Tasteless exercising of 'no-platforming' spaces from Britain's top universities has led to the praiseworthy intervention by our University's Minister Jo Johnson. Many have been coded 'red' for years as curtailing rather than promoting free speech.
In 2016, two-thirds of university students believed the National Union of Students (NUS) was right to have a ‘no-platform’ policy. This approach means putting people on banned lists for their views, preventing them from a platform to speak on student union premises. The official NUS list contains six groups, including the British National Party, English Defence League and Al-Muhajiroun; however, the respective unions are permitted to decide their own.
Johnson spoke today to declare: ‘American colleges and concerningly, British higher education faculties, have seen instances of minority groups actively seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.’
A new regulator – the Office for Students - will be granted powers from April 2018 to fine, suspend or deregister institutions they believe fail to protect free speech within the law.
Universities UK, the body representing our higher education, declared it will not stand for legitimate debate to be stifled, commenting ‘Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions.’
The University Of Manchester has had its fair share of notables banned from its Students' Union's grounds because of student protest: Milo Yiannopoulos, a Manchester alumni, labelled a provocative, fascist bigot; Nick Lowles, founder of 'Hope Not Hate', accused of Islamophobia and racism; Julie Bindel, feminist writer and journalist, banned for her controversial views on sex work and transgender rights.
Narrow views on ‘racism’ or ‘islamophobia’ allow the censor movements to push misrepresented portrayals of character. They commit ad hominem (targeting the person rather than the argument) fallacies, belittling the person without listening to all sides and critically reflecting on whether their belief system is neatly corroborated by the facts to hand. Coincidentally, such perspectives are sometimes largely incompatible with wider society.
Notably, the later backlash against the 60 Oxford academics that criticised Professor Nigel Biggar this week for an ethics paper that outlined the aspects of empire that Britain can be proud of. Differing approaches are to be expected in academia, not vilified. Why then, should valid evidence-led academic papers be subject to censorship or suppression by narrow interpretations that dictate the knowledge exposure the wider student demographic is exposed to?
It is worth noting, that to refuse platforms, subscribe ourselves to the illusion that their views do not exist. Whereas, they can rant and rave in the shadows, and potentially glean a greater media prominence and profile from how unjustly they have been discriminated against.
To this author’s mind, permitting public platforms to contentious speakers is noble. Thereafter, to boycott by non-attendance, or alternatively engage with them in intellectual debate to force justifications of their opinions seems more productive for society. This action would not only demonstrate why their perspectives are unhealthy and inaccurate, but allow us to rebuke attacks on our own beliefs, strengthening our positions with reasoned and rational debate.
Student activists from these past years have been deleteriously trapped within their own filter bubbles. Conflictingly, students attend university to be exposed to a range of outlooks. Many of which views will be incongruous with their own. Certain ones that challenge identities, world views, politics or cultural beliefs may even make them feel uncomfortable. This diversification should be applauded rather than persecuted. This is how we can mature into critical and open thinking young adults, both in personal growth and intellectual rigour. If we are not willing and prepared to stand tall and justify our stances against challenger outlooks, should we not have to consider how fragile and unfounded our opinions may be in the first place? If you won't have your views challenged, then you shouldn't be at university.
The trends started on the path to good intention and hearts in the right places. To rally against polluting corporations and demanding divestment, through to criticising inaction of the international community to condemn genocides, civil war or belligerent state transgressions. However, this has turned on its head. Instead, we have descended into the Spanish Inquisition – which no one ever expects!
We are now at the phase where sombreros worn by non-Mexicans or dreadlocks by non-Jamaicans are actions deemed cultural appropriation. It is PC culture gone haywire.
The stance of many of our student unions is to capitulate at the first hurdle and reject any speakers that incite protest or discontent. This channel exists outside of meaningful political discourse, instead as a tortured, symbolic enforcement of a minority agenda. Terms such as ‘fascist’ are elastic, varying with context, and evolving over time. What may be considered ‘fascist’ behaviour to one individual, may not by another’s perception. Only through discourse and debate can these disparities be resolved.
Protests already send strong messages that diminish the prominence of the speaker’s message. However, those who organised and invited the speaker and who want to hear them should be able to. To subsequently, and with limited insight, issue a ‘no platform’ ban without recourse or representation is a form of intimidation. Disrupting someone else’s public event, after the speaker has been invited, in an effort to ‘un-invite’ them, smacks of bullying. It perversely seeks to punish those people who they believe hold the ‘wrong views’.
Consider a second a scenario in which the tables were turned. A conservative university invites a liberal speaker. The British National Party and English Defence League threaten to turn up and make trouble if the speaker is not un-invited. The response would likely be quite different.
Those individuals, like Milo Yiannopoulos, are perhaps some of the least understood persons in society. This is largely because media representations and skewed perspectives riding on whims and snippet commentary are taken out of context. Milo openly promotes an agenda of ‘throwing a wrench in the system’ and ‘burning the establishment to the ground’. He bemoans the ‘language police’, giving the examples of his own caricatures that portray him as ‘racist, bigoted, homophobic or misogynistic’ ad nauseum; without first considering the context of his statements and analogies.
Here’s a neat trick for you: next time someone calls anyone you know in your circles or in the public eye sexist, racist or otherwise, ask them to prove it. They will either justify with examples that support their claim, and if not, then enjoy the show as you watch those very people stumble and fall over their own words. You may well find they are unused to challenges against the veracity of their claims.
It is worth noting the hypocrisy both sides are bound into. The right is caught in stoicism – reasoned argument and logic – and pitted against the humanism - compassion and consideration - of the left. This strand of argument emerges from the left that they love unconditionally and wear their heart on their sleeve, denigrating the right as insensitive and callous.
Annexation of the moral high ground by the left leaves the right to tread on the metaphorical eggshells. The riposte, albeit inappropriate, is to attack the left’s dogma by alternative facts (their worldview) and then descend into trolling (humiliation or superiority tactics). Both sides lack the pledged commitment to being honest proponents of free speech.
University campuses in western democracies are one of the few places one can hold a free, uncoerced and informed debate and where people can express their views without the threat of violence. By all means, have your own opinion, but be ready to argue and defend those views with reason and rational; otherwise the tide of progressives will come knocking at the door of regressive backlashes against comfort spaces. The moment at which we refuse to acknowledge other people have different viewpoints to us, leads us to question our ability to function in an academic environment. A revision to your role within the student voice is long overdue.
If free speech cannot survive within the bastions of university campuses, then where can it survive?
Richard Bolton is Editor-in-Chief of The Manchester Magazine. He is in his final year at The University of Manchester, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics.