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Rod Liddle: culture war in Durham

Having exercised their right to free speech, both sides of the latest culture wars skirmish ‘should move on’

The journalist Rod Liddle is “a practised controversialist”, said Simon Kelner in The i Paper. So no doubt he’s feeling pleased with himself for having stirred up “the latest skirmish in the culture wars”. At the beginning of the month, Liddle was invited to speak at a dinner at Durham University’s South College by the principal Tim Luckhurst, an old friend. Liddle opened his speech by joking that he was “disappointed” not to see any sex workers in the audience – a reference to the university’s recent offer of safety training for students who do sex work.

He proceeded to crassly tackle trans issues (anyone with “a long, dangling penis is scientifically a man”, he declared) and colonialism, before suggesting that the underachievement of Caribbean Britons had nothing to do with institutional racism. A number of students voted with their feet, walking out. In response, Luckhurst shouted: “at South College we value freedom of speech”, and castigated them as “pathetic”.

It was a bit pathetic that the students were so shocked, said Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. Liddle’s speech – which was, ironically, about the intolerance of left-wing activists – appears to have genuinely shaken them. One declared that his views had left her “literally shaking”. The student union called the speech a “violation of their community”. I’m on the students’ side, said Rachel Cunliffe in the New Statesman. They’d spent money to attend an end-of-term gala; no one had told them Liddle would speak. And they had every right to walk out: freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you’re “obliged to listen to anyone”, particularly if they’re actually trying to bait you.

True, said The Times. “Everyone exercised their right to free speech peacefully. That is no bad thing.” What is disturbing is the behaviour of the university since. In the face of noisy protests from some students – and condemnations from a few academics – it has launched a formal investigation into Luckhurst, although he offered a prompt apology for calling his students pathetic (which, if “perhaps intemperate”, was hardly a major offence). “There is no need for any of this. Having made their respective points, all should move on.”

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