Anna Soubry inadvertently bolsters those seeking to curtail academic freedom

There have been a couple of stories hitting the headlines regarding free speech of late.

First, there was the nonsense surrounding Anna Soubry. There are various things that need to be picked apart in that particular story. There are questions regarding the right to protest, what constitutes harassment and the boundaries of free speech.

First, there was the upset surrounding Anna Soubry being labelled a Nazi. You can hear the folks chanting that during a TV interview here:

Now, let’s be clear: Anna Soubry is obviously not a Nazi. She isn’t German, she doesn’t advocate the systematic eradication of the Jews, she isn’t a supporter of Hitler, she doesn’t bear any of the hallmarks of far-right fascism. She is a Tory (whatever you think of that) but even a left-wing Socialist like me can spot the evident difference here. The claim of Nazism is nonsense.

The question is whether the people in yellow vests should be allowed to hold the (in my view, objectively errant) opinion that Anna Soubry is a Nazi. She may not be a Nazi but I don’t think you can, or should, stop anybody else claiming you are one. For the record, just because somebody thinks something evidently stupid, doesn’t make it true. Most rational people – even those who don’t like Anna Soubry or her politics – can recognise the claim for what it is, palpable nonsense.

I can understand why she objects to being called a Nazi, I wouldn’t like it any more than she does, but I don’t think she has any right to stop others from holding that opinion of her. Indeed, her government had no problem labelling Christians, Muslims and dozens of others ‘extremists’ without batting an eyelid. I don’t appreciate those sorts of slurs. But there isn’t much I can do about it if they choose to hold that (in my view, errant) opinion of me and my ilk. The only things I can do are protest, offering words and reason in my defence.

This brings us to the question of hypocrisy. As Brendan O’Neill pointed out here:

Here’s a question, a question that demands an answer from all of those who are up in arms about the horrible ‘Nazi’ chants made at Ms Soubry yesterday. People like Norman Smith of the BBC, for example, who asked: ‘Is this what it’s come to… Nazi taunts?’ The question is this: why are you only now offended by Nazi taunts? Where was your outrage during the ceaseless, background noise of Nazi taunts against Leave voters over the past two-and-a-half years? Why do gruff blokes shouting ‘Nazi’ at Anna Soubry offend you more than bishops and princes of the realm and well-educated columnists effectively doing the same to ordinary voters, though of course in expertly crafted speeches and pristinely worded newspaper columns rather than in rough bellowing from a public green?

Whilst I am no fan of the man, Nigel Farage legitimately points out the hypocrisy here:

Elsewhere, Brendan O’Neill has sought to defend the right of these men to make whatever statements they want. It is sheer hypocrisy that similar slurs from the chattering classes against those who voted for Brexit – with the word ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ bandied around frequently – are not considered similarly problematic. Indeed, as O’Neill states:

Not only have the chattering classes suddenly discovered that it is unpleasant to refer to people who aren’t Nazis as Nazis – they have even demanded that the police take action against such uncalled-for Nazi taunts…

…why is it a crime to issue Nazi taunts against Anna Soubry but not against the housewife in Stoke or the former miner in Wales or the beauty therapist in Essex who all voted for Brexit? ‘Fascists’, the chattering classes have been whispering and hinting about these sorts of people since June 2016, and the police showed not the slightest bit of interest in those Nazis taunts.

Where I disagree with O’Neill is that he seeks to argue elsewhere that the line on harassment is physical assault. I think he is wrong and this is where Anna Soubry has a legitimate case. She has no right to stop people calling her a Nazi and she has no right to stop people protesting outside of parliament. I do think she has a right to ask for police protection when men are following her up and down the street shouting abuse at her. That is genuinely intimidating and cannot constitute anything other than harassment.

But I can see why someone like Nigel Farage – who has faced far worse intimidation, threats and violence – may feel put out when the police not only show no interest but liberal politicans openly and publicly claim he brought it on himself for his views. That is somewhat ironic that Soubry’s views (and, make no mistake, that’s what this is about) are then treated differently. As Farage argues, there should be no violence or intimidation but that does not mean – as some are asking – that what we are permitted to say and where we are permitted to say it should be curbed by law.

Hot on the heels of protests against Anna Soubry comes this story in the Guardian concerning Prof John Finnis. The paper reports:

Students at Oxford University are demanding that a Catholic law professor be sacked for alleged homophobia. More than 400 people have signed a petition calling for John Finnis to be removed from teaching, citing “a long record of extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people” including the LGBT+ community.

The students claimed, ‘university is a place to focus on education, not to be forced to campaign against or to be taught by professors who have promoted hatred towards students that they teach.’

As ever in these debates, there is a straight line drawn between criticism of an idea or belief and direct hatred of the person who holds to that particular position. Finnis, who defends traditional views of marriage, is deemed to hate those who do not share his view. As he notes, those protesting ‘take arguments against their positions and choices to be offensive to them as persons.’ He went on say, ‘Advanced students of legal and political theory take it for granted that there is educational value in engaging critically and carefully with arguments and theories like mine. That is why I am still being invited to give seminars nearly a decade after my retirement from Oxford.’

The student at the centre of the protest, Alex Benn, argued:

Campaigns like this one often receive simplistic responses calling for tolerance or academic freedom. But law, employment and education already draw boundaries about what won’t be tolerated. The humanity of disadvantaged people, including LGBTQ+ people, isn’t a debate … I started this campaign not only to address the specific issue of Finnis’ role at Oxford, but to get Oxford to make up its mind – either it’s in support of equality or it’s not.

The point is a false dichotomy. It is simply not the case (whatever you may think of the view) that the choice is simply to affirm everything about a person and every choice they make or to deny their humanity. One can denounce the actions of murderers, for example, without denying they are humans who must still be treated with dignity.

But there is another, broader issue at stake. That is, the right to free speech and academic freedom. Benn is, of course, entirely within his rights to advance the case that Finnis is wrong in his assessment and that the logical consequences of his views are damaging. But he is not within his rights to insist that those views be silenced altogether.

We are often surprised by these stand-offs at university level. They are certainly becoming more frequent. But it should surprise us that they are not more frequent than they are. As I have mentioned here, we cannot expect students to engage with controversial views and opinions if we have spent 10 years in schools insisting that such things are so damaging they are not to spoken. Given that we repeatedly tell children that such views actively damage people, lead to suicides and premature death, is it any wonder that they cannot engage in the exchange of academic ideas?

Most of us are taught to intervene when we see somebody being physically assaulted, only fear of reprisals tending to stop right-thinking people. But if you have been told that words and ideas are as damaging and destructive as that, even seen punishments meted out when fellow pupils dare to utter them, is it so surprising that students cannot cope with academics – educated adults who really should know better – actively advancing those views?

Then, of course, they see their elected politicians calling for police involvement when they get called nasty names. Indeed, they see their politicians calling for their fellow politicians to be sacked any time they utter anything off-message. This is how people behave, isn’t it? If people depart from state-defined orthodoxy, aren’t we supposed to remove them from post? Aren’t they a real and present danger to all?

We may not like or agree with Anna Soubry being incorrectly labelled a Nazi in the street. We may not like the way in which the men in yellow jackets are protesting. But such calls also support student activists calling for the head of academics whose views they don’t like. Because if the adults in the room repeatedly tell you ‘you can’t say that’ and ‘you should be sacked for believing that’, how can we be remotely surprised when our children don’t readily follow our lead? It is the way of the world, is it not? A world which we have, unfortunately, created.