It could be Prague in 1968. A professor hides his students in rooms adjoining a hall where a talk that the authorities disapprove of is due to take place. The young people want to hear what the speaker has to say, but they are afraid to enter the normal way. To be identified might mean being ostracised by their peers. Lecturers have also said they want to attend the event, but dare not. A promotion could be jeopardised, a career blighted. Surely, chilling things that were a feature of life behind the Iron Curtain can’t be happening in our society? Well, they are. This is samizdat at Cambridge University in 2022.
The professor who had to conceal his scared students before last week’s event with Helen Joyce, the bestselling author of Trans, is Arif Ahmed, a fellow at Gonville and Caius College. Like Superman, the mild-mannered philosopher has gone into a booth in the library and emerged as a crusader for free speech. The debate he convened, picketed by drum-beating undergraduates, was entitled, “Criticising gender-identity ideology: what happens when speech is silenced?” Which would be quite funny really, if the Master of a Cambridge college calling a speaker “insulting and hateful” because she dares to challenge fashionable pieties that are leading to the maiming of children was a matter for comedy, not tragedy and shame.
The college set up a “safe space welfare tea room” to help students, staff and fellows deal with the “understandable hurt and anger” caused by the earth-shattering trauma of receiving an email invitation to an event they did not have to attend. May I suggest they go and bow their heads before the plaque in Caius which features the names of all the young men who gave their lives in two world wars. Those students died fighting for the very freedoms which the current bunch of baa-lambs are bleating away.
“It’s hard to convey the reality and the extent of this fear which stalks the halls of academia,” Arif Ahmed told me when I interviewed him for this week’s Planet Normal podcast. Increasingly, he says, universities see themselves as “social justice factories, rather than seats of learning”. He doesn’t blame the majority of students or the academics, who voted in large numbers against a sly move by the university in 2020 to compel them to “respect” all views and identities (Ahmed campaigned and got the word changed to “tolerate”). When the ballot was secret, they showed what they really thought.
The professor points to a small group of “very strident” activists “who think it’s fine to stop people from speaking, indeed, to harass people out of their jobs”. They have successfully terrorised an 800-year-old institution into not even querying the way that men and women are being redefined by trans campaigners to the disadvantage of the majority who believe in biological sex.
That tyranny of wrong-think now rules at The Guardian too. A departing journalist, the excellent Hadley Freeman, wrote an eviscerating letter to the editor-in-chief, Kath Viner, which was leaked to Private Eye. “I have repeatedly suggested to multiple section editors” that they commission an investigation into the trans children’s charity Mermaids, says Freeman, “but to no avail, either because of the editors’ ideological beliefs or – more likely – their fear of reaction in the office”.
She goes on: “It is astonishing to me that the progressive media has handed such an own goal to the right, closing its eyes to concerns about the safeguarding out of fear that to do otherwise would lead to accusations of bigotry. You have said that both sides of the gender debate are equally passionate – but only one side demands censorship. It seems to me that at The Guardian that side has won.”
Frankly, I’m astonished that Freeman is astonished. Doesn’t she know that the totalitarian Left brooks no argument? “Acceptance without exception” is what Stonewall demands on matters trans, even as nine-year-olds in Scotland are given puberty blockers. Once a terrific charity campaigning for gay rights, Stonewall is now arguably a bunch of misogynist bullies who seemingly will not rest until the word “woman” is erased from our language. Not on your nelly, mate. And not on our fannies either!
Ahmed is wise to their game. Drily he notes that they always say: “We believe in free speech, but…” (But only the speech we find appropriate, obviously.) On Tuesday, the professor ran the pilot of a class on free speech where undergraduates will learn to hear the other side of an argument and prepare to be offended. It’s extraordinary and sad that such a course should be necessary at one of the world’s great universities, but it is.
In times of universal deceit, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. One day, students will not hide in the shadows to listen to a speaker the totalitarians and the intellectual cowards would like to ban. And freedom will return.
Listen to Allison Pearson’s interview with Prof Arif Ahmed at www.telegraph.co.uk/planet-normal