It seems that almost every week there is a new story about the eclipse of freedom of speech somewhere in the groves of academe. This time it is from the University of Oxford. The Daily Telegraph reports that a debate about abortion was effectively prevented by powerful student lobbying.
The story indicates that students followed a standard pattern: aggressive use of social media, extreme rhetoric, and threats. Of course, student protest and attacks on free speech are nothing new. Yet the situation today has three aspects that make current assaults on freedom of speech more worrying than those of previous generations.
First, the use of social media gives such campaigns a power that is effectively independent of actual numerical support. A protest march depends upon real people turning up at the appointed place and time. A webpage, a Facebook campaign, a trending hashtag require no such thing. Thus, there is an unprecedented ability to present the ideas of tiny minorities as majority, normative opinion.
Second, as this article indicates, those who are charged with protecting free speech on campuses (and elsewhere) seem to lack the courage so to do. Or perhaps that is giving them too much credit. Perhaps it is more the case that they do not care to protect the rights of those who hold positions that seem to reflect religious or even merely traditional positions.
Third, the triumph of the arguments against free speech does not rest on any powerful coherence but rather on careful manipulation of rhetoric. Take, for example, the use of “cisgender” and “cissexism” as recounted in the Telegraph article. These words are without doubt two of the most rebarbative pieces of nonsensical gibberish ever coined by the neologists of the New Left, but they serve a useful purpose: They effectively render as mere bigoted prejudice any argument made by any person with a penis who identifies as a man. Anti-essentialism is thus the order of the day when dismissing the opposition. In effect, it is the old sexism, reversed and hidden under the obfuscation we have come to associate with the linguistically creative commissars of identity politics.