The mere mention of the word ‘Vagina’ would have had my late mother hurdle over the coffee table like Sally Gunnell to reach for the television off switch.
The Spence household of my boyhood was a somewhat prim institution, unlike Abertay University.
There such language is freely expressed – but the openness currently finds them embroiled in a dispute whereby a mature law student faces investigation for saying women have vaginas.
Given my sheltered upbringing, I admit to being initially torn between a Dick Emery ‘Ooh you are awful’ response, and a sense of déjà vu at this ludicrously terrifying tale.
Schoolboy humour and badinage is seldom far from the mind of many blokes, and I am sadly one of them, despite valiant attempts to pose as modern man.
However, when the sensible hat goes on and serious reflection begins, the madness of what is happening in this case quickly drives any vestige of humour from the mind.
No laughing matter
Lisa Keogh a 29 year old law student and mother of two, who has previously worked in the real world as a mechanic has been accused of transphobia during online student lectures.
Her remarks, unremarkable to many I suspect, but not the younger classmates who complained, included her view that women were born with female genitals and that ‘the difference in physical strength of men versus women is a fact’.
Abertay insist that freedom of speech within the law is permitted and encouraged, yet Keogh faces a formal investigation into her conduct with allegations that her comments are ‘offensive’ and ‘discriminatory’.
Their misconduct policy includes ‘discriminating against gender reassignment’, with expulsion the highest sanction for breach.
Joanna Cherry MP and QC has called the action farcical, and asked Abertay how it is protecting students’ rights to freedom of speech under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Of course, Cherry herself has been assailed by the trans lobby in unedifying and vicious attacks.
It’s possible to support both #transrights & #womensrights. Neither should be sacrificed for the other. But women’s biology & lived experience must not be erased from the statute book. #LesbianVisibility is also important. My speech on #MOMABill pic.twitter.com/hQyitHfBi9
— Joanna Cherry QC (@joannaccherry) February 11, 2021
There is a uniquely chilling aspect of this case given that it involves law students.
Taken to its logical limits, could the eventual effect of being unable to express a view on gender potentially stop lawyers from even presenting a defence, for fear of falling foul of the law?
Could even writing about the subject and reporting on it be regarded as offensive?
No place for closed minds
Stasi-like antics in suppressing free speech shouldn’t be left to an MP or a young mother to call out.
Universities are places where minds must be open to embracing different opinions, able to argue with analytical and forensic skill, and to dissect opposing points of view with rigour and fact..
If we don’t step up to the plate on the issue of freedom of speech, our work lives, careers, and reputations are all at risk of being damaged or destroyed by the dogmatic, the vexatious, and the downright illiberal.
I recently quit my voluntary and unpaid role as Rector of University of Dundee a year early. Covid had played havoc with my earnings as a freelance journalist and I needed to devote my increasingly limited spare time to earning my living.
However, during my period in the post, I sensed the potential for the sort of turmoil in which Abertay is now ensnared.
Students at universities vote for a rector with a public profile who has access to the media and can communicate their issues, but some can get upset when that individual voices opinions that they dislike or disagree with.
A statement from Principal Nigel Seaton on freedom of speech at Abertay can be viewed on the website here https://t.co/nHeItb1jKu and in the thread below.
— Abertay University (@AbertayUni) May 17, 2021
I jalouse that some staff in academic institutions are currently operating in silent panic mode, while the unchecked Stalinist mentality of a small, but disproportionately loud sect of the professionally aggrieved and opinionated, hunt for perceived transgressions and offence.
Those who are ‘triggered’ by opinions they dislike or arguments disputing their constricted world view, and upset at the challenges presented by open debate, are a harbinger of dangerous times ahead.
It’s time to put the adults back in charge.
When grown-ups vacate the room and let unripened minds run riot, the dangers to reputations and careers are starkly exposed.
Allegations of hurt and hate are hurled in a scattergun approach by those lacking the sense or concern to see the dangers
Freedom of speech can of course be upsetting and not just to those with a delicate constitution.
However, there is a difference between statements that simply jar and anger and those that are injurious to reputation.
Between the Wild West of social media and now the university debating chamber, allegations of hurt and hate are hurled in a scattergun approach by those lacking the sense or concern to see the dangers posed to the individuals they indict with such callous and casual contempt.
The furious desire of intolerant minds to suppress and silence those they disagree with is a nakedly aggressive form of censorship.
Those in management or teaching positions who acquiesce with or think that they can tame this monster will find its appetite is insatiable, and they too will be devoured in time.
Those folk incapable of accepting robust debate and exchange of alternative views, regard each inch of latitude yielded to them as a permit to destroy those whose views their restrictive minds can’t tolerate.
The silent majority now face a very blunt choice.
We can march onwards to assured destruction of any remaining free thought and expression, or we can reject the beat of those banging their increasingly dictatorial drums.