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Uncomfortable Truths

The Vice Chancellor of Oxford University recently hit the headlines for responding to a student complaint that a professor had criticised homosexuality by saying ‘My job isn’t to make you feel comfortable.’

What is surprising about such a pronouncement is that it had to be made at all. In such awkward moments, and they are increasingly common, university leaders seldom or never say: ‘my university, as a university, has no views; it merely provides a safe arena in which research, and discussion of controversial matters, can take place so that the truth can emerge’.

Why do they not say this? Because those leaders seldom believe it. They are more commonly activists who wish to use their institutions as fulcrums with which to move the world in directions of which they approve. Can it really be said that even Oxford University has clean hands? That speech has always been free there? That the University has been neutral, impartial, and welcoming to academics of all views? That every argument is equally safe within its walls? That no present-day dissenters have been squeezed out? People who know how the place actually works appreciate that university business is too often politics continued by other means.

Universities in the UK and the US regularly yield horror stories of the coercive use of authority or even of force, by students and by administrators, to exclude unwelcome views. This should remind us that the US and the UK are much less tolerant than their public myths present them as being. In the US, ‘gathered churches’ (that is, churches that people deliberately joined by subscription to a founding document) were important from the colonies’ earliest days; this clothed intolerance in righteousness to a greater extent than in England (only Scotland comes close, as SNP rhetoric in the House of Commons shows), but even England shares with the US the same characteristics in different degrees. In the American university where I currently teach, I well know that I would be run out of town if I said any of half a dozen things; and so I have no intention of listing them in print.

Who is to blame? It is traditional for the commentariat to blame the young, inventing ‘generations’ supposed to share certain characteristics: in this case, ‘Generation Snowflake’, so tender in their sensibilities that they cannot cope with the emotional upset of encountering different opinions. This makes for enjoyable journalism, but would hardly stand up to research. Far more likely that the mass of people change only slowly and incrementally (even Ringo Starr now emerges as a patriotic Englishman supporting Brexit). It is the small groups of activists who change rapidly, or, rather, who exploit new opportunities to secure their ends.

Opportunities do change. One of the great changes of recent decades has been the explosion of natural rights language, to the point where it is widely assumed that all politically correct people since Thomas Paine really spoke it. But academic research paints a different picture. A Harvard professor, Samuel Moyn, has argued that the proliferation of this new idiom is only as old as the 1970s. Another academic, Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, has gone further: it really took off, he claims, in the 1990s.

Once the proliferation started, it was open to activists to further their causes by devising ever more rights, as claims were dressed up in natural rights language. As with all such self-evident truths, dissent is made to seem a position not merely morally wrong, but untenable, as if one were to argue that the sun orbits the earth. The new right not to be offended is unlikely to be the last invention.

But this only shows that teenagers en masse are easily led. Instead of lumping them together as a ‘generation’, we might better ask some answerable questions: which figures in authority sanction such intolerant attitudes and promote them? When and why did they begin to do so? How did they manage to capture so many of the commanding heights in the university world? What use have they made of their power? As always, only historical analysis can pull the rug from under collective illusion.


Professor Jonathan Clark

Jonathan Clark is an historian of Britain, Europe and America. He has been a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge and has held the Joyce C. and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professorship of British History at the University of Kansas. His publications include A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles, (ed. and contrib.) From Restoration to Reform: The British Isles 1660-1832  and Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution. For Politeia he co-authored Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017) and History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? (2013).

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