Leonard, an ethnographer and linguist with an impressive academic pedigree has just found out. He has recently been dismissed as a research fellow at Durham University for the crime of publicly expressing his opinion on topics including Islam, multiculturalism, immigration and globalisation. Herein lies a further irony: Dr Leonard is fascinated by his fellow humans and has gone all over the world to study other languages, cultures and peoples, including spending several months living with the Inuit above the Arctic Circle. He has experienced, and rejoiced in, diversity in its truest sense, one might say.
His expertise and experience have led him to fear the effects of large, sustained population movements on the fabric of society. He is concerned that too much immigration into Europe will seriously undermine the nation state and our sense of who we are. Dr Leonard’s recent books, Travels in Cultural Nihilism and The Ideology of Failure: How Europe Bought Into Ideas That Will Weaken And Divide It – make his position clear.
In the latter, the blurb on the back cover notes: “Language is being increasingly policed and causing offence could now be a hate-crime in parts of western Europe. Amidst such infringements on the freedom of speech, a culture of silence is emerging. This can be seen in our universities. They should be theatres of open debate, but instead many shun viewpoint diversity. But, the toxic, zero-sum identity politics that currently plagues academia is spreading now to society at large.”
The write-up goes on to claim that his books give readers “the tools to talk openly about the topics which we are made to feel awkward about discussing.”
Little did he know then that he too would fall victim to the very culture of silence he warned about. Durham University – which should have been a “theatre of open debate”, championing freedom of speech and the right of free thinkers to say what is on their minds, foreclosed on him. A left-wing group of students at the university had found out about his books although it is doubtful any of them bothered to actually read them. Instead, they combed his Twitter feed for anything remotely provocative, using key words as search terms. They managed to harvest a handful with which to embarrass Dr Leonard and duly denounced him to the university authorities.
The response from the university was as predictable as it was swift. Faced with lurid claims that Stephen Pax Leonard was a racist, anti-Semite and Islamophobe, not to mention sexist, the Principal of St Chad’s College, Dr Margaret Masson, decided to strip him of his research fellowship, while still managing to claim that St Chad’s “encourages free speech.”
An emailed statement sent to Durham’s student newspaper, The Tab, noted: “These are very difficult issues, bringing into sharp juxtaposition two values that St Chad’s College holds dear – that of being a diverse inclusive community which welcomes and supports people from a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs, while also being an academic community absolutely committed to freedom of expression – even when that is challenging; this has provoked careful scrutiny of our policies and values and much rigorous discussion. We appreciate that there will be a variety of strongly held views on this, both within the St Chad’s community and beyond. We hope that discussion will be thoughtful and respectful as well as robust.”
What makes the University’s response so risible, is that there seems to have been little effort made by anyone in authority to properly assess the students’ claims which are self-evidently based – not on his books – but on his tweets. Note the opening line of Margaret Masson’s statement: “St Chad’s College is fully committed to free speech. However, as Principal, I believe that Dr Leonard’s comments – as reported – were objectionable and ill-judged. I have therefore withdrawn Dr Leonard’s research fellowship (which is an honorary, unpaid position).”
“As reported” – what a curious phrase. It presumably means his comments as relayed to the University by the very people baying for Dr Leonard’s blood! Did Dr Masson and her team investigate for themselves? Did they read his published work so as to put the occasional outspoken tweet into context?
As a freelance journalist and political commentator, I came across Stephen Pax Leonard’s work and have taken the trouble to read his books from cover to cover. There is nothing I could find in them which comes across as remotely racist, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic save for a fear that Islamic radicalism will spread and cause us harm. A rational fear cannot, of course, be correctly described as a “phobia”. As for his tweets, the most outrageous one offered up by the students involved Dr Leonard suggesting that London mayor Sadiq Khan wished to make London “a Mecca for Muslims”.
Interestingly, in order to find this remark offensive, one would have to be of the view that making our capital a “Mecca for Muslims” was intrinsically a repugnant concept, so the reaction to it gives a valuable insight into how the students and university bosses themselves subconsciously think.
I sought to interview Dr Margaret Masson and University Vice Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge to find out if they had delved in any depth into the published works of Stephen Pax Leonard before reaching their draconian verdict. Unfortunately, these self-styled champions of free speech refused point blank to answer my questions, either by phone or even on email. I had made clear that this was for an article I planned to send to the national press since an academic’s dismissal under such circumstances was surely a matter of public interest and scrutiny.
It’s my belief that Dr Masson and Prof Corbridge dismissed Dr Leonard, not for any deep, principled reason but simply because it was the easy option. They saw which way the wind was blowing and went with it. An angry, emotional mob of students, who might possibly have reacted with fury had the decision not gone in their favour, was deferred to – no doubt the polite, well-mannered, quietly-spoken Dr Leonard was seen as a less troublesome foe.
