I am pleased to hear the UK Universities Minister Jo Johnson say that the government wants to do something to support free speech in universities.
It is baffling to those of us who do not step foot in universities (or in my case only once in a blue moon) as to why anybody would study at university if not to embrace free speech. Attitudes seemed to have changed over the years, or at least have from a vocal and violent minority who seem to hold sway.
The problem seems to be rooted in the issue of taking offence.
We would be cold individuals indeed if we did not find some behaviours and opinions of other people offensive. This may be because they offend our own moralities. This is particular so for people with strong personal faith or intellectual convictions. If we feel strongly enough about something we may be offended when something confronts our world-views.
But however strong those views may be, it would rather defeat what I have always considered to be the principle objective of education if we do not wish those views to be challenged and tested. That objective is discovery.
It is impossible to discover, if we approach that opportunity to discover with closed minds.
I only had a fleeting two-year on and off relationship with higher education before we mutually concluded that I was too thick and lazy to be at the university which had opened its doors to me back in the 1970s but I did learn something.
The single thing what I learned (in a Ernie Wise kind of tribute) was that all knowledge is good, all opinion is valid, and everything we believe is subjective.
When I was at university the thing I enjoyed most was hearing great speakers with whom I thought I would disagree, and often still did even after their orations. Where’s the fun in being in like-minded company?
Throughout my life I have embraced opinion with which I disagree. However strongly I might thing that an opposing argument is wrong and that mine is right, I know that this is simply my perspective and not a reality.
My greatest love in life, even beyond politics which has been my life-blood, is the art of rhetoric which underpins that politics. Politics is a matter of argument.
It is no coincidence perhaps that my entire career was spent working in the business of persuasion. In political campaigning, communications practice, and most recently communications consultancy, my working life has been concerned entirely with matters of rhetoric.
It is no surprise therefore that to me, even without a higher education, that rhetoric matters. The winning argument is always the one best argued and it is impossible to make a winning argument unless I am capable of arguing both sides (all sides) of a case equally.
It is a poor advocate who is incapable of arguing that black is white with equal competence to arguing the exact opposite.
I therefore look at those who enjoy the privilege of higher education and fail to embrace opposing views and argument with utter despair.
To me the whole point of a university is to open the doors to intellectual discovery. That cannot be achieved if we close our minds to opinions with which we disagree, or if we impose a subjective morality on those opinions and the behaviours they may result in.
The latest manifestation of the closed mind tendency is the growing number of young Labour (and as far as I can tell it is mainly Labour with some SNP?) politicians who confuse a political opinion with friendship. They seem proud to say “I could never be friends with a Tory.”
I have to admit to being at a complete loss to understand such an opinion, although like all opinions I respect it.
Personally I have made friends of all and no politics. Although to me politics has been my life’s addiction, I care not whether others share it, or if they share it, how they share it. I have as many friends who have opposite views to my own as I have who share my views. Actually now I come to think about it I know remarkably few people who share my views.
What I enjoy is rhetorical skill and there can be only limited display of such attributes between people who agree with each other all the time.
My recommendation to all in the New Year is to embrace those wh think differently. Listen to every opinion, and respect every one. Try to avoid being offended to the extent it blinds you to exploring alternative world-views. And never ever think that you are right and somebody else is wrong.