I’m a personality researcher and I use insights from my field to help address societal problems. I have published studies exploring the biological basis of proneness to anxiety (it relates to a magnified perception of threat) and also created a free online questionnaire (study code 92556379) that generates a detailed personality profile for each user. But in terms of societal impact, my main output is a 2015 book entitled ‘The Welfare Trait’ which uses insights from personality research to improve the welfare state. My book caused outrage amongst some left-wingers. It’s a topic of much debate, as this publication knows – my argument was attacked by the editor of The Spectator in a cover story in 2016. Fair enough. Ideas are there to be debated, tested, torn apart: that’s how a free society works, isn’t it?
But as Coffee House recently reported, debate at King’s College London, where I have worked since 2007, is becoming restricted. A debate held this month at King’s between Yaron Brook and Carl Benjamin was stopped by masked thugs bursting into the lecture theatre. At a talk given by Jacob Rees Mogg in October last year, the Student Union organised ‘safe space marshals’ to help keep an eye on the event.
I have now experienced something similar. At 4pm today, I was due to give a lecture to the KCL Libertarian Society about the scientific importance of free speech. But it been postponed by the KCL events office because they did not have enough time to organise sufficient security for a ‘high-risk’ event such as my lecture – high risk not because of the content but because of the risk of disruption.
KCL is a great university that provides world-leading research facilities, superb teaching and is populated by a wonderful mix of staff and students. It has a tradition of upholding academic freedom as my decade of employment there proves, but in recent years a small number of students who dislike free speech have somehow managed to obtain undue leverage.
This is wrong because none of us have the right to police the opinions of others. Having lectured at King’s for ten years, I believe most students here are fair-minded, decent individuals who support free speech. I think it is time for that fair-minded majority at King’s to rally round student groups that support free speech, such as that lead by Danny Al-Khafaji. If pro-free speech students make their voices heard and are supported by the administration at King’s, I believe it will soon be the case that speakers with all types of opinions can once again come to King’s and discuss any topic without needing bouncers on the door. After all, no topic should be off limits at university. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked: ‘Free speech is the bedrock of liberty and a free society, and yes, it includes the right to blaspheme and offend.’