Probably the University also felt that in responding in this way, it was swimming with the tide of public opinion and playing its part in making Britain a forward-looking, egalitarian society in which everyone is treated fairly and equally. It won’t occur to the college principal and university vice chancellor that in order to feel good about themselves, a decent, learned man has been treated abysmally. Nor will they lose sleep over the worrying fact that an academic who loves other cultures so much he is willing to spend months abroad living within them, should now be tainted with objectionable tags like “racist”.
What are the implications of his treatment for others? Fellow academics with “seditious” views will now be walking across higher education campuses throughout Britain looking over their shoulder and talking in whispers, aware that they might be next. And there are countless other examples of political commentators on the Right being similarly treated. Academics risk getting fired, while visiting speakers are routinely no-platformed. Recently, the leader of Germany’s Alternative Für Deutschland party, Alice Weidel, now the official opposition party in the Reichstag, was forced to pull out of an Oxford Union debate because of fears over her safety.
Around 30 societies from the University of Oxford had signed a letter asking the union to withdraw the invitation – with one professor saying AfD’s “anti-Muslim race-baiting politics has no place in a city that prides itself on tolerance”. This sort of censorious response, known as no-platforming, is now so widespread this unsavoury term has entered the English language. Five years ago, no-one would have had a clue what it meant. How times change. Yet why would intelligent students with enquiring minds not welcome a different perspective with open arms, confident in the knowledge that their superior, more enlightened world view would easily deal with the likes of Fraülein Weidel?
But these days, any views expressed or jokes told which don’t match today’s politically-correct orthodoxy can land you in hot water. You don’t have to write books or even send tweets to have your livelihood threatened – just get yourself overheard saying the wrong thing in the company of the wrong people. Recently, a politics professor at King’s College London, Richard Ned Lebow, was censured for joking in a lift that the floor he required was “ladies’ lingerie”. A dated, sexist quip, mildly amusing and surely not offensive – not from the lips of a 76-year-old at any rate. You can probably guess the rest. See this link for the full, depressing story.
The recent hounding of the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton is another case in point. Having been recruited to head a government housing committee to improve the design of homes – hardly a position from which to challenge leftist hegemony on key issues of the day – Sir Roger’s back-catalogue of pronouncements on various issues were carefully combed by his political opponents who managed, eventually, to find comments which they decreed were anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic.
Labour MPs promptly called for this world-leading authority on aesthetics to be dismissed – for no better reason than that he had views which did not match their own. No matter that he was the perfect candidate to fulfil a wholly uncontroversial brief totally unconnected with the views Labour MPs disliked. To their credit, Tory ministers defended him rather than throwing him to the wolves and he clings on to his position, for now.
But what hope is there, realistically, for conservative-minded speakers in the second decade of the twenty-first century when not even statues of dignitaries from centuries past are safe? Statue-toppling has joined no-platforming as another weapon in the leftist toolkit – and it’s a particularly safe sport for the cowards and bullies on the Left because the individuals in question quite literally cannot answer back.
In the name of tolerance and creating the socialist paradise of which they dream, the Left seek to wipe the slate clean and restart society from scratch with a blank canvass and empty heads ready to be reprogrammed with egalitarian tropes on race, gender, culture and religion. And it is the Left which rules us, from their vantage point in an unconservative Conservative Party, through the various leading institutions of the land including the BBC, higher education and even such august bodies as the National Trust (let’s talk about them another time).
As if subconsciously acknowledging what a dreary, unpleasant dystopian society they are shaping, the cultural revolutionaries of the Left stand poised, ready to clamp down on anyone who steps out of line, whether they be flesh and blood or sculpted in stone. The result will be that many academics without the moral courage of Stephen Pax Leonard and his ilk won’t put pen to paper; won’t tweet; won’t post on Facebook; won’t write books examining the direction of our society. They will have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed and simply won’t dare take the risk.
And so the culture of silence will grow stronger, claiming countless more victims and proper, rational debate in this country will wither away or be pushed underground amid ever more rigorous official oversight. We will become like East Germany, only with better coffee; our society transformed into something unrecognisable, our quality of life all but gone. If that were not so, you wouldn’t need all the repression. Most tragically of all, it will be future generations of Britons yet to be born who will bear the brunt of today’s folly – blameless yet utterly powerless to do anything about it. By then it will simply be too late. And “too late” is not far away.
Robert J Davies is a freelance writer and former staff feature writer, leader writer and columnist for the Welsh Daily Post. He has been a newspaper journalist working on the staff of major regional newspapers for most of the last 25 years.