One of the common dominators of cults is a focus on restricting members’ access to outside information. By blocking external knowledge, the cult can ensure that their own truths are established and, more importantly, protected from critique. As Brown argues, “strict control over communication and information work to short-circuit rational thought so that patterned responses and a simplistic, dichotomous perception of reality may be substituted.” In other words, by controlling information, cults foster a new perception of reality guided solely by its rules and creed. It is for this reason that cults often prohibit their members from pursuing education. Education exposes people to new ideas, challenges existing beliefs, and develops the capacity for critical thinking and personal reflection. In this respect, education provides people with the necessary information and tools to resist brainwashing.
In a similar manner, authoritarian states seek to control educational content. For instance, the Chinese government’s direct use of re-education camps as a means to diminish Uyghur identity, and the Turkish government’s recent attempts to place an unqualified political ally in charge of the country’s most prestigious university. The purpose of authoritarian control over education mirrors that of cultists: by controlling the information the population is exposed to, the state can shape their reality. Uyghur identity becomes erased from the Chinese consciousness and LGBTQ+ rights in Turkey are reframed as an affront to Islamic values.
The British government’s approach to information control is a bit more sophisticated than its overtly authoritarian counterparts. Rather than framing the control of information as a cultural or moral dictate, they have presented it in terms of a defence of free speech. The UK is not like China or Turkey, no. The UK is acting to protect liberal values that are being eroded by the leftist cult of academia, indoctrinating young Britons by suppressing their access to alternative, right-wing, viewpoints. See how they flipped it? They’re not attacking rights like the bad authoritarians. They’re protecting rights like good strong British boys.
Protecting Free Speech
In 2018 the British government launched a failed attempt to insert political supporters within the University system. In January of that year, right-wing media commentator Toby Young was appointed to the board of a new public body, the Office of Students (OFS), responsible for regulating and funding Universities. Despite his lack of experience, current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, delighted in the appointment of his old friend saying Young would “bring independence, rigour and caustic wit” to the OFS. Within days Young had resigned due to questions of his suitability and concerns over numerous offensive articles and Tweets he had published. The lesson was learned, the UK couldn’t simply transplant loyal friends into positions of authority in the University sector. Instead, the UK would need to formulate a new plan to control the types of information circulated in third level education.
This week, current Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, unveiled the new plan. During a global pandemic in which education has been massively affected, one might think that the government would focus upon pressing issues: telling teachers and students what is happening with A-Level and GCSE exams and ensuring that children don’t starve during school holidays. Instead, the government decided that the burning issue facing education was the processes through which universities and student unions invite guest speakers to present talks on campus. You could be forgiven for wondering why this is a hot topic at a time when there are limited numbers of students on campus and no guest speakers are permitted. It certainly has nothing to do with the burgeoning disagreement between the government and its Chief Medical Officer in regard to how to reopen schools. No this is definitely not another dead dog being tossed unceremoniously on the table to distract people.
The government’s new legislation proposes the creation of a ‘Free Speech Champion’ tasked with investigating instances in which visiting academics or public speakers are refused permission to present talks on university or student union platforms. Under the proposed legislation, those refused permission will be granted the right to pursue legal action against universities and claim damages. In the government’s strange understanding of free speech, access to university platforms is framed as a right and universities are required to justify any refusal of access.
Cancel Culture and the Marketplace of Ideas
The new legislation has been specifically framed as a response to ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no platforming’. Cancel culture refers to an, often imagined, situation in which a public figure is removed from public platforms as a result of unacceptable behaviour and/or views. For example, when it emerged that the comedian Louis CK had used his industry status to sexually assault young female comedians, his television series, an upcoming film and live gigs were cancelled. So, Louis was cancelled. Well, until he went back on tour and released a live stand up special, via his own website, where he uses his sexual assaults as fodder for comedic material.
