I would pause, for at least a few seconds, if I found myself arguing that my freedom of speech was in a state of extreme jeopardy in this, my column in a national newspaper. The historian Niall Ferguson, it seems, did not pause when making such an argument in his column in the Sunday Times this week. For Ferguson, speaking to the masses online and in print, the ability for him and his fellow travellers to freely speak their mind is in such dire jeopardy that the only answer is to set up a defence treaty, a form of Nato for academics who experience backlash when they express their views.
The people it would protect, he argued, include Roger Scruton, the academic sacked from an unpaid government post for expressing views he’d previously expressed in an interview with the New Statesman; Jordan Peterson, the bestselling author, who had the offer of a Cambridge visiting fellowship revoked after posing with a fan wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “I am a proud Islamophobe”; and Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist under investigation for sexual harassment (which he denies). That Fryer has not received a wave of support from academic colleagues Ferguson blames on political correctness.
Surely, anyone accused of sexual harassment in the workplace should be investigated, regardless of their politics – so lumping in Fryer with other people criticised for their views muddies Ferguson’s already weak argument and risks appearing to argue that complainants are politically motivated.
But that aside, the Venn diagram of men arguing that freedom of speech is the central, precious tenet of “western civilisation”, and those who scream bloody murder the second they are subject to any criticism, or are forced to bear any responsibility for their speech, is a single perfect circle.