Universities don’t fight wars. But they certainly study them, and their causes. On 13th November, the esteemed, multi-disciplinary Department of War Studies at King’s College London hosted the first of a new series of events on freedom of speech. ‘Endangered Speeches’, organized by Tamara Berens of the university’s Free Speech Society, featured Joanna Williams of the libertarian website Spiked. Cue outrage, and a petition to King’s to cancel the talk.
A frequent commentator on television and radio, Williams is a voice of reason amidst a culture war between progressives and traditionalists. Never rude or antagonistic, she has upset the Intersectional Feminist Society, whose petition ‘Opposing hate in King’s College London’ reads like an artifact of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A large proportion of the 144 signatories were from War Studies, and something named ‘Demilitarise King’s’.
Allegedly, Williams reinforces ‘the violent patriarchal world we live in’ by opposing the #MeToo movement and self-identification of gender. Her presence would harm staff and students, the poor dears. ‘This letter is a step in a much-needed fightback against King’s College London’s complicity in and apathy towards transphobia and misogyny’. That would surprise anyone at King’s who is fed a regular diet of propaganda for identity politics on the website and circulars.
The petition was followed by a statement by the KCLSU leadership, expressing ‘solidarity with our transgender and women students’, arguing:
‘University is a place where views are shared and debated freely. However, there is a line between sharing a view and advocating for the dismissal of an entire demographic’.
They seemed to be arming Joanna Williams with the cartoon ferocity of Tank Girl. The beleaguered Free Speech Society asked the feminist group to retract its slanderous missive. Administrative support for free speech is lukewarm, as shown by a recent King’s policy statement: ‘we have to constantly make a trade-off between freedom of speech and freedom from hate’. As Tamara Berens remarked in Spiked:
‘Intolerant students are too often given the moral high ground. And they really don’t deserve it’.
Heading to the event, I arrived at The Strand to a cacophony of shrieking students and banging drums, demonstrating not against Williams but Apartheid (Israel, don’t you know). Security was tight, but about sixty enquiring minds came undeterred. Williams was introduced by Mike Rainsborough, professor of strategic theory, who observed that the terminology of war is increasingly applied in cultural conflict. Isn’t it an indictment of campus culture that we think of Williams as ‘brave’ for coming here to speak?
Williams is troubled by the conflation of language and violence, as if words can wound. Important to her politics as a teenager in Middlesbrough, and as a Socialist Worker activist back in the 1990s, was liberty. She has held this principle dear but finds that her former political peers have abandoned it. Free speech advocates are labeled ‘right-wing’ nowadays. As Spiked editor, Brendan O’Neill says, "I didn’t leave the Left, it left me".
Ideological homogeneity is a problem in universities. Instead of a diversity of ideas, there is convergence, and anyone expressing a contrary opinion risks being targeted. As happened to revered philosopher Roger Scruton, anyone of non-PC views who raises their head over the parapet will be shot down by dirt dug from an archaeology of offense. In my experience, the favored slur of ‘anti-Semite’ is often used by angry zealots who are deeply anti-Semitic themselves.
According to Williams, ‘the political left has shot itself in the foot’ by denying itself the opportunity to debate. It is demeaning of an audience to suggest that a speaker is inherently harmful and able to manipulate their outlook. As the culture war escalates, people have become entrenched, refusing to meet on ‘no man’s land’. Left-wing politics is no longer about universal values but a twisted morality, whereby opponents are cast as an existential threat, and as immoral. This is a short step from dehumanizing people merely for their beliefs, showing the importance of teaching young people the history of totalitarian regimes.
During questions from the audience, a student bizarrely accused Williams of using ‘masculine language’. Yet Williams had steered clear of war or football metaphors. Another student warned that free speech campaigners are associating with the hard right. For Williams, the principle of freedom of expression should apply to everyone, and that the likes of Tommy Robinson prosper from efforts to silence them. Then came a pointed challenge from the floor: ‘What is your position on transgenderism?’ Williams responded unapologetically that ‘woman’ is a biological entity, that young schoolchildren should not be encouraged to choose their gender, and that girls who enjoy playing football should not be referred for medical reassignment.
The last question, ‘Surely you wouldn’t support speech that is dangerous, such as against climate change?’ gave Williams her punch line: ‘Free speech does not cause climate change’. Indeed, it doesn’t cause anything, unless we deny our agency as human beings. This was a faultless performance by Williams, and it was good to hear a student denounce the shameful behavior of KCLSU.
Williams wished that the protestors had attended, but Danny al-Khafaji, president of the Free Speech Society, feared that they would not have listened. Perhaps we must wait for a new generation of youth, rising with immunity to a cultural affliction that has stifled academe for too long.