In the eyes of its opponents, cancel culture is a symptom of the woke leftist gatekeeping of public platforms. If someone fails to conform to the woke agenda, they are cancelled and banished from platforms: so-called, no platforming. I know this because there is a seemingly unending stream of critiques and warnings of the dangers of cancel culture on multiple public platforms. As such, we have this weird contradictory landscape in which right-wing commentators wax apocalyptically about the threat of cancel culture and no-platforming from their diverse array of widely accessible public platforms. In regard to universities, no-platforming is depicted as left-wing gatekeeping exercise in which right-wing ideas are excluded from campuses under the pretext of offense. Despite the evidence illustrating that no-platforming on campuses is rare, and often misunderstood by those warning against it, the idea of left-wing university gatekeeping has become common in UK discourse.
The predominate alternative proposed to cancel culture and no-platforming is ‘The Market Place of Ideas’. Derived from Milton’s 1644 work Areopagitica, the Market Place of Ideas thesis argues that if all ideas are given an equal public hearing, the most convincing ideas will rise to the top. If my ideas are so terrible yells the savvy right-wing commentator, debate me in public and prove it. Which quickly turns into, the left-wing cult of academia is scared that if students are exposed to right-wing ideas, they will find them more convincing and become deprogrammed.
Privilege and Rights
The fundamental disjunction in the UK government’s understanding of no-platforming and free speech is that they have confused privilege with rights. Free speech is a right, it is the right to express one’s own opinions publicly and privately within the confines of the law. In other words, no person or group can prevent you from expressing your own ideas and opinions provided you are not breaking the law. A platform to disseminate your ideas, in contrast, is a privilege. I get to write and publish this blog because I am in a privileged position: I have a publisher willing to sift through my rantings and disseminate them through their platform. I do not have a right to this platform and my publisher can chose to reject my blog.
The confusion occurs because those who view a platform to disseminate ideas as a right are, predominantly, coming from incredibly privileged positions: wealthy white people with existing access to widely circulated platforms. Because a platform is simply something they expect to have, they misconstrue it as a right. They simply haven’t checked their privilege at the door.
Every platform, public or private, has its gatekeepers. In many instances, gatekeeping is determined by politics and ideology. For example, The Sun and Daily Mail newspapers don’t publish left-wing commentators and KPMG don’t invite Marxists to give motivational talks because these ideas don’t fit with their overarching ideological agendas. In this sense, every single organisation with a communication platform makes decisions about who to include and who to exclude. Organisations like The Spectator are not required to justify these decisions to the UK government or ensure greater representation of left-wing voices – they simply say that it would not be fitting with the nature of their publication and their readers are not interested in left-wing politics. In another articulation of the marketplace of ideas, publications like The Spectator are marketed as right-wing publications and their customers subscribe because they share this ideological disposition.(Source)
As evident in the above table, right-wing newspaper publications in the UK far outstrip the circulation of left-wing and centrist ones. Taken from a marketplace of ideas perspective, right-wing ideas must be more appealing to the UK public. However, this discounts the commercial makeup and ownership of British media, with 3 companies controlling 83% of the market. In other words, a select few wealthy companies determine which ideas are given a public platform in this medium. This is not viewed as a failing of free speech or the exclusion of counter-voices and debate. Rather, it is depicted as the independent decision of the market: if the public wanted more left-wing voices, left wing publications would sell more copies. Case closed, the marketplace of ideas has spoken.
The Customer is Not Always Right
What the above illustrates is that right-wing ideas and opinions are not marginal voices on UK platforms. In fact, they are often the dominant voices on mainstream platforms, both off and on-line. This tells us that university populations, staff and students, are more than aware of right-wing viewpoints. It is not a case that we are holed up in our university safe spaces sticking fingers in our ears to prevent any trace of right-wing ideas crushing our cherished leftist values. In the vast majority of cases students and university staff are completely aware of what right-wing politics has to offer.
The problem for the UK government is that student populations are less likely to vote conservative than other demographics.This presents Tories with cause for reflection: why are we failing to reach student voters? There are many possible explanations for this – younger voters suffering from declining wages, rising debt, growing career and housing uncertainty, and so on. Rather than reflecting upon the reasons why students reject Tory politics, the right has constructed a fantasy in which students are being indoctrinated by their institutions and prevented from accessing conservative ideas. Whereas underrepresentation of left-wing voices in the press is depicted as ‘the market speaking’, the perceived underrepresentation of right-wing voices on university campuses is framed as an attack on free speech.
