Universities and the Threat of Censorship

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During the last few years, we have witnessed a very worrying period for free-speech within universities. In 2015 alone we witnessed 30 universities banning newspapers, 25 banning songs, 10 banning clubs or societies, and 19 worryingly banning speakers from events. Not only that, we have witnessed various feminists, human-rights advocates and LGBT-Rights defenders indicted as encroachers of acceptable propriety and consequently indicted as ‘unfit for a speaker platform’.

In the same year, the feminist and anti-Islamist Maryam Namazie was inadmissibly indicted as a “highly inflammatory” figure who could “incite hatred”, and was initially prevented from talking at The University of Warwick. Also in 2015, another feminist, Julie Bindel, was labelled ‘transphobic’ and attempts were made to thwart her planned speech at The University of Manchester because it was deemed that she might also “incite hatred”. Furthermore, attempts were made to foil the planned university speaker-event of comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmiths, University of London, as well as Dapper Laughs at Cardiff University for similar refractory reasons. The factious journalist, Milo Yiannopoulos, was also initially ‘no-platformed’ and prevented from appearing at the University of Manchester in October 2015 over concerns that he, likewise, might “incite hatred”.

The venerable Chief-Executive of HOPE not HATE, Nick Lowles, was also ‘no-platformed’ and prevented from speaking at a National Union of Students (NUS) anti-racism conference in February of this year by the ‘NUS Black Students ‘on the grounds that he was seen as ‘islamophobic’ and could rile certain frail university students. Not only that, the eccentric MP and former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has also been indicted as unfit for a speaker platform at King’s College London after he made “inappropriate” remarks about President Obama’s ancestry.

Where did all of this encroachment on university free-speech originate? As many a student with even a tentative grasp of NUS-philosophy will attest, much of the encroachment has emerged out of a sanitising utopia that is politically-orientated NUS policy – encroachment which is uninvitingly embodied in its current no-platforming policy. How did this happen? The NUS was once a profoundly respected body that prized free-speech and truly represented all students around the UK – inclusive of political disparity.

Once upon a time, the NUS would only infract on the independence of a university platform when individuals such as fascists and racists wanted to perorate their sickly ideas. Now, however, we have a union gravely steeped in political proclivity, a union that thumps for inoffensiveness and one that regards any speaker who might aggrieve a persecuted minority ‘worthy of censorship’.

It’s not just the no-platforming of speakers, we have seen people within the NUS short-sightedly no-platform themselves. The honcho of the NUS LGBT+ section caused an uproar when she did just that during an event that she was scheduled to appear on alongside the much-respected LGBT-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Much to the surprise of many LGBT+ people across the UK, her decision was motivated by the fact that she wanted to remonstrate against and to further arraign Peter Tatchell for holding apparent ‘racist’ and ‘transphobe’ views.

Such issues of no-platforming have obviously been a motivator – alongside the appointment of Malia Bouattia as the new NUS president, a person that many deem cavil on account of past remarks that many argue are anti-Semitic – for many NUS-disaffiliation campaigns. Whilst Exeter, Cambridge, Surrey, Oxford, and Warwick have all voted to remain, Lincoln, Loughborough, Hull, and Newcastle have all voted in favour to disaffiliate. And it wouldn’t surprise me if more follow.

We’ve seen a plethora of articles rightly griping about the NUS as of late by various academics, campaigners, luminaries, and students – all of whom seem to be united in their consternation that the NUS and various university student-unions have restricted free-speech to excess. They rightly adjure their readers to challenge both the NUS and various student-unions because they both now undermine the very legitimacy of debate within universities – leaving untold damage to the rich pluralism and debate that once characterised universities. Many deem such untold damage, such a low ebb, to be a mere reflection of the mollycoddling preferences of the uproarious, regressive, and deeply-forcible newfangled university generation.

What, though, is this newfangled university generation? This newfangled generation is characterised by its marked yearning for utopian-like inoffensive environments, its unashamed appeal to pity or guilt to effectuate its political campaigns, its identity politics, its clamorous protestations it calls ‘liberation’, its writhing victimisation, its brash ‘holier-than-thou’ attitudes, its candid cultural relativity, and its unimpeachable ill-will towards those who have the “audacity” to criticise any unscrupulous areas within minority groups they deem ‘persecuted’.

However, what about its unapologetic safe-space advocacy? Is it not the case that universities should be ‘safe places’ where people are protected from offensive narratives? Moreover, is it not right that universities be increasingly encouraged to symbolise places where students – particularly LGBT students and other minority groups – can feel protected from maltreatment, harassed, etc.?

Many people – both within and outside of academia – have quite a different opinion of what universities should represent. Many claim – and quite commendably – that universities should be places in which the rich tapestry of discussion and debate are ‘safe-spaced’ i.e. protected – as opposed to being safe-spaces in which inoffensive narratives are supressed.

Universities should, of course, be safe-spaces that protect students from certain types of behaviour. No university should put up with particular forms of behaviour such as students or speakers inhibiting the participation of LGBT-students within university life, or subjecting them to violence (or threats of violence).  This would clearly be in breach of the law, and utterly reprehensible.

Here it’s important to introduce a key distinction: freedom-of-behaviour vs freedom-of-expression. Let us consider an example to highlight this. There are many students and speakers, for example, with rather regressive religious-leanings who make the claim that women should be prevented from showing their hair publicly and prevented from occupying certain positions in society – the head of a church, for example. Now, whilst I find such a view utterly distasteful, I find myself unwilling to proscribe such drivel-like open expressions of such opinions. However, and here is the important point: if they were to then physically ring-fence such positions from women (or verbally threaten women with violence if they were to occupy or even pursue such positions) then I think contravening would certainly be justified.

