The High Apparatchiks of the modern university campus are more dangerous than the “phobias” they claim to be protecting students from. Time to start laughing at them.

I’ve sometimes thought that if I could relive my undergraduate days I’d like to become a students’ union official. Maybe an “Entertainments Officer”. I could spend my day living a parody of the humourless leftist killjoy, thinking of more and more reasons to stamp on the latent energy of the student body. Then I could spend my evenings listening to Wagner while thumbing through the latest edition of The Salisbury Review -my real right-wing tendencies known only to myself.

It seems that others are living my dream.

The comedian Konstantin Kisin was due to appear at a charity campus event at the University of London a fortnight or so ago. Naturally, the policing mechanisms currently in control of these things sought assurances and asked him to sign a behavioural agreement form:

“By signing this contract, you are agreeing to our no tolerance policy with regards to racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.”

That’s what the late AA Gill might have described as a “full English breakfast” of things to choose to find offensive. Its author might as well have stipulated that in signing the contract Mr. Kisin was agreeing to cease being a comedian – presumably Jo Brand has signed it.

Now it could be, as I’ve implied, that such behavioral agreements are a sort of joke on those of us who find them perturbing. That’s certainly the way to look at them (see below). But what if they aren’t? What philosophical conception of the human soul do their advocates implicitly endorse?
There is a view of the human mind that is most closely associated with John Locke, according to which the human person is at birth a tabula rasa -a blank page- who acquires his personality over time as the world imposes itself on him in the form of “sense experience”. A version of the Lockean picture endures to this day. Every time it is announced that neuroscientists have “identified” a function of the brain which “accounts for” this or that psychological trait, the picture is assumed.

But the picture is, at best, incomplete. It assumes that human persons have a sort of default setting of passivity – that our minds are merely the mediating mechanism between inputs from the world around us and outputs in the form of our behavioral responses to those inputs. But there is an activist component to the life of the mind that this empiricist approach excludes. The human mind is restless and is permanently engaging in imaginative engagement with all that comes before it. Our will imposes itself both on the world around us and the mental life within us.

There is a whole philosophical tradition that pre-dates Locke and his Enlightenment successors, a tradition which emphasized that we are volitional as well as intellectual creatures. Aristotle wrote of the difference between theoretical and practical reason. Augustine, similarly, wrote that our hearts are constantly seeking rest in something that transcends this vale of tears. Aquinas argued that the ordered soul is one in which the will finds proper service in pursuit of the Good. The Enlightenment in effect mechanized metaphysics in a way that squeezed the concept of the will from a reputably scientific moral psychology.

The currently fashionable view that our young people -indeed all of us- are passive recipients of all that happens around us is the ethical mistake built on this metaphysical error.

Universities that attempt to protect students through the provision of “safe spaces” are in fact infantilising them. They confiscate from them the greatest spiritual gift: that of acceptance. Acceptance involves the active deployment of the will in the ordering of the interior life. Being offended is a necessary condition of spiritual growth; deliberately seeking offence, on the other hand, is spiritually inhibiting.

And comedy is the greatest means of sharpening this spiritual tool. We cannot change all the things we don’t like – it is wrong to try. But we can laugh at them. Politicians – like the university administrators many of them once were- hate to be laughed at precisely because they are in love with control.

I was an undergraduate in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Those were interesting times. Much of my student drinking took place in a pub in the university area of Belfast. It was also a comedy club, sometimes open mic. Nothing was off-limits and especially not the tragedies of the “Troubles”. The refusal to compromise over what might or might not be “appropriate” objects of comedy was precisely what made that a “safe space”. In some ways the safest space in the most dangerous city in Europe.

The “safe spaces” of the modern university campus are no such thing, merely another example of the Left’s “long march through the institutions”. Best thing is to keep laughing at those who advocate for them.

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