In defence of open debate on campus

All great ideas have usually started as minority and controversial notions, writes Jessica Jacques

'The idea of a university being a ‘safe space’ is also coming from those above who hold prominence in university life.' Photograph: Getty Images

'The idea of a university being a ‘safe space’ is also coming from those above who hold prominence in university life.' Photograph: Getty Images


“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These words, attributed to Voltaire, (but actually of S.G. Tallentyre) are often cited to demonstrate the principle of freedom of speech and expression.

There was a similar message at the end of the show ‘{CENSORED}’ in the Samuel Beckett Theatre of Trinity College. The actors told the audience “do what you want with what you know, and we’ll love you for it.” Their message was clear and a very poignant one for our universities-everyone should have the right to express themselves freely and as they wish.

I saw this play a day after Trinity News had published an article on the STEM initiative, which aims to encourage women to study degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths-based subjects.

The author pointed out that financial incentive may not be helping anyone. Essentially, his argument was that the gender imbalances in such subjects may simply be down to different choices among men and women.

Almost as soon as the article was posted on Facebook, an onslaught of comments came from the strong feminist force in Trinity, calling the article sexist and the author misogynistic.

Some arguments and reasoning of the article were faulty, but the essence of it was interesting and gave greater insight into what many perceive as a problem in science and technology courses.

Women were once banned from medical school and the London School of Medicine for Women was founded in 1874 to remedy this.

The struggle of female doctors to gain equal opportunity and treatment in this field was a long one, as beautifully outlined in Jennifer Donnelly’s novel The Winter Rose. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 1965 nine per cent of accepted medical school students were women.

By 2004, this number had risen to 50 per cent. Why then do we see gender balance in medicine, yet STEM subjects continue to be male-dominated?

The article inTrinity News offered us a possible answer to this quandary.*

The piece responded to a previous article which contains the phrases “men consider a room containing 17 per cent women to be gender-balanced, and one with 34 per cent to have majority of women” (without any sources or references) and the statement “men are blind to sexism.”

The furore pushed me to write this article in growing frustration at the increasingly politically correct atmosphere in Trinity College, a university which is considered to be at the forefront of progressive and critical thinking, with a prominent community of student debating and exchanging of ideas.

This reputation is being damaged as so many “right-wing” views such as anti-immigration, anti-abortion or those which go against the prominent feminist discourse, are sidelined.

Brendan O’Neill of The Spectator described his experience of participating in a Phil debate on the right to offend as “genuinely disturbing”. He was heckled (by supposedly liberal students) for his (liberal) views on freedom of speech.

Of course, the University Times did their best to rectify the situation, with articles reporting claims that O’Neill had misrepresented the debate. The crux of the matter is that a renowned journalist was shocked at the levels of political correctness in our College. This fact alone should push us to question the ongoing exclusion of ‘non-fashionable’ views.

Pro-choice writings and articles pointing out the victimisation of females dominate the online websites of Trinity’s newspapers.

A quick online search of the University Times, which claims to offer a balanced range of viewpoints, throws up a healthy nine articles on the fees debate; all of which are against the introduction of fees for third level education, or reporting news of campaigns and election news to this effect. There are no pro-fees articles.

The idea of a university being a ‘safe space’ is also coming from those above who hold prominence in university life. Maryam Namazie was banned from speaking at Warwick University, after its Students’ Union decided she could incite hatred or offend Islam.

Although one would hope that students are suitably discerning and realise what they are about to read might affect their own sentiments, tutors issue “trigger warnings” with required reading if they are in any way likely to cause distress. Trinity’s Students’ Union organised a panel discussion on abortion with only pro-choice speakers.

All great ideas have usually started as minority and controversial notions.

Once upon a time, racism was acceptable in some quarters - one only needs to look to America before the Civil Rights movement.

Yet it was freedom of speech which allowed these views to be heard, debated and contradicted, and eventually allowed the breakthroughs to a more equal society which we enjoy today. The best ideas such as universal education, votes for women and freedom of movement were all at one time hugely controversial.

Robert Dunne, a master’s student at UCD, has recently pointed out in the Irish Times that if such political correctness and shying away from causing offence had been embraced in the 70s and 80s, campaigns such as LGBT rights would not have gained ground.

The word university derives from Latin “universitas” meaning “the whole, the total, the universe, the world.” College derives from “collegium”, a community of persons bound together in some way.

The idea of a university is that students come together to learn and develop skills of critical-thinking and analysis. We should be addressing both sides of every debate, and be open to hearing views which contrast with our own.

A key notion in the concept of a university is that of academic freedom: the freedom to teach, communicate and pursue ideas without control or censorship.

For students, this means to freely form their own conclusions and express their opinions.

The idea dates back to the 1100s when the University of Bologna adopted an academic charter guaranteeing the right of scholars to freedom in their pursuit of education.

The College of Europe is described by The Economist as an “elite finishing school for aspiring Eurocrats.” Benedict Göbel, a graduate of the College, describes what he says is a culture of political correctness at one of Europe’s most renowned universities.

“I sometimes had the impression that disagreeing was perceived as provocation: almost an impolite act of hostility, troubling the desired harmony of the college.”

The College claims to “challenge its students’ minds with the different perspectives of senior academics and practitioners.”

Yet Benedict tells me, “it was as if presenting diverging arguments or critical positions was understood as a personal offence instead of a normal academic procedure, searching for academic truth.”

At a university where one should expect the highest levels of open discussion, “challenging convictions was not desired. Critical - even when fully rational – discussions were often fled by students who quickly became uncomfortable when their convictions were challenged.”

Although such a culture of political correctness often appears to be enjoyed by the majority, “it needed strong determination and some hostile comments by fellow students to think outside the framework of political correctness at the College.”

The Italian astronomer and scientist, Galileo Galilei, correctly claiming that the universe was heliocentric, was hauled before the Inquisition for being theologically incorrect. He was forced to recant and state that the earth is the centre of the universe.

He spent the rest of his life under house arrest but, on leaving the inquisition, was heard to mutter “eppur si muove”-“but it (the earth) does move!” One has to wonder how he would have coped in a modern university.

To learn from one another, to reflect on ideas, however controversial, to agree and to disagree with one’s peers: these should be fundamental components of university life.

One has to stop and ask: what are the consequences of discourse in university becoming increasingly closed and narrow-minded, and where will it stop?

* Note: This article has been amended for the purposes of clarification. It originally stated that an article published on Trinity News was retracted after being online for only two hours. Trinity News took the article offline for editing as it had not gone through the usual editing process. The article was subsequently republished and can be read here.