After countless illiberal bans, campus censorship is spiralling out of control
Unis shouldn’t be a ‘safe space’, but a free space where argument and debate thrives
You may remember the ‘Nietzsche Club’ at UCL. The Union claimed it was a fascist group, banned it and heroically decreed “fascism has no place at UCL”.
It’s just one example of the hypocrisy and intolerance shown by a supposedly “liberal” group of students committed to challenging ideas they dislike by silencing the opposition rather than engaging rational argument and debate.
In an academic environment meant to promote the circulation of ideas, those holding alternative views are being frequently shamed into submission.
Many student leaders are obsessed with identity politics, and view virtually any issue through the lens of gender, race or sexuality. The problem with this ideology is that it views people not as individuals, but as part of a group based on such identities. It assumes that “marginalised groups” such as women or ethnic minorities need special protection or treatment to become equal to the “oppressors” (read: men or white people).
This leads to the patronising idea that the “marginalised groups” have to be protected from hurtful words at all costs – even if that means censorship of speeches, debates and ideas on campus.
The trend for student unions to police speech is partly due to this type of aggressive reaction to anything non-PC. By inviting the wrong kind of person to speak, universities can see a huge backlash from some very vocal and loud students, with protests, vandalism and sensational propaganda all used to pressure the union or university management to “no-platform” the speaker.
There are too many examples of this worrying trend. This summer, sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning biologist and professor at UCL, made the mistake of telling a joke about women in science at a conference in South Korea. After the quote was shed of its context and circulated on the Internet, a virtual lynch mob of bloodthirsty feminists demand punishment. The public pressure was so great that soon after Hunt was forced to resign from his position at UCL and from the Royal Society.
Our Union is also quick to dismiss innocent groups of people as “oppressors”, exemplified when they made the decision last year to back Bahar Mustafa’s call for “non-white, non-male” events that pejoratively designated white people as “oppressors”.
But UCLU are not alone in their hypocrisy.
In November 2014, the SU at Christ Church College, Oxford decided to cancel a debate on abortion due to extreme pressure from some students. According to the protestors, the gender of the debaters disqualified them from having an opinion on the subject entirely, with one student claiming: “My uterus isn’t up for their discussion”. The feminists who shut down the debate did it by playing up to their perceived victimhood.
In Manchester, journalist Milo Yiannopoulos and feminist writer Julie Bindel were banned from a debate on feminism and, ironically, freedom of speech. The Union labelled Yiannopoulos a ‘”rape apologist”, while Bindel apparently held “transphobic” views. Instead of judging the arguments of the speakers on merit, another debate was shut down by student demagogues – all in the name of sensitivity.
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of this ultra-PC attitude took place in March, when the NUS Women’s Conference banned clapping because it “triggers anxiety”. Feminist “jazz hands” were considered the appropriate way to show appreciation in a way that wouldn’t upset those poor, extremely fragile students.
The current obsession with political correctness at university has replaced genuine sensitivity towards others with a social media slacktivism. Edgy, “progressive” students self-righteously spout words such as “micro-aggressions”, “the patriarchy” and “male privilege” in an attempt to appear fashionable. Championing social justice has become less about protecting minorities and more being part of a cult of moral superiority.
When these concerns were raised to UCLU, they pointed us to their Freedom of Speech and Organisation on Campus policy, which says: “The right to free expression is a fundamental human right. Freedom of speech and organisation are essential for any struggle against oppression to be successful. For freedom of expression to be genuinely established on campus, it must extend to those whose views may be regarded as objectionable.”
“Student unions should generally champion free speech and organisation, and advocate their curtailment only in extreme circumstances, such as when speakers incite violence. Fascist organising and presence on campus must be opposed and stopped, not because it leads to offensive speech, but because it contributes to violent, organised attacks on students, especially oppressed groups.”
But UCLU gives itself the power to define what “fascist organising” actually means. The irony of fighting fascism by resorting to the famously fascist tactic of silencing opponents seems lost on repressive uni organisations.
Designating some ideas “off-limits” does not really protect anyone. It simply makes us increasingly sensitive and close-minded. Controversy is important to any discussion. By silencing the opposition not only do we deny the right for the speaker to speak, we deny our own right to mould original opinions from what they have to say.
University shouldn’t be a “safe space”, a padded crèche in which we are shielded from every danger. It should be a free space in which we can all speak our minds and listen to other points of view.
After all, we’re supposed to be enlightened adults, right?