A rare joy of living through the forging of a new orthodoxy is watching as the old orthodoxy becomes daring and scandalous. Assumptions once axiomatic grow beguiling, then bemusing, and eventually base, and a delicious tang of danger is lent to the stalest of views. What was mainstream now finds itself in dissent and on the road to blasphemy. Freedom of conscience is such an idea, so blandly obvious until recently but now a deadly weapon in hate’s ever-expanding arsenal. For while it is perfectly reasonable that individuals be free to think, what if they think the wrong things?
Fortunately for us, we have people like Lauren McDougall. She is president of the Students’ Representative Council at Glasgow University, my alma mater. The SRC supports student societies, houses campus media outlets, and serves as a bridge between the university’s two rival student unions — the ruggers’ and Sloanies’ GUU and the QMU, the proley, slightly smug, under-deodorised home of cheap lager, decent music and ethical boycotts. The SRC is earnest and hectoring, a reputation it has now cemented by refusing to affiliate a student club which opposes abortion. Glasgow Students for Life applied for the same status extended to more than 200 campus societies. Affiliation gives these groups access to funding, venues for events and a stall at freshers’ week.
Glasgow Students for Life will get none of those things because they are ‘contrary to the ethos’ of the SRC. As McDougall tells the Glasgow Herald:
‘The executive view affiliation as a form of endorsement because affiliated clubs and societies are permitted to use our branding in their promotional material. Given the SRC’s campaigning on a number of related social issues over the years, including support for the recent Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland, it would be contrary to our ethos to endorse a society which calls for limited rights for women.’
The pro-life group described the decision as ‘an assault on freedom of speech at Glasgow University which is legally obliged to foster an environment of academic freedom’. They have filed a complaint against what they deem to be viewpoint discrimination and say they are keeping their legal options open. Well they might, because among the groups that are affiliated to the SRC is Medical Students for Choice, which is ‘dedicated to producing future generations of doctors who will support reproductive choice’. ‘Reproductive choice’ is the favoured euphemism of abortion proponents, who recognise that ‘inserting a tube through the cervix, into the uterus and suctioning out every last cell of an incipient human life’ lacks a certain ring.
Pro-lifers are hardly sympathetic characters. Some of these students will be Christians, so let’s everyone do the spinning-finger-around-the-temple gesture. Others will be men and men aren’t allowed to have views on the sanctity of human life because they were born without a womb, plus something called ‘toxic masculinity’, which, no matter how many times I hear it, still sounds like an over-cloved aftershave punted to the Christmas market by an American rapper. Worst of all, some of them will be ‘women’ — ‘women’ in the grip of patriarchal false consciousness who would deny themselves and other women (real women, pro-‘choice’ women) their bodily rights.
Organisations like Glasgow Students for Life are, by definition, harmless. They are deep in the minority of public opinion, no political party of any standing champions their cause and social and attitudinal trends suggest they are fighting a long-lost battle. Denying them the privileges and benefits granted to every other student group is an act of pettiness — and cowardice. Abortion advocates are not keen on debate because abortion is a practice that relies on hushed tones and closed doors. ‘Abortifacient’ and ‘dilatation and evacuation’ are not-nice terms for not-nice procedures. What Glasgow University’s ethos-enforcers fear is not criticism of abortion by Glasgow Students for Life but the defence of abortion they would have to mount in response. Keep out the pro-lifers and your viewpoint enjoys a monopoly; let them in and you’ve got a dialogue on your hands.
The SRC hides behind women’s rights in ostracising their ideological opponents but this is a facile piece of rhetoric. Glasgow Students for Life ‘calls for limited rights for women’, they say. Of course it does. All politics is a contest over rights. The Glasgow University Palestine Society advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions, which limits the rights of Israelis to trade, research and create around the world. The Glasgow Marxists society will not, I imagine, be all that keen on private property rights. And unborn babies, if they could speak, might note that Medical Students for Choice want to curtail their rights quite drastically. To adopt the SRC’s standard — that no group seeking to limit established rights may be affiliated — is to abandon politics in favour of a moral code that is forever changing but may never be challenged.
The student unrest of the 1960s and ‘70s was, in part, a battering ram against unquestioned and unquestionable authority. They wanted personal autonomy, academic freedom and an opening up of the campus to alternative, even disruptive ideas. Four decades on, students have no need for freedom; it’s equality they’re after, an equality of ignorance, a rigid conformity that calls itself diversity. Ideas are harm. Speech is violence. Alternative views are dangerous. The grandchildren of the radicals have become the new authoritarians.