THE chant ‘No TERFs! No TERFs! No TERFs on our turf!’ droned on and on. The protesters outside the Cambridge Union, accompanied by percussion and draped in the flags of their ideological movement, handed out leaflets begging people not to attend the debate.
According to this gang one of the speakers supporting the motion ‘This House believes in the right to offend’ is beyond the pale. Professor Kathleen Stock, they allege, is a key contributor to ‘the rising tide of transphobia’ whose ideas are ‘baseless and unfounded bigotry’.
The former University of Sussex professor – and lesbian feminist – is one of the highest-profile victims of the trans rights movement, which launched a campaign to destroy her academic career. Her crime was failing to parrot the catechisms of post-modern gender identity, maintaining instead that gender is immutable.
From the outset, the motion was secondary to the presence of Stock, regarded by many of the millennials in the chamber as some great bogeyman (or should I say bogeyperson).
Instead of engaging with the motion, the first speaker, identifying as ‘non-binary’, took their chance to attack the person of Professor Stock after briefly engaging with the topic of the debate. A grand example in expert offence-taking followed, culminating in am-dram theatrics and assertions that the professor and her supporters should ‘disgust this house’.
What came after was an unedifying display of what has gone wrong with our fundamental approach to freedom of speech. The speakers in opposition, all drawn from Cambridge’s student body, each delivered weakly formed arguments which prioritised feelings over liberty, repeatedly invoking the straw men of a plethora of isms and phobias.
Unperturbed by the attacks on her character, Stock engaged with the matter at hand. Having the right to offend does not mean the duty to do so, she asserted. Nor should ‘offence’ be the primary basis by which we gauge the merit of someone’s speech: it is a visceral and immediate reaction, and as such, is unlikely to be the most appropriate. Most crucially, each advancement in society has involved someone being offended.
It is this point that the opposition wholly fail to engage with. At no juncture could they state just when, precisely, society’s norms should be frozen, thereby creating perfect boundaries as to what is offensive and not. Presumably the offence taken by those who believed the slave trade should be perpetuated was not a valid reaction, nor those who thought that women should never have the vote.
Professor Arif Ahmed, also speaking in proposition and himself no stranger to offending the woke mob, made points so patently obvious that they would shock only the mollycoddled mind of a Cambridge undergraduate. Rights do not equate to duties, nor do they always result in good. It means simply the ability to act free from the limitation of the state. Nor does ‘offence’ necessarily mean bigotry, hatred or harassment: these typical arguments thrown by the opponents of freedom of speech are the silencing tactics that we have all come to know so well.
Without the freedom to offend there is no advancement. There is no progress. It is the ossification of whichever ideology is then in power. At present, that is the totalitarian progressive ideology.
Too many of those at the debate seemed not to appreciate this. The final speaker – between his laboured insults aimed at the Spectator – appeared to believe that freedom of expression was a done deal and therefore needs no protection. As the sun comes up every day, so we have freedom of speech. That it is gradually eroded and that it is, in the grand context of the human experience, a luxury experienced by so few, was not considered. Another speaker equated our freedom of expression with the right to ride a bike: a cornerstone of our civilisation turned into a banal triviality.
Ultimately the proposition won. The House believed in the right to offend by a decent margin of 217 to 72. Nevertheless, recent history teaches that it only takes a determined minority to act as the stormtroopers of massive cultural shifts. As such, I find the outcome less than reassuring. It was an evening where many of the most privileged young minds gathered to happily cannibalise the rights and freedoms won at the cost of seas of bloodshed and strife, and who will be the likely leaders of tomorrow.
Outside, the trans rights people continued their shouting and drumming. I spoke to one briefly afterwards – though not the menacing one wearing a balaclava. She asked: ‘Just how transphobic was the debate?’ Not at all, I had to regretfully tell her. She had no doubt expected a cauldron of hate and phobia to be planted right in the middle of the debate. She seemed worryingly normal – just another victim of a modern brainwashing. In that sense, she is like so many young students at what were once centres of learning but are increasingly little more than the finishing schools of our post-modern elite.