Andrew Doyle: The concept of 'safety' is being abused in order to silence dissent

'We need to understand that activists will always claim to feel “unsafe” because the strategy works. It’s an essential aspect of cancel culture'

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In the sixteenth century, Nostradamus predicted that a great king of terror would descend upon the world. All he got wrong was the date. He thought this would happen in the seventh month of 1999. In fact, it was the twelfth month of 2021.

It was last Friday, in fact, and it took place at that great seat of learning: the university of Durham. You know, the place where all the posh kids go if they don’t get into Oxbridge. There had been a Christmas dinner at South College, and the king of terror himself had been invited to give an after-dinner speech.

And who is this man? This beast? This epitome of evil? Yes, it’s Rod Liddle. The protests following his appearance have been quite unhinged. There have been petitions, calls for the principal of the college, Tim Luckhurst, to be sacked. It’s quite a mess.

So what happened exactly? Well, Luckhurst had invited Liddle to give the after-dinner speech because, well, I suppose he was thinking that a famous journalist with an entertaining style and sometimes provocative opinions would be quite a coup for the college.

After all, these students are there to be challenged, aren’t they? To expand their minds by being exposed to the full spectrum of opinions. Apparently not.

Some students walked out, before hearing what Liddle had to say – maybe they could smell the sulphur. The principal called them ‘pathetic’, which may not be the nicest thing to say, but it does have the advantage of being true.

Of course they had every right to walk out. But if they had stayed, they would have realised that Liddle’s speech was about tolerance, about the need to hear views that you may find uncomfortable. And their behaviour in the aftermath has simply gone and proven his point.

Now, I support anyone's right to engage in peaceful protest. But to put pressure on the university to sack Luckhurst, to ruin a man’s livelihood? That’s not right. And now of course Luckhurst is under investigation.

Well, what do you expect when you spoil Christmas dinner by inviting the Anti-Christ?I have plenty of thoughts about this. The first is to remember that the students who are doing this are in the minority – we are not hearing from those who watched the whole speech and gave Liddle a standing ovation at the end.

We’re not hearing from those students who think it’s a great idea to hear alternative views, even and especially if they disagree with them. As ever, it’s the noisiest ones that we hear. And we shouldn’t be writing off a whole generation as ‘snowflakes’ on the basis of the idiotic behaviour of a few. As ever, the strings are being pulled by activist academics who don’t believe in tolerance or free speech.

For all that this debate is being misrepresented as a simple generational difference, I’ve often noticed that the most vociferous proponents of this kind of intolerance are coming from my generation. And more and more young people are pushing back against this illiberal trend. And the other thing we really need to focus on here is the way in which the concept of ‘safety’ is being abused in order to silence dissent.

Nobody’s safety is compromised by Rod Liddle. Unless you’re reading one of his articles in the Spectator and you get a paper cut. But inevitably, that’s the language that the protesters are using. Let’s take, for example, the petition which has been penned by the following groups: Durham Intersectional Feminism Society, Durham LGBT+ Association, Durham University Labour Club, Durham Womxn’s Association.

Nobody yet knows how to pronounce ‘womxn’, or what it means, so it’s difficult to take their “association” all that seriously. It’s like getting a complaint from the association of flibberty-bobbles and chomple-smucks. Doesn't really mean anything.

But anyway, in the petition they call for an immediate apology from the event organiser and an acknowledgement from the College Principals that it is ‘inappropriate’ to invite ‘harmful guests’. Harmful, you see. Not just offensive, not just upsetting, but harmful. And then we have this from Professor Antony Long, the acting vice-chancellor of Durham University.

“The events of last Friday at South College have caused considerable distress and anger across much of our community… We are committed to providing a safe place to live, work and study for all.”

There it is again. A safe place. And what about this? This is testimony from one student who walked out: "I have not felt this unwelcome, ostracised, and unsafe since arriving at the university… I’m furious that this was allowed to happen. If there is no apology or repercussions, I cannot see myself remaining here."

Now the best response to this would be: bye bye then. But of course the university will capitulate, as they always do. They’ll ignore the majority of students who think this kind of thing is nonsense, and just focus on the minority who are making their infantile demands.

We need to understand that activists will always claim to feel “unsafe” because the strategy works. It’s an essential aspect of cancel culture.

If someone goes to their employer and says, “my colleague expressed an opinion I don’t agree with” – the employer will just shrug and say “too bad”. But if someone says their safety at work has been compromised, the employer is obliged to act.

Because then it becomes a duty of care issue. The language of physical harm is a rhetorical device intended to strengthen the case for ideological submission. And we’re allowing them to get away with this trick.

It’s our fault for taking it seriously. So we need to change our response to these kinds of fatuous claims. Every parent knows that if a child has a tantrum and you give them what they want, they’ll have another tantrum. And another. And another. And before you know it, the kids are in control.

So by all means let these people carry on screaming about how unsafe they feel while they’re busy trying to destroy other people’s lives. But unless you start ignoring them, the screaming is just going to get louder.