The appalling treatment of Kathleen Stock shows new laws alone can’t guarantee free speech

14 Oct

This week, a ghastly row has erupted at Sussex University. I call it a “row”, but what happened is, in fact, the latest example of bullying, intolerance and intimidation masquerading as social justice. Professor Kathleen Stock, a Professor of Philosophy at the institution, was targeted for her views on gender identity – to the point where she now has to worry about her own safety.

Stock, like most of the population, believes that biological sex should not be conflated with gender; a position which formed the basis of her well received Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. Like other feminist thinkers, such as Helen Joyce and Abigail Shrier, she has found herself at the forefront of a new genre of literature, which reasserts common sense – in a world where it has become controversial. 

Indeed, Stock’s perfectly conventional take on things have become heresy among some students. With Salem-style hysteria, those at Sussex deemed her a transphobe and erected posters on campus, calling for the university to fire her. One group called “Anti Terf Sussex” described Stock “one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes”. Such are the ferocity of threats against her that police have had to ensure that if Stock calls 999, an officer will be immediately sent to her home.

As many will know, this is not an “atypical” university event; for years, a dangerous contagion has gripped Western academic institutions, whereby young, faux liberals – Fiberals, as I call them – point the finger at anyone who blasphemes against their orthodoxy. That they have so much time for witch hunts speaks volumes about declining teaching standards, as well as the lack of purpose the young have in greater society.

All was not lost, though. In the wake of Stock’s treatment, Sussex University did something quite extraordinary: it defended its own staff. Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor at the institution, said that officials would look into “activity on our campus which appears to have been designed to attack Kathleen Stock for exercising her academic freedoms“, in a statement which infuriated her critics.

One could read into Tickell’s statement in a number of ways. The optimist might say that administrators have finally found a backbone. Government insiders, on the other hand, may view it as a sign that the proposed Free Speech Bill, which aims to “strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect freedom of speech”, has landed. Universities increasingly know they have to step up their efforts when it comes to defending academics.

 

Sadly, neither Tickell’s address or the Free Speech Bill has stopped unions throwing their weight around. Sussex UCU soon released a statement asking “management to take a clear and strong stance against transphobia at Sussex.” The covert suggestion in all this is that Stock needs to be dealt with. She later Tweeted that UCU had “effectively ended [her] career at Sussex University”.

I confess I have not read Material Girls – though it is next on my list – but in interviews I have found Stock to be measured, compelling and brave; her arguments completely watertight and fair in regards to balancing the rights of different groups. As with so many of these “culture wars”, the mob often seems to invent its own enemy. It projects false sentiment and characteristics onto dissidents – so as to dehumanise them and render their arguments unworthy of being listened to.

What does the Government do about this? Stock’s treatment certainly gives more urgency to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, whose critics often dismiss it as unnecessary (we on the Right are, of course, inventing a culture war). But perhaps the strongest intervention came from Liz Truss, who Tweeted in support of Stock, as well as Baroness Falkner of Margravine, Head of the Human Rights Commission, who condemned the attacks.

Ultimately we cannot legislate our way out of these censorious incidents, but we must do more as a society to speak out against Fiberals. It is the most simple way, yet one that pains politicians (would most of the Cabinet get involved in the Sussex University debacle?). Being weak on these matters has a permeative effect. The Sussex University debacle is, first, emblematic of our failing further education system, but also symptomatic of a wider societal sickness that cannot continue.