First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Martin Niemöller
Universities are not what they used to be. Once they were places where students and faculty enjoyed greater freedom to express and debate their views than in mainstream society. They were sanctuaries where young people could explore the full smorgasbord of opinions and beliefs about politics, religion, morality and social mores without the constraints of traditional norms. Unfortunately this is no longer the case - they have become a different type of sanctuary, a gilded cage where people are protected from exposure to anything other than a narrow set of acceptable views. This is particularly true of the United States where recently we have seen:
- Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali banned from giving a speech at Brandeis University because her views on Islam's oppression of women were deemed offensive to Muslims
- British pro-Trump gay activist Milo Yiannopolous forced to cancel his address at UC Berkeley because of violence protests
- American conservative commentator Anne Coulter disinvited from speaking at UC Berkeley (although later rescinded).
There have been many other incidents that demonstrate that our most fundamental right - to hold and voice our own opinions, which is surely a prerequisite for all other rights - is now considered less important than the precept that no one should ever be offended by anything.
The latest incident is the cancellation of the appearance at an event hosted by a radio staton in Berkeley of the renown biologist and perhaps the world's greatest science writer, Richard Dawkins, because of his views on Islamist terrorism.
Several years ago I heard Dawkins speak in person and I left the presentation with two main impressions. Firstly, he does not speak as fluently as he writes. This is not unexpected as it is rare that great writers are as eloquent in their spoken words as in those they write, but what Dawkins had to say was riveting in spite of his somewhat awkward delivery style. More importantly, I thought he delivered the most complete and easily understood explanation of the biological basis for evolution by natural selection that I have ever heard or read.
He described how the cells of all living things are made up of chains of protein molecules that are capable of curling up into an almost infinite variety of shapes, and that these shapes are determined by a digital code that is held in special molecular chains called DNA. He went on to describe what is perhaps the most important discovery in biology - but one that has never occurred to me despite my keen interest in science - that when living things reproduce by replicating from a single fertilised egg cell, they follow the whole of evolution from single-celled organisms to complex higher lifeforms. They are able to do this because all of evolution is stored in the digital code in their DNA and is simply replayed during gestation. In other words, each of us is the output of a computer programme that has stored the knowledge of three billion years of evolution, run over just nine months! This is the reason why the zygotes and early embryos of all animals look so alike - they show the point in evolution when all animals did look alike.
Dawkins made me see that evolution is not some dry historical fact but is something that plays out in the birth of every baby. I found this fact jaw-dropping and ironically it is perhaps the closest thing I have experienced in my life to a religious revelation. It made me think that every human being needs to hear the story that this man tells so well, and that to ban him from imparting his knowledge to others is to commit a crime against human knowledge.
The political correctness stormtroopers have now come for Richard Dawkins and that makes me ineffably sad because it is precisely their ignorance and intolerance that Dawkins has spent his life trying to overcome. The radio station said it was specifically his criticism of Islam that led them to ban him. Dawkins has been a frequent critic of Christianity and his criticism of Islam is for the most part confined to Islamic extremism, but in the strange world of victim group politics it seems Christianity is fair game but Islam is a no-go area where free speech does not apply.
The size of the space that contains acceptable opinions is becoming smaller and smaller. You may think your views are safe because you are an open-minded, tolerant liberal who celebrates diversity and just wants to live and let live. You are wrong. They are coming for you because it is not so much your views that are under assault as the right to have any opinion of your own.
We all need to speak out in defence of free speech before there is no one left to defend it.