OPINION - Oxford students are playing a risky and dangerous game with free speech

Anna van Praagh (Matt Writtle)
Anna van Praagh (Matt Writtle)

Last week in the park with my daughter I got chatting to a lady. Over the course of a 10 minute conversation we cantered through why she thought Covid was a massive conspiracy and that British people were racist for expressing such sorrow over the plight of Ukrainians while ignoring the many tragedies that take place in Africa. She told me you couldn’t trust anything you read in the mainstream media, which was basically a manipulating vector for government.

The conversation was uncomfortable but I listened politely then made my excuses.

If, like me, you’re prepared to listen to people’s ideas, however unpleasant you find them, you might assume that universities should surely be able to debate crucial issues by respected thinkers, even if they differ from the shared views of the student body.

Not so.

Oxford University is currently embroiled in an unedifying but important fracas over an appearance at the Oxford Union by leading feminist Professor Kathleen Stock, claiming she is transphobic for her view that sex is binary and immutable. Those involved in the ‘Stop Stock’ campaign have been accused of employing sinister bullying tactics to punish those arranging the event. In doing so, they are not just disagreeing with her opinions, but saying she has no right to express them.

Now 40 Oxford academics have written a letter backing Stock’s appearance.

Stock is but one of a series of speakers — including veteran feminist Germaine Greer, Stonewall founder Simon Fanshawe and historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, to name but a few — who have encountered this kind of treatment at our leading universities.

Fanshawe has written eloquently about how he believes we are caught in an age of “political egocentricity, of hyperindividualism” and has chastised those “who characterise their views as being so central to their identity that disagreement is ‘debating my existence’, as trans activists would have it.”

I find the ongoing debate about safe spaces and no-platforming academics at universities toxic and frightening.

Free speech is a crucial part of a democracy and sacred part of society.

Inquiry, debate and the exchange of frank opinions and an appreciation of a diversity of perspectives is a fundamental aspect of liberal democracy. We cannot get to a place where this is marginalised in favour of ideological purity — an expression so totalitarian that it should put ice in your veins.

I tell the story about the lady in the park because I think it perfectly illustrates something about our often imperfect interactions with fellow humans as we go about our busy lives in London. We have to appreciate that other people may have different perspectives from our own, and that although we may find those perspectives quite challenging, repugnant even, other people are, as long as they’re not inciting hatred or violence, entitled to think and say what they like.

Martin Amis was a champion for London

It’s rare that a celebrity dying should genuinely depress me, but I must admit that I felt deflated by the news of Martin Amis’s death.

His memoir, Experience, about growing up as the son of Kingsley Amis and his life as London’s finest literary talent, as well as covering the murder of his cousin Lucy Partington by serial killer Fred West, is probably one of the finest books I have ever read.

Martin Amis, was, of course, part of a literary family. His father was married to Elizabeth Jane Howard, a celebrated novelist too, and the person Martin credited for him becoming a writer. His death feels like the end of an era for London’s literary landscape. I read a lot but I can’t think of anyone in London writing now who has a scintilla of his rock-star personality, swagger or talent.

I don’t think most people even read books anymore, preferring to live their lives in a perpetual social media death scroll. How sad.