A paper entitled “Back to censorship as usual”

Jason Walsh is disgusted with Queen’s University Belfast for canceling an academic symposium for bad self-regarding reasons.

Among the participants at this conference was to be yours truly, the Ireland correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, the world’s most measured, careful and, critics (with whom I would disagree) would say, stiff newspaper. Other participants included, well, academics. It was an academic symposium, after all. As I was a putative participant there is an ethical conflict in me reporting on the matter. There is no such impediment, however, on me complaining about it, so buckle-up while I take you for a spin around the insanity that is the modern university.

I had planned to give a paper entitled “Back to censorship as usual”, arguing that after a brief, and frankly unconvincing, outpouring of support for freedom of expression we all got back to calling for more censorship, including self-censorship. In short, I was planning on standing in front of a room of people who are likely to take a dim view of what I do for a living and defend my beleaguered trade as a lodestone of civilised debate. After all, we still didn’t have a full count of the murdered journalists, not to mention shoppers in a kosher supermarket, when social media was already exploding with talk about potential Islamophobic reprisals. Perhaps we could at least mop the blood up before writing, as trendy neo-leftist Jacobin magazine did, that Charlie Hebdo was a “frankly racist publication”.

No, not at all, people were announcing CH was racist while the windows were still rattling.

Let’s tell the truth: there was no security risk, unless the potential for hurt feelings after a bit of shouting is now considered a matter of security, in which case I suppose we should be calling MI6 every time there’s an argument about the washing up.

The only conceivable reason this conference would be cancelled is that someone — someone like me, for instance — might say something that might upset someone else. That is what passes for reputational damage today? Back when I was knee-high to a parking meter we called that debate, and isn’t that what the university is all about?

The real reason for the cancellation was given away with the mention of reputation. What damage to Queen’s reputation could have happened, though? That it would develop a reputation for tackling difficult subjects?

After this decision the Vice Chancellor deserves the reputation he will get.

Maybe he’ll get the one he wants, for being an aware, thoughtful, anti-Islamophobia Vice Chancellor who wants to avoid any possibility at all of discussing something that might be at all irksome to, say, the Mutaween in Saudi Arabia.


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