Address to the Traditional Britain Group by Mr. Jacob Williams
by The Editor
University of Oxford undergraduate student and conservative Jacob Williams explains his struggle for freedom of speech in academe.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour to be here today addressing the Traditional Britain Group. This talk has been billed as a discussion about freedom of speech at modern universities, but I would like to begin with a small confession. I don’t care about free speech.
Or, to be more precise, I don’t think it means anything. It is at best a misleading formulation; at worst an entirely empty one. Literally taken, “free speech” would simply imply the uninhibited freedom to produce intelligible sounds in one’s larynx and expel them into the atmosphere. It would famously entail the right to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, or—more drearily familiarly in today’s Britain—the right to describe sex acts to young children or swear in church.
If this seems somewhat like a pedantic digression, I hope that by the end of the talk that you will agree with me that it is fundamentally important.
There are as many types of “freedom” as there are stars in the sky. Freedom of conscience, freedom to smoke in one’s car; freedom from poverty and hunger, freedom to suppress enemies of the state as a self-governing people. Freedom from the dreadful oppression of neighbours who disapprove of your behaviour; spiritual freedom, realised through service to God and obedience to His law. Every group in our society enlists this most malleable of concepts to serve its own agenda. Not even that other modern totem, “equality”, has anything like the same currency. There are those on the economic right who claim not to care about equality; that what really matters is simply that people enjoy a high absolute standard of living and that we have sufficient compassion to prevent anyone from starving. Few in the degraded Tory Party of Cameron would say this but many believe it; those who do say it are, for the most part, more or less respectable.
But who in their right mind would renounce freedom? Who would claim not to believe in it: to claim that authority, or moral rectitude, were simply more important? ‘Fascist’ is the least of the insults such a person would have to contend with. But this idol-worship is incoherent on its own terms. Many, many people do hold this belief, at least in certain contexts; but if they want to be respectable they always redefine ‘freedom’ to remove the verbal heresy. True freedom, they would say, is simply the right to object to a moral order through peaceful protest, and does not imply any immunity from the requirement to follow its demands. This is how any defender of, for example, drug prohibition or retaining Christian worship in schools must conduct his or herself.
It is this infinitely manipulable concept that is the basis of the Western world’s only official religion. If we doubt that it is a religion, let us consider the treatment of heretics. Express its renunciation too forcefully and you will be sent to prison for ‘hate speech’. Do so in a less directly personal way and at most you will lose your job, your reputation, and possibly your home and your family as well. It is still possible to express conservative opinions without these consequences, but you must go through the necessary conceptual contortions. Most obviously, you must pay lip service to liberalism. There are then a series of other rules depending on the context. You may not be able to say so too flippantly or forcefully. You may have to express regret that reason led you to the conclusion. You may have to avoid doing so in earshot of people who could be offended, unless they consciously chose to listen. You may not be able to do so within the property of a certain institution.
These restrictions flow from two features of modern liberalism. First, it is dogmatic. For the most part it cannot comprehend the idea that people could disagree with it. 90% of social psychologists in American universities openly admitted in a survey that they would be unwilling to hire people with conservative beliefs, because they think that they must be morally bad people in order to hold them. Almost no academic philosophers identify as conservatives. Only a miniscule handful of sociologists defend socially conservative, or even moderate, positions. In other words, those who generate our society’s ideas don’t understand the positions they reject. Conservatism is almost a pathology in their eyes: numerous studies have been done by liberal academics purporting to show that people with conservative moral beliefs are psychologically flawed. We overlook the prevalence of the word ‘homophobia’, which literally implies that people who disagree with liberal opinion on homosexuality are mentally ill. This view of conservatism means that it is easy to justify restricting its expression: no idea is being censored, just a ‘prejudice’ or ‘bigotry’.
