A recent headline warned ‘it’s time for Boris to tackle the tyrannical silencing of free speech on our campuses’. Having not realised I was studying in an institution which the article went on to tell me was comparable to the Soviet Union (thank you Telegraph journalism), I was moved to look further. In Michaelmas alone, Oxford experienced a flurry of incidents that attracted national attention in the form of articles, tweets and sound bites warning of the dangers of ‘snowflake culture’.
In January, Merton College made an ‘overt statement that debate is not welcomed’, at least according to one Oxford historian. In closer examination, this looked like a code of conduct for a conference at which speakers must ‘“refrain from using language or putting forward views intended to undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities”. Given that this was a talk to explore ‘perspectives on trans intersectionality’, it seems like a moderate request that the existence of the identity of members of the panel and audience was not up for debate. What would have been added to the discussion by forcing a trans activist to spend half their time defending their existence? More recently, Amber Rudd was disinvited by the UN Women for her role in the Windrush Scandal. Oxford University voiced their disapproval, saying ‘we encourage students to debate and engage with a range of views’. This is again misleading. Students did not protest the content of her speech, but rather the platforming of a deeply controversial character in an uncritical and didactic manner. Sara Sadoxi, a committee member of Oxford Feminist Society, drew the distinction best; “All the promotional material spoke about Rudd’s role in encouraging women to get involved in parliament and the UN,” Sadozai said. “Under that context, it didn’t sound like it could ever be an open debate where views are challenged.”
I chose these examples, not to make the case for or against the decisions, but to reflect the dissonance between the dialogue as it occurred on campus and the headline that made it to the eyes of the nation. At the heart of the reporting and responses to both examples is a disagreement around the space which public figures are entitled to, and with this, a misuse of the term ‘no-platforming’. There is an irony that in these disputes ‘freedom of speech’, established in the UK by the Magna Carta for ordinary people to hold monarchs to account, is used often to advocate for figures like Rudd, who generally go quite well represented and are already in positions of economic, political and social power. The very outrage that is provoked when such figures are disinvited shows the entitlement that these interest groups still feel over academic platforms, and the other-isation of groups who shouldn’t have to feel unwelcome in these spaces. This is not an attack of freedom of speech. The issue was not that Amber Rudd speaks – no one can escape her views – but that she was given the spotlight by an international women’s organisation for an uncritical celebration of her past. For such a context, are we really supposed to believe there was not a more valuable and inclusive voice that could have been heard? More importantly, the refusal of any empathy as to how this event might impact students of colour shows that the respect Rudd felt entitled to did not seem to go both ways.
‘Politically-correct’ is a popular buzzword, although it seems an odd turn of phrase when we consider how our PM’s list of ‘un-PC’ comments have not held him back in his quest for political office. An infuriating aspect to this issue is that the narrative being spun that ‘student thought is limited by PC culture’ is as least as prevalent as any student consensus around the importance of being politically correct. Those who are the first to label this culture over-sensitive are also often those who can’t stomach the notion of trigger warnings. This seems an odd combination of opinions, I find it difficult to believe that two innocuous letters put beside an article impact anyone apart from those they can be a great aid to. Those who complain that students are over-invested in identity politics have no such qualms around undermining us collectively as ‘privileged juveniles’. It was not only passionate fans of ‘The Female Eunuch’ who use the ‘no-platforming’ of Greer as an example of the illiberalism of the left. It’s important to ask – if there is agenda in this narrative, assuming it is not for the uninhibited discussion of second wave feminist theory – what is it?
One impact of the undermining of student culture is the implicit undermining of the causes that generally thrive within it. ‘Social justice warrior’, like ‘millennial’ or ‘snowflake’ has become an accusation which trivialises and thus delegitimizes the argument a young person wishes to make before they have opened their mouth. Remove the negative perception, and those on the right would have to make a greater effort to engage with the arguments themselves. But it is all very well to complain that social justice interests are misconstrued. The larger danger here is the weaponization of outrage – that the unlikable, ivory-tower student image is having a guilt by association impact on other issues. In the run up to last year’s election, The Times reported that the Conservative Party was said to have polled LGBT issues to see if legislating against this group could be used to win votes in Northern, working-class constituencies. Such speculation should be incredibly alarming and points to a culture war that attempts to divide traditional left-supporting groups. There is a truth in that principles alone don’t cause change, that activists must be actively conscious of how they are received by the wider public.
The first step to reclaiming agency around media narrative, which I hope I have given fair reasons to be concerned about, is to meet in the middle with mainstream concerns around free speech and dialogue. Bridge building is quickest as a two-way process, and one that we must engage in if we don’t want to end up stranded and ineffectual. When attempts to engage with this question are treated with the dichotomising response that I outlined at the beginning of this article this is disappointing and frustrating, but makes it even more crucial that our push back comes from the centre rather than being forced to a similarly illiberal extreme. We shouldn’t be led by the nose into conceding the untrue claim that to defend a diverse 21st century student body we have to destroy founding academic liberties and principles, but fight for the middle ground which preserves a vibrant educational climate whilst respecting everyone’s dignity.
Moreover, if we understand that trigger warnings, selective platforming and re-appraisal of core literature all have a place in at university, then we must also understand that, if we don’t want to live up to the caricature painted of us, this is a delicate and nuanced process of give and take. My experiences as a white, British woman don’t give me the education to reckon where this line should be drawn on a university level compared to students who face more aggressive, harmful and insidious bigotry. In my own degree, reading Classics prompts a difficult negotiation between reading as a wannabe academic and as a 21st century woman. However, I am also aware that when I read a rape scene in Ovid, whilst I find it repulsive and upsetting in one light, I can use it to aid my understanding of the gender dynamic of the era. Less palatable and equally true, is that I know that is not the main justification for why I read it – that there is a literary quality that is not mitigated by the misogyny it is partially shaped by with.
The University’s free speech charter and even the recent SU motion are both overly vague in setting out a criteria for the trade-off between the inherent literary or academic value of a text and the dangerous or upsetting content that it may also contain – the process is thus ongoing as we decide where the boundary between these concepts must fall. Part of the danger of the binarising process that we can see playing out in mainstream media is that it makes it harder to address these types of questions without being aligned to the camp of ‘overly-PC’ or ‘oppressive’. For example, after he signed a letter in support of Germaine Greer’s lecture at Cardiff University in 2015, Peter Tatchell was ‘no-platformed’ for his stance on ‘no-platforming’. I have to question if Fran Cowling, the LGBT representative from the National Union of Students, thought that she was making the best use of her limited airtime by refusing to share a stage with a man who was arrested 300 times in the fight for LGBT+ rights. Some can make the argument that Tatchell committed a trans-unfriendly act in signing the letter but there is no case that he is a transphobe. It is horribly wrong that a man who, attending Pride in Moscow, was beaten to the point of brain injury by neo-nazis could be the subject of a tweet; ‘I would like to tweet your murder you fucking parasite.’ Attacking established leftists for differing not in visions of what the world should look like but of the best mechanisms to achieve this leads to the accusations of arrogance that end up alienating this generation of activists from the last.
After her invite was rescinded, 56-year-old Rudd urged students to “stop hiding and begin engaging”; an example of perhaps the most pervasive misrepresentation that students are subject to. Students do not hide, and the claim that they do is ironically used to avoid engaging with them. This was the route taken by Rudd, who at no point took her disinvitation as a suggestion to apologise for or even acknowledge the harm and alienation that her political career had caused the young women who her talk was supposedly to represent. The snowflake image does a huge disservice to the efforts and achievements of young activists around the world. The media need to stop getting away with claiming otherwise.