To Hell With Safe Spaces

To Hell With Safe Spaces, by Allan Massie.

Scene: The Cambridge University Union in, as I remember, 1958. The invited speaker, Sir Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, got up to his feet. A student dashed forward and hurled a custard pie into his face. Mosley produced a handkerchief, wiped his cheek, and said, “These people always do this kind of thing.” The pie thrower was ejected. Mosley embarked on his speech, which was generally listened to in well-mannered silence by perhaps 200 students.

Mosley was hardly a popular figure. Fascism was, to put it mildly, unpopular. The war was a live memory, even for undergraduates of 18 or 20; most of us had fathers who had served in the war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some of our fathers had been killed, badly wounded, or confined in prisoner-of-war camps. Mosley had been an admirer, perhaps friend, of Hitler’s, who had been a guest at his second wedding. (In later years he sometimes spoke of the Führer as “a dreadful little man,” but we didn’t know this.) Mosley was anti-Semitic and there would have been a number of Jews in the audience, some of them friends of mine, one, Leon Brittan, in later life a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. Not many there would have had much, if any, time for Mosley or his opinions. But we gave him a hearing, even a respectful one.

That was how it was then. We believed in free speech. This belief was, after all, one of the differences between democracies and dictatorships or totalitarian regimes. So, believing in free speech, we were ready to listen to people with whose opinions we might disagree, even to some whose beliefs and words we might find repulsive. So what if they were? We might be angered but not wounded. We didn’t need to be protected from words.

How much more progressive we are now.

A society in which people are not prepared to listen to views they find disagreeable, not ready to grant others the right of free speech, not willing to be open to persuasion, is a society that is decadent and stupid. It is also likely to be humorless, a place where jokes are first regarded with suspicion and then forbidden.

Yep. That’s 2016.