Second, one of its dogmas is that its denial is in itself harmful. ‘Freedom’ is now interpreted to include freedom from having your moral choices criticised in harsh language, freedom from having your identity de-valued, and freedom to make choices without any social forces influencing them. We still value the freedom of conscience even for ‘bigots’ and we value freedom of debate: this is why merely expressing conservative opinions where no one will be influenced by them is not itself illegal, and why, in the rare cases where conservative ideas are accepted as ideas, it is possible to discuss them.
But liberalism cannot accept that it might be wrong and so sees no issue with regulating discussion according to its own demands. There is no fundamental difference between this and the role of the Catholic Church of the middle ages. It was possible in those times to debate heretical, even atheistic opinions, in the academy, so long as you followed the rules laid down by orthodoxy. Wycliffe was allowed to argue for his position but it was the act of publishing his vernacular Bible that had him expelled from Oxford University.
The strangest feature of modern times though, and the reason I am here, is how quickly liberalism consumes itself. In the Britain of the Enlightenment, freedom was typically taken to mean the right to free conscience, free religious practice, and free expression of considered opinions. Later, in the 19th century, the concept was extended to include freedom to vote for one’s rulers, freedom to divorce an abusive partner, the right to sell your produce or labour at the market rate, and the right to educate your children without the presumption of Anglican doctrine. Today it means this and all the other things in the name of which conservatives are harangued and censored.
How did this happen? Remember that the concept is malleable. We define ‘freedom’ based on what we want it to mean: it is a foot soldier conscripted to fight ideological battles waged on the basis of other values. If we value economic equality, freedom is freedom from poverty; if we value divine law, it is freedom to realise your spiritual nature. What has really happened is that we have gradually come to accept a more and more individualistic morality. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ have come to be defined in terms of fulfilling one’s own desires and acting according to one’s own, arbitrarily chosen, values.
There are many reasons for this, both historical and philosophical, but I am not the best person to explain them. As long, however, as Christianity remained the official and publicly accepted basis of morality, this process could only go so far. Christianity supplies a definite conception of who we are—our immortal souls, made in the image of God—and what the purpose of our Earthly life—to achieve salvation through loving Jesus Christ, attempting to emulate his virtue and confessing our sins when we fail. Our purpose was live a life of striving in this way and virtue was defined according to God’s will as revealed in Scripture. ‘Freedom’ more or less had to be compatible with a culture that aimed to help people realise this ideal without forcing them.
All that imploded about fifty years ago and since then Christianity has sunk to the status of dead ritual. Contemporary Britons may believe that there’s something up there, that Jesus was a good bloke and the local church is very pretty, but most have no idea what goes on inside and the younger generation aren’t even inheriting this. The Church of England, on present trends, will be nothing more than museum long before I reach old age and in many parts of the country is already well on the way. Except for a dwindling band of regular churchgoers, of whom there are now fewer than attendees at Mosque, almost everyone passively accepts the morality of self-fulfilment.
This is the deep reason for the current crisis at our universities: the unchallenged triumph of a secular religion. In a way, the details don’t much matter. But there is also a shallow reason, specific to the last twenty years. Since Christian morality imploded in the ‘60s our liberal culture has degenerated in its conception of freedom at a terrifying pace. More and more practices and ‘identities’ are discovered and made sacred and in need of protection. But the last three decades have seen a number of factors come together to create an upsurge in intolerance, focussed on the academy because it is where ideas are generated and home to the youngest generation least exposed to the residues of the old culture.
First, the collapse of traditional working class has left intelligent socialists grasping around for new groups of victims. Now that globalisation has made socialism impossible for anyone with a brain (which clearly does not include the fossilised Mr Corbyn), new groups must be discovered to be liberated if the bureaucrats and ideologues are to keep their jobs and sense of purpose. Second, the collapse of traditional sex roles reached a point at which the fantasy that men and women are the same became plausible. This is the origin of the current feverish drive to liberate “transgender” people. And third, the current generation of students are the first to be raised on the unending stimulation of the narcissistic drive that is social media. This has heightened the ongoing trend towards greater selfishness as each generation of parents becomes more permissive by presenting social interaction as a process of crafting a meaningless image on the basis of arbitrary tastes and collecting herd approval through ‘likes’. There could not be a form of communication more ready made to promote the morality of self-fulfilment.
And finally, the complete surrender of the Tory Party to this change under Mr Cameron. The best description of the Conservative Party I have ever encountered comes from a tutor of mine at Oxford: the party was created to defend English institutions but quickly came to regard its own holding office as the most important of all these institutions. The party has always been stupid, cowardly, and except very rarely unwilling to turn back the social clock more than one second. Mrs Thatcher had great moral courage but she failed utterly to forsee the social consequences of her policies; her rhetoric about marriage was already outdated, Section 28 a mean-spirited joke, and the loony left are now out of the asylum and running the party who tried to fight them. Witness Maria Miller’s desire to create a “de-gendered society”. Under Mr Cameron’s predecessors, however, the party at least gave a kind of currency to the idea of resistance. This is a Christian country and we don’t want this sort of thing round here, thank you very much. Its conversion to the liberal zeitgeist has deeply reinforced the idea that conservatism is an indefensible pathology.
And so this toxic cocktail led to the academy of today. Academics who deny, for example, that men and women are biologically different are typically at best unable to publish and at worst lose their jobs. The modern liberalism holds that women are “structurally oppressed” by “patriarchy”, which means in practice that they feel a mild pressure to wear make-up or behave more passively than men in some situations. It holds that Britain is “institutionally racist” and that if a member of an ethnic minority who does not integrate into our culture feels alienated as a result his human rights are being violated. It holds that “gender” and “sexuality” are social constructs and that the meaning of life cannot be realised unless you choose these things with as few outside influences as possible. Remarkably, the left are very close now to accepting that homosexuality is a choice, with all the implications that was once supposed to have for conservatives.
No Offence set out to shatter these illusions. I am not interested in defending “freedom of speech” on the grounds of liberalism because this degeneration I have described makes it a hopeless task. For as long as liberal orthodoxy is believed to be unassailable by our idea-formers in universities things will only get worse. So it is imperative to make the most intellectually compelling case possible that abortion is murder and the British Empire did more good than harm, or that there are two sexes with different natural roles. It is also imperative to point out the inconsistencies and lack of foundation in its moral assumptions.
In my mind the most incredible thing of all, more shocking to the unschooled observer than anything else, is this. That liberal philosophers now openly accept that they cannot justify their selfish morality. They instead believe in something called “reflective equilibrium”. God cannot exist because it might mean they should do something other than pursue pleasure, so—acknowledging that this destroys the foundation of morality—they instead give up the task and try instead to make their beliefs consistent. They reflect on what they already believe until it is balanced against the arbitrary principles invented to explain it and call the result “equilibrium”. It is an equilibrium in the sense in which two quantities of nothing are necessarily equal.
So I was not surprised to find myself questioned by the police and my magazine confiscated. First it was banned from the Student Union property; then a student saw me distributing it outside and called the police, claiming the magazine contained “hate speech” because it said that the British Empire had improved infrastructure.
Ultimately though I don’t care. I don’t care either about “free speech” because in the morality of “freedom”, man is the measure of all things. What we need is not freedom but ability; not “speech” but the habit of questioning our and others’ assumptions. Only by propounding conservative ideas can we break the fundamental assumption that it is a pathology that needs to be suppressed. This must be done in lecture theatres, classrooms, student bars and playing fields throughout the western world, by any legal means necessary.
I don’t hold out much hope for a revival of conservatism but it is at least conceivable we could break the monopoly of liberalism on thought. More than a few liberals have grudgingly come to recognise the problem of their own accord. The doings of Britain’s pampered students may seem trivial but since the storming of the barricades in the academic revolution of nineteen sixty-eight, the academies have ruled us through the power of intellect and propaganda. They have brought about the most all-consuming revolution in human history and almost no one has lifted a finger in opposition. It matters nothing whether the team of liberals who currently get to play with the red boxes of Whitehall where blue ties or red ones. What we need is a conservative movement in academia, for otherwise we lose whoever wins.