The censorious student and the corrosion of character

by josieappleton

The growth of censorship in universities (highlighted this week by spiked) indicates that something fundamental has changed in human character in the past decade or two.

For the new generation of young adults, opinions are not things they hold privately as a matter of conscience, nor are they developed through argument and debate. Instead, opinions appear to be integrally bound up with their identity and sense of self. They experience the encounter of opposing views almost as a threat to their existence, as an unravelling of the self: as ‘unsafe’, ‘dangerous’, or causing ‘severe distress’.

This week a comedy act was cancelled after the threat of a picket from some women who disagreed with her views on ‘sex work, religion and trans issues’. The comedian wasn’t going to talk about prostitution, yet it seems that the female students objected to the presence on campus of a person with a different view to their own. For a campus to be ‘their’ campus, for that person to feel as if they belong in an institution, they attempt to keep off those who present a counter-point to these views.

The invitation of external speakers becomes a process fraught with risk: the National Union of Students has produced a guide on ‘managing the risks associated with external speakers’, with a lengthy and legalistic filtering process before a bearer of opinion can express themselves in the public space of the campus. The ‘safe spaces’ in universities are muted, restrained, free of conflict and the encounter with opposition: student unions ban items exuding a charge of controversy, including ‘racist’ sombreros or the ‘sexist’ Sun newspaper, as well as critical ‘hand gestures’ or sarcastic applause.

This means nothing less than the unravelling of the modern individual: the individual who forms opinions in the process of debate. In the late 1600s and 1700s people began to view the conflict of opinion as productive, and argued that it was in the contest between ‘for and against’ that truth could be discovered and one’s own view developed. In 1684, Basnage de Beauval argued for religious toleration on the basis that truth resulted from the ‘confrontation of dogmas’; the ‘opposition between two parties’ serves to ‘pressure and excite’ one another to virtue (1). He saw conflict as like a ‘sting’ which keeps one awake and shakes away ignorance, and argued that disputes between learned men were ‘advantageous and useful for the public’.

By contrast, in the Medieval period the moment of conflict of opinion was seen as singularly destructive, of both the individual soul and civic life. It was thought that heretical opinions undid the social bond: the moment of conflict undid the order of things, the unified trinity of faith, law and state. Social relations could only be constituted through a single faith and worldview: to relate meant to be of the same mind. The heretic dissolves the social bond, argued St Thomas Aquinas (2). Those who tolerated difference, it was argued, were those who did not really care about truth or the inner life (the pragmatism of the Roman Empire), or those who for reasons of weakness were temporally unable to constitute a proper social order.

So now, again, the self unravels when faced with the opposition of another, and the battle against ‘heretics’ is a fight to maintain one’s own integrity.

Yet this new censorious self appears to be a fragile sort of thing, lacking deep foundations in inner conviction or conscience. The opinions students and others are defending do not seem to have much private or authentic character, which is perhaps why they are so prickly. It is the instability of identity which means that people are unsettled by alternatives.

Opinions are bonded with the self, but this is not the inner core of the self, and more a shirtsleeve or a lapel. A YouTube video shows a speaker at the University of Galway trying to make the case against a boycott of Israel, drowned out by a student dressed in the colours of a Palestinian flag shouting ‘Fucking Zionist fucking pricks […] Get the fuck off our campus now.’  The student’s position seemed to be something like the shirt he wore: thin and constituted only in the view of others, which is why he might seek out the public occasion at which to stage this aggressive performance.

Therefore, the new generation also lack that other dimension of modern character: the inner dimension of conscience. The reflecting, private conscience, elaborated by John Locke and others in the 1600s, experiences opinion and truth as inner and personal, a conviction. This feeling of conscience developed in private spaces – private worship, private discussion, inner reflection. The public sphere of people debating and opposing one another presumed the inner world of conscience; conscience provided the space where a person’s opinions were grounded and the point to which they returned. The inner conviction is the counterpoint to the more transitive, provisional character of views developed in public debate, whereby an opinion held today can be changed tomorrow in the face of new evidence.

In today’s students, we see how these two dimensions of modern character have collapsed into something much more one-dimensional. Opinions are bound up with something like the outer shell of the self, which is neither developed through public engagement, nor is it privately developed or held.

The new dialectic is not between the public and private sides of the self: it is between the virulent hostility of someone screaming ‘get the fuck off our campus now’, and the ‘safe space’ of inexpression where individuals exist side by side in their separate shells.

That is, instead of private reflection and public debate, there is rage, and silence. Which should make us fear for the public sphere of the future.

(1) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p71

(2) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p21

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