First, this image misrepresents universities as homogeneous entities: a picture of all academics sharing the same value and belief system and indoctrinating students to adopt it. But that, of course, is a fallacy. While my politics department at the University of Leicester can be broadly described as left leaning, economics departments have long been bastions of orthodox capitalist economics. In turn, universities contain an ideologically diverse array of student societies. The vast majority of universities even have conservative societies that are free to host events, apply for funding and invite guest speakers.
In this respect, universities have a clear marketplace for ideas. If right-wing ideas are less visible or popular, this is simply a product of the market speaking. Students are aware of right-wing ideas, they just think they’re a bit shit. Take student unions, a focus of governmental ire for no-platforming. The National Union of Students is a broad national body run by officers elected by university students. In turn, local branches democratically elect their officers from the local student pool.Throughout the year local branches will receive proposals for guest speakers – proposals for the union to host a speaker and grant them access to the student union platform. The elected officers will consult with their members and make a decision to host or not to host. In short, an independent, democratically elected body decides who can use their platform to disseminate ideas on the basis of its members wishes.
The proposed legislation suggests that this independent body needs to justify its decision to the state. Student unions cannot be trusted to decide who can access their platform and need to appeal for governmental approval. It’s the equivalent of the government demanding that the Newton-le-willows branch of Lloyd’s Bank consult the government before deciding who to invite to speak at Jo’s leaving do. In other words, the government is telling us that a specific set of independent bodies (universities and student unions) are incapable of operating a fair marketplace of ideas. It just happens that this particular marketplace is one of the few areas of British society in which conservative values and beliefs are not in the majority.
Rigging the Market
To couch it in the terms of a marketplace of ideas: university populations are less interested in right-wing ideas than mainstream British society. Rather than accepting that the market has spoken, the British government claims that this has to be the result of a sinister plot to banish right-wing ideas from the campus. To counter this the government is promoting state intervention. It is only by regulating the university market that the government can ensure equal representation.
It is curious that this is the only information market in which the government is concerned about regulation. Especially considering that the majority of recommendations for press regulation outlined in the Leveson Inquiry have not been implemented and even rolled back. In the government’s eyes media platforms that demonstrably amplify right-wing ideas need no regulation, even when regulation is found to be necessary to protect against mass breaches of the law. Yet, university platforms that are simply perceived to amplify left-wing ideas need to be saved by a Free Speech Champion to ensure right-wing ideas are equally represented. The open marketplace of ideas is eschewed in favour of a regulated market in which pro-government voices are granted equal access irrespective of the student population’s wishes. The government is, in practice, purposing that communication platforms owned by private institutions provide access to pro-government opinions. The marketplace of ideas is rigged in the name of free speech.
When Free Speech Becomes Authoritarian
By conflating access to platforms with freedom of expression, the UK government has helped create a context in which governmental control over the dissemination of information in universities is valorised as the protection of rights. It’s more sophisticated than the Chinese and Turkish approaches, but it serves the same purpose: to actively pressure universities and student unions to ensure pro-government voices are heard loud and clear, even when the audience has little or no interest. The alternative is to face the risk of legal action and economic litigation.
The purposed legislation takes freedom of expression and distorts it into a demand for independent bodies to platform pro-governmental voices. It riggs the marketplace of ideas and regulates one of the few avenues for critical thought and radical politics as a means to amplify arguments and voices already dominant in wider British society. Free speech, in this way, is transformed into yet another tool of domination by the most politically powerful ideological group in the country. By controlling the flow of information in universities, the government hopes that students and staff can be successfully acclimatised to the wisdom of conservative values.
 Laura Brown (1991) ‘He Who Controls the Mind Controls the Body: False Imprisonment, Religious Cults, and the Destruction of Volitional Capacity,’ Valparaiso University Law Review 25(3), pp.412-413
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