This year we have seen various feminists and LGBT-Rights defenders indicted as ‘intolerable’, ‘encroachers of LGBT-rights’ and, most worryingly, unfit for a speaker platform within university campuses. Whether it is the feminist and anti-Islamist Maryam Namazie being charged with ‘incitement of hatred’ and initially no-platformed at The University of Warwick, or the feminist Julie Bindel being labelled ‘transphobic’ and consequently prevented from speaking at The University of Manchester – these last few years have been deeply frightening for those who care about pluralism and debate within universities.
We have witnessed an increasing encroachment of free-speech by various Student Unions recently, and much of the encroachment has been masterminded by the National Union of Students (NUS). Why has this happened? How did the NUS evolve from a body that contravened university platforms when fascists and racists wanted to be heard – to a body that deemed any speaker who “might cause offence to a persecuted minority” worthy of interdiction?
The NUS caused an uproar recently when its LGBT officer, Fran Cowling, decided to indict the much-revered LGBT-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as ‘racist’ and ‘transphobic’ – and no-platformed herself from an event that she was scheduled (alongside Tatchell) to appear on. This was obviously a serious charge – something that many students, campaigners and academics around the country were awaiting evidence for. However, no evidence was proffered, and the NUS stood resiliently in Cowling’s corner without any degree of indignity.
As a result of the excessive no-platforming by various Student Unions – principles encouragingly wielded by the NUS – students, campaigners and academics amassed on the 17th of March outside of the NUS Headquarters in protest against what they perceived to be a flouting of free-speech and a defilement of pluralism. However, many in the NUS were confused. What were those in the protest calling for? Completely scrapping safe-space policy? Allowing any speaker to come into a campus uncontested and put across any message that they desire? Protesters had varying views: some wanted to scrap safe-space policy altogether and allow truth to triumph; some believed there is a legitimate space for safe-safe policy but believed that censorship (unless a speaker is in breach of the law) shouldn’t be the go-to procedure when safe-space policies are violated.
There was one message that all protesters alike shared: the NUS has interdicted free speech for too long, and has undermined legitimate debate within universities – leaving untold damage to the rich pluralism and debate that once characterised universities. However, is it not the case that universities should be ‘safe places’ where people are immune from offence? Should it not be the case that bigotry – especially bigotry that larrups the inalienable human-traits of people, especially minorities – should be censored?
I think that there is an important component that universities should never compromise: debate. Bigotry of all sorts will likely be encountered wherever we might find ourselves, and whatever age we may be. Bigotry can penetrate our local communities, our work environments, our friendships, and even our families. Is it not therefore imperative that young people at university be equipped with the invaluable tools to effectively invalidate and neutralise bigotry such as racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism? How can young people challenge noxious narratives – wherever that is in university or in the wider world – if they have been taught that narratives can only be defeated through muzzling them?
Various distinguished campaigners around the country came together during the protest and many addressed the audience with eloquent and very forceful voices – including Tatchell and Namazie; as well as others, including the Bangladeshi women’s rights campaigner, Rumana Hashem, and Gita Sahgal – director of the Centre for Secular Space. The legions of protesters were standing shoulder to shoulder with the campaigners; allied hand-in-hand, and chanting resiliently for reform within the NUS, whilst brandishing various placards and posters.
I have attended various protests during my years as an adult, and this one had a fervour that I had not witnessed before. There was a legitimate ire towards what all attendees deemed an injustice, and there was a consternation that left us all affright: a sacrosanct principle was being defiled by the NUS. What is this principle? Tatchell rousingly articulated it when he said: “as long as a speaker isn’t inciting hatred or calling for violence, a speaker should have the freedom of expression within university campuses!”
How can we be in a position today when we see the NUS failing to remonstrate – and even at times condoning – the platforming of speakers like Zakir Naik who has called for death of apostates, or for refusing to no-platform CAGE – an organisation whose director called the disgusting Islamist and decapitator Jihadi John a “beautiful young man”? I think that there is obviously a regressive political position that is infecting the NUS: toxic narratives proffered by those in a minority group warrant less criticism and reprobation, Moreover, any criticism by those who are (perceived as) privileged towards any strand within a minority group should be gagged!
People like Tatchell, Bindel and Namazie are deemed “the establishment” and therefore when they criticise such things as ‘Islamism’, ‘sexism’ or ‘homophobia’, their arguments are deemed suspect and even precarious. The message is clear: their identity carries most weight: what they say is deemed negligible and even trivial. How dare such the white and privileged Tatchell cry foul at certain strands within the Islamic community!
Haydar Zaki – student and co-founder of the #Right2Debate claimed that the NUS should be debating ideas, not identities. He is right! The NUS’ position has a whiff of ad-hominem to it, and it is a position that is becoming increasingly dominant within many Student Unions around the country – leaving many students victimised: the targets of narrative-sanitisation.
What can be done? I think that it is imperative that students and activists collectively ambush censorship. Censorship creates, sooner or later, the kind of environment that is incapable of expending real discretion. Why? Because censorship, such as excessive no-platforming, has the dire consequence of creating a very large faction of people who are unequipped with the tools of extolling the difference between, on the one hand, independence of thought and, on the other hand, subservience.
As students, we have the right to debate! We have the right to hear bigotry within a contested university platform, and, most pressingly, we have the right to hear the arguments why toxic narratives are perverse, and how such toxic narratives can be dismembered through argumentation. Students must tussle with their Student Unions overt narrative-trammelling, and they must pressure the NUS to overturn its sickly identity politics and heave its muzzling policies in order to fend-off the desecration of our freedom of thought. I say this because when a university environment deems a set of ideas immune from criticism (and even mockery or contempt) our freedom of thought becomes revoked, and we become enfeebled and vulnerable when we leave university and enter into the wider world and meet bigotry in all its unabridged forms.