Shut the front door!

Fear of offending makes a pig’s ear of free speech, says Christopher Bigsby

February 19, 2015

This is the year that the copyright on Hitler’s Mein Kampf runs out. Stand by for the musical. The copyright is held by the Bavarian state government, though I doubt that it is much of a money-spinner given that it has been banned in several countries, including Argentina – home, for many years, to an estimated 5,000 German Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele.

Disturbingly, when he wasn’t burning books, Hitler was a reader. A favourite was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book banned in tsarist Russia because it was taken to undermine religious belief. Naturally, it was also banned in the Confederate states but, then, America has a long history of banning books.

In 1977, one US school board characterised The Scarlet Letter as “pornographic and obscene”; Twelfth Night was dumped by a New Hampshire school system in 1996 because Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino while dressed as a boy, which has overtones of homosexuality; some members of Alabama’s State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of the Diary of Anne Frank in 1983 because it was “a real downer”; and even the dictionary was banned from libraries in California because it included sexual definitions (which, as a teenager, I thought was its primary function).

South Carolina’s House of Representatives cut funds to a college for its use of gay-themed books. It was, said one legislator, exercising its freedom irresponsibly, which, of course,is the curse of freedom

The list goes on. According to a memoir by a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, J. K. Rowling was denied the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the grounds that her work encouraged witchcraft, while books in the “Harry Potter” series topped the list of banned books identified by the American Library Association for the Noughties.

Books and writers, of course, have been banned in most places and at most times. Plato’s Socrates banned poets in ancient Greece because poetry was subversive and might present the gods unfavourably (cf. Charlie Hebdo). But surely universities are not in the business of closing ears and eyes?

The Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh has banned all books connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. In India, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey was withdrawn by Mumbai University in face of threats of violence. In the US, Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, was forced to withdraw from a speaking engagement at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey following student protests over her role in the Iraq war. But never fear, the delightfully named Citrus College, in California, has a special free speech zone where the constitutional right guaranteed under the First Amendment can be practised. It originally constituted 1 per cent of the institution’s premises. Thomas Jefferson argued that it is safe to tolerate “error of opinion…where reason is left free to combat it”. Not, it seems, on many university campuses, and at one time not on 99 per cent of Citrus College’s.

In 2014, South Carolina’s House of Representatives cut money to the College of Charleston for its use of gay-themed books. According to one state representative, it was exercising its freedom irresponsibly, which, of course, is the curse of freedom.

As to our own citadels of free thought and reason, Oxford University Press has informed writers of school books that they should avoid mentioning pigs, pork or sausages for fear of causing offence (Animal Farm is banned in the United Arab Emirates, talking pigs being un-Islamic), although a representative insisted that it would not remove definitions of the word “pig” from their dictionary or pigs from historical works. So Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little *** Robinson and Ted Hughes’ View of a *** are safe, although Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which features a “pig-woman” in charge of a pig booth, is clearly pushing the envelope. And let’s not forget Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh, offensive on so many levels.

The OUP, however, insists that pigs can remain in works aimed at academics, rather as obscene books were once published in Latin so hoi polloi wouldn’t know what their betters were smiling at.

But what of the universities themselves? Surely they are open to all ideas and people? Examples suggesting otherwise have been reported in these pages recently, following the publication of Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings. The new counter-terrorism and security bill, which to be fair is facing appropriate resistance, requires universities to ban “extremist speakers”. In that spirit, no doubt, the University of Derby Students’ Union banned David Gale, a Ukip candidate for police and crime commissioner, because it had a policy of refusing to give a platform to those “with racist, fascist or extremist views” (the “or” being a little odd).

Students’ unions that pass no-platform motions to ban the likes of Marine Le Pen presumably believe their members likely to be converted to fascism, racism or any other ism being touted by passing contrarians. Roll over Thomas Jefferson. George Galloway was accordingly banned at the University of Chester (for, basically, being George Galloway). The student organisation Bristol University Christian Union banned female speakers unless accompanied by their husbands; while University of Manchester students banned the feminist campaigner Julie Bindel, co-founder of Justice for Women, because she was thought to be “transphobic”. Meanwhile, back in America, Mount Holyoke College, an all-women institution, decided not to stage Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues because it excludes women without vaginas.

For Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk, freedom of thought and expression are universal human rights that should never be limited by moral sensitivities. Today, the possibility of offence is apparently sufficient to slam the door on communication. Children put their fingers in their ears and go “la, la, la” rather than hear what they would prefer not to. That universities should do the equivalent is, well, offensive.

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