Common Sense Champion: Stephen Fry

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Mark Lehain
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This week’s Common Sense Champion is Stephen Fry, for his intervention in the free speech vote at Cambridge University.

In March, while the rest of the world was distracted by COVID, the university’s ‘Statement on Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Code of Practice’ were amended. A section in the former now reads:

In exercising their right to freedom of expression, the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the differing opinions of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression. The University also expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination.

It is the obligation placed on staff, students and visitors to give respect that has so worried people, and spurred Stephen Fry to speak out.

And the intervention is as eloquent, witty, and devastating as you would expect from him. It’s best read as a whole, but here are brief extracts that give a flavour of the case he makes:

A demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt…

To be forced to feel other than we do is manifestly an impossibility. Therefore what is really being asked is a pretence, a display of lip-service, which in a university whose reputation is founded on empirical and rational inquiry, open argument and free thought, is surely inimical.

He gets it. Oxford University gets it. More than one hundred Cambridge University academics get it too – and they have put forward a motion to the university authorities to replace “respectful” with “tolerate”.

Freedom of expression needs us to tolerate views and beliefs and actions that we find distasteful or even abhorrent – requiring us to respect them is the complete opposite. Frankly, to pretend otherwise is gaslighting of the highest order.

Indeed, it can be argued that the only way for us to make progress and deepen our understanding of life, the universe, and everything is by challenging things we disagree with or dislike – and that means not being respectful at times.

As something of a national treasure, it would have been understandable if Stephen Fry had stayed out of this debate. These days, saying that you are pro-free speech very often leads to you being accused of fascism or demagoguery. Look at how JK Rowling was attacked for her carefully-worded statement on women’s and trans rights, or Trevor Phillips for his work with Index on Censorship, and questioning the orthodoxy on racism and other issues.

As someone of the left, Fry would know that speaking out in the way he has could lead to him being accused of treachery or worse, as the freedom to disagree or disrespect has been redefined by the radical left as something right wing. 

But he has intervened, even though it may cost him the adoration of many. It was passionate, polite, and compelling. It has been done in a way that means people with all sorts of views can get behind it. And it builds on the common ground where the vast majority of the public are.

As such, he had to be our Common Sense Champion for this week. We will watch with interest the outcome of the vote at Cambridge University. If it goes as we hope it does, and endorses liberal tolerance over authoritarian respect, Stephen Fry’s eloquent contribution will surely have played a part.

Mark Lehain


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