There are some ideas we welcome, there are some we don’t allow

We’re often told that “cancel culture” in universities is some kind of new phenomenon.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Well, some of us have longer memories than goldfish.

I’ve been searching for something for a long time now – and finally, I’ve found it.

An extract from a musical skit – on the political culture amongst students in British universities – first appeared in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, and I’ve been looking for the full version ever since.

And here it is:

It’s from an episode of That’s Life! – a kind of early iteration of the One Show, that mixed serious and light-hearted items in a studio-based format with film inserts and musical numbers.

The Esther Rantzen-fronted BBC1 show was screened on a Sunday evening, and regularly reached audiences of fifteen to twenty million at its height.

I appreciate opinions if they coincide with mine. When I’m asked out to a party, then I tow the party line – and anyone that disagrees is just a fascist swine.

The skit, performed by moderately famous actress Cheryl Kennedy in Series 1, Episode 3 of the show (from over fifty years ago in 1973), is very much a commentary on the “intolerant” students of the day.

If you do not think as I think then there’s nothing to discuss, and for Huntingdon and Eysenck we don’t give a thinker’s cuss, but we welcome nonconformists if they nonconform like us.

The item came in the slipstream of a media storm surrounding an incident at LSE involving a prominent psychologist called Hans Eysenck, who had published a book called Race, Intelligence and Education a couple of years prior.

There are some ideas we welcome, there are some we don’t allow.

One of his central “ideas” was a belief that variability in IQ scores is genetically determined to a high degree – and that as a result, the Black–White IQ gap in the US was due predominantly to genetic factors.

The Telegraph from May 9th, 1973 had the story:


PROF. HANS EYSENCK, 57, who believes Whites are genetically more intelligent than Negroes, was beaten up by a group of students yesterday as he was beginning a lecture at the London School of Economics.

He said last night: “I have never experienced such a physical attack since I was in Nazi Germany. At least, I expected it to happen in the Nazi days, but not here.

There are all sorts of echoes to contemporary coverage. Did the incident even involve students?

The LSE, which claimed that the “trouble” had been started by outsiders, apologised to Prof Eysenck last night.

John Blundell, who ended up as Lord Mayor of Coventry 2018-19, was the chair of the University of London Conservative Association at the time, and reflects the tyranny of the minority thing that backbenchers still bang on about now:

About 450 students voted in favour of his speaking and only 15 against. We all wanted to hear what he had to say even though most people might not have agreed with his views.

Eysenck survived the scuffle, and went for the “state of youth today” critique in his quote:

I think it is rather sad that those who are supposed to be the intellectual élite of this country behave in this fashion.

Also involved was one David Davis, who at the time was Chair of the Federation of Conservative Students, and was the author of a private members bill on universities and free speech that appeared shortly before the current government introduced its own:

This is another example of extreme left-wing intolerance and the suppression of freedom of speech in our universities.

Later in his career, various academics identified errors and suspected data manipulation in Eysenck’s work – replications failed to confirm the relationships that he purported to find, and an enquiry on behalf of King’s College London found the papers by Eysenck to be “incompatible with modern clinical science”.

It does raise all sorts of interesting questions about the way the media has always framed students, the nature of scientific “debate” and its relationship to political “ideas” and “freedom”, and what the “free speech” being advocated for in this case actually achieved, other than facilitating the spreading of what turned out to be baseless racism.

This is, to mangle Voltaire*, one of those moments where I’ll both disapprove of what he said, and I will defend to the death of those students’ right to oppose him doing so.

*Voltaire never said it. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of Stephen Tallentyre, was an English writer known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire, first published in 1903. In a later volume on Voltaire’s friends of Voltaire, Hall wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs.

4 responses to “There are some ideas we welcome, there are some we don’t allow

  1. Brilliant. What was missing was a red star in her cap. This article brings back memories of those demonstrations against Eysenck when I was a student at Monash University, Melbourne, in 1973 or 1974. His views were repellent and it was good to see that the “science” was disproved in the lack of replication. I felt vindicated in taking a stand against Eysenck. That said, my contrarian ways (and thinking) often has put me at loggerheads with those from either side of the political spectrum over the decades. The difference today is that some ‘deplatforming’ such as around gender issues seek to deny academic staff with contrarian views their appointment, not just contest their views or analytic position on something. That crosses a line, for me. Campus life should be robust and diversified.

    1. So if we say it’s OK to contest ideas, but not challenge appointments – what would the position be for a Black student, relying on a professor who believes in innate white superiority of intelligence to mark their final year dissertation? Or for a Black post-doc, who’ll need a good reference from their supervisor to move on in their career? Does the response to them boil down to ‘Well, you’ll just have to work twice as hard to prove them wrong’?

      I wasn’t around in the seventies. But it seems to me quite likely that there were students at the time who probably did have justifiable concerns with the appointment of academic staff spreading ‘baseless racism’, as Jim puts it, to a position of power over them. I suspect what’s changed is whether they feel able to say so.

  2. I don’t think it’s accurate to describe That’s Life as an early iteration of the One Show – for one thing, it was only on once a week, (Sunday night). It was, in retrospect, a bizarre programme, combining genuine campaigns for social justice and consumer rights with misprints from local newspapers, and, by the 1980s, exhortations for viewers to send in vegetables which resembled human genitalia. So you’d get a screeching handbrake turn as one segment about a hospital mishandling a child’s care would segue into a clipping of a newspaper that had printed the word ‘Fallas’ in the TV listings, as opposed to the oil baron serial drama ‘Dallas’.

  3. Ironically, the authority granted by universities via EDI to groups like Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence – both politically opposed to current medical and public opinion – is leading to the cancelation of people who are wholly in tune with medical opinion (in the form of the Cass Report) as well as common sense. The ‘debate’ is warranted, other than in the minds of a minority of ideologues.

    The author supports the right of students in the 1970s to oppose (in this case assault) Eysenck to stop him speaking. He draws a parallel between Eysenck and contemporary cancel culture (note the latter is largely aimed at gender critical feminists). Is he suggesting those on the receiving end of today’s cancel culture warrant assault? It’s not a wild inference, and some have faced threats of violence. I think its disgraceful.

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