Now the NUS is making our whole generation look bad

Peter Tatchell. PETER TATCHELL.

nus peter tatchell

Alongside its thankless work campaigning for access to higher education and campus mental health services, the National Union of Students periodically embarrasses students across the country by doing stuff like declaring anti-Isis conference motions in support of the Kurdish people Islamophobic. Because the NUS’s senior officers are elected officials, and because in our parents’ day that meant something, those kinds of humiliations are suffered – to some extent, at least – on behalf of all students. I found it periodically annoying when I was a student, but on balance I didn’t really care. If the adults thought the kids were censors and conspiracy theorists, it wasn’t the most annoying misapprehension they were labouring under.

Today the NUS’s remit for embarrassment by association has apparently been extended to our whole generation. I woke up to tweets from newspaper columnists who aren’t even that old saying they didn’t get young people anymore. Like this from the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman.

At issue the news that Fran Cowling, the NUS’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rep has accused Peter Tatchell – seemingly without any evidence – of being racist and “transphobic”. Tatchell is a global giant in the fight against bigotry. Or as Freeman put it: “Peter Tatchell. PETER TATCHELL.”

Contrary to what some people are saying, Tatchell hasn’t been no-platformed. Tatchell is not a member of an organisation proscribed by the union, the event is not an NUS function and it is going ahead tomorrow night. If Cowling doesn’t want to spend her Monday night in Canterbury hanging out with a bunch of gay activists she disagrees with, that really is up to her. The allegations she makes against Tatchell are shameful and highly defamatory, but as far as I can see they were made in private emails to the organisers of the event, which Tatchell chose to publicise via the Observer.

But it would be cool if everyone could stop treating the authoritarian streak of a small minority of activists as a generational bellwether. It goes without saying that most people of Cowling’s generation don’t know who she is, and don’t know anyone who is invested in her ludicrous animosities against the likes of Tatchell. Her wish to close down people who co-signed open letters she didn’t approve of is unrelated to her youngness. It’s an instinct that has a relatively distinguished history, as Joan of Arc and Thomas More and Salman Rushdie will attest.

It’s true that middle aged people don’t get young people at the moment – they don’t get the nihilism and the ironic consumerism and the intense identification with tiny viral causes rather ideologies or movements. But I think today’s news offers an unusual chance for generational agreement: calling Peter Tatchell racist and bigoted is fucking nuts.