What, then, about an external university speaker given a platform in which he or she spews the claim that LGBT people should be prevented from participating in the military? Or a speaker claiming that such a group should be stoned to death because they have spurned godly-endowed propriety? Should they be allowed to speak their minds? Am I really arguing that as long as such a speaker is not actually preventing the LGBT community from participating in the military, or actually stoning LGBT members, then such a speaker should be allowed to churn-out such cruel and hurtful narratives?

Most exponents of that shibboleth ‘safe space’ would likely deem any approval to be, at best, outre, and at worst, uncouth – a mere stridency commandeered by the privileged in society that does not merely ignore the rights it ‘obviously’ trammels but, most pressingly, it has the potential of yielding university environments that is known to be coldly indifferent and even a pillar that substantiates the injustices that besmirch minorities.

I think that an important distinction should be carried when talking about this upbraided term ‘platform’ – namely, contested vs uncontested speaker platforms. I am of the opinion that speakers should have the right to an uncontested platform – that is to say, a platform bereft of an opposing speaker – if the speaker has not been found to be in breach of what I call ‘inalienable-traits’. What do I mean here? To put it bluntly, not encroaching upon those fundamental traits that are an inalienable part of a person’s identity at a given time. That includes, at the very minimum, gender, sexuality, race, age and nationality.

If, however, a speaker is found to be encroaching upon such fundamental traits of a person – an example would be denying such characteristics, ridiculing them, etc., – but is not in breach of the law, then it is my view that a university must only allow that speaker to talk on a university campus on the condition that they are challenged by an opposing speaker (agreed by individuals and/or a society within a university who identity with that trait a speaker is deemed encroaching upon). No-platforming here is positively inexcusable. The stultification of such liberty that this stifling would bring-about should be utterly condemned by all students and university staff alike. Such a speaker should instead be debated and their views exposed to scrutiny.

Why, though, should open debate be prioritised? I have two arguments for this. I will expound the first. Now, it’s important for us to remember that noxious narratives – those that infringe upon the rich humanist-based principles of equality, compassion, and, let’s face it, human decency – come in various forms, and they will likely be encountered wherever students might find themselves, and whatever age they may be. Noxious narratives can penetrate our local communities, our work environments, our friendships, and even our families. Surely there’s an imperative that young people at university be equipped with the invaluable tools to effectively invalidate and neutralise such things as racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism? There is therefore a key utilitarian point to be made: how can students challenge those noxious narratives in society in the furtherance of equality and overall societal well-being if they have come to learn that noxious narratives can only be defeated through avoiding them? Put another way, how can students – particularly those who are passionate about promoting or directing social, political economic, or environmental change – with the desire to make improvements in society and to correct social injustice create a better society if they are not fully aware of those things which are antithetical to it?

The second argument relates to an important epistemic issue: how can students know if offensive narratives are actually morally circumspect if they are not exposed to them? After all, let us not forget that once upon a time Darwin’s account of evolution was deemed to be “immoral” and “deeply offensive” by swathes of people (and many still deem it to be). Galileo’s heliocentrism was also deemed to be immoral and deeply offensive – and many efforts were made to muzzle such views. Given the advances in today’s science – and the benefits from this that have trickled into our society that the views of Galileo’s and Darwin’s have considerably effected – we heartily look back to that time in the knowledge that such a view was indeed made manifest despite the significant offense caused. Whilst I deem many a narrative assuredly and distastefully in error – racist ones being examples – who can unerringly claim with a degree of confidence that all those narratives that our society (or others) considers offensive, whether by the majority or minority, are unquestionably so?

Now, with these two arguments kept in mind, I – deeming myself to be somewhat of a defender if not ‘vying for defender’ of both classical liberalism and human-rights – fear that the kind of university environments hankered for by both the NUS and large swathes of university student-unions alike is hindering students from effectively tackling noxious narratives in society whilst, simultaneously, depriving them of such a key epistemic point. However, there is a third argument to be made which is closely linked to the previous two I expounded. The kind of university environments hankered for by both the NUS and large swathes of student-unions will create, sooner or later, the kind of university environments that prevent students from expending real discretion. I say this because the kind of excessive censorship that we have seen being coveted by both NUS and student-unions alike will have the dire consequence of creating a very large sect of people in university who are unequipped with the tools of extolling the difference between, on the one hand, independence of thought and, on the other hand, meekness. Students need to exposed to as much richly-plural a medium of views as possible in order that they can extol such a key difference. This is such an invaluable component within the development of our young people’s critical reasoning skills. And it’s critical reasoning which is indispensable in the overall fight against noxious narratives – whether in university, our local communities or in society as a whole.

It’s essential that students convene in solidarity and press the NUS and university student unions to recalibrate their footing and champion such an extolling, such a key difference. We cannot and should not tolerate their trajectory that currently sees them staunchly remaining inimical to it. Students need to be armed with those salient and deeply important tools to challenge, through debate, those noxious narratives within our larger society. Students need to be exposed to narratives that some, even many, deem “offensive” for this to happen, and universities need to be places that unerringly epitomise the fearsome pursuit of knowledge and, with it, epistemic-justification.

However, as long as mollycoddling and inoffensive environments continue to be the uncouth utopia of the new-fangled generation – and university student unions and the NUS continue to epitomise this – we will irrevocably see further free-speech violations within further education. The consequence of this will inevitably be students personifying a spindly type of principled-activism – one mired in flimsiness and susceptibility that shakily endeavours to achieve the kind of decent society that most of us rightly deem upstanding.

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Benjamin David founded Conatus News in 2016. He currently works as an editor for Parliamentary Review.

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