Co-chair Madeleine Stone offers a great personal account of the recent Spiked magazine conference on the state of campus freedom of expression.
Online magazine Spiked has been hitting headlines recently for the latest edition of its Free Speech University Rankings; a survey of instances of campus censorship that ranks the universities as red, amber or green according to the frequency of incidents. Although it initially seems straightforward, the ranking becomes problematic when we see that universities have been penalised for having zero-tolerance harassment policies, or for having reprimanded societies for racist or sexist publications. The University of York was demoted from green to amber on the basis of such examples. Although I’ve always felt that them to be a blunt tool, the rankings certainly reveal the growing use of censorship and bans on campuses across the UK as means to prevent offensive views being broadcast. As both someone involved in English PEN and the Index of Censorship’s work, but also just as a current student, I felt obligated to attend Spiked’s conference. I made the long journey to London’s Conway Hall on 17th February before I realised it was being live streamed across the globe, even to our little corner of Northern England. I was glad to have been in physical attendance though, as the atmosphere of bitter baby-boomers (and the free lunch) would have been hard to gauge over an internet connection.
The first panel of the day was ‘Safe Spaces: Education or Therapy?’ with Siobhan Fenton, Naomi Firsht, Ella Whelan and Abi Wilkinson. Ella Whelan was particularly brilliant; her passionate argument that safe spaces assert that some groups are weaker than others, that they can’t defend themselves and that they need protecting. Naomi Firhst criticised safe space policy as a “patronising policy that makes the assumption that students are unable to handle ideas, language and people they disagree with”. Siobhan Fenton retorted that safe spaces are about basic etiquette that allows for more speech for minority groups. It would have perhaps been helpful if a distinction had been made between university wide, ‘aura’-style safe spaces which actively dampen free speech and specific, location and time based safe spaces to allow time off for those tired of constantly having to defend their identities. Abi Wilkinson’s bizarre argument that no-platforming actually encourages free speech not only made little sense, but wasn’t actually that relevant to the discussion on safe spaces. Audience contributions were excellent, notably a student who pointed out that we can’t be ready to debate at the drop of a hat and one audience member who self-identified as a trans lesbian who declared “thank God we didn’t have safe spaces when I was at university- so we did something other than stew in our own victimhood,” reminding us that the fight for acceptance cannot be won from inside a safe space.
Next was the ‘BDS, Bigotry and Academic Freedom’ debate. Despite not actually knowing what BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, for those as poorly clued-up as me) stood for, I was excited to hear from an actual student, Barnaby Raine, an NUS representative from the University of Oxford. It started promisingly with three concise and well-researched speakers, but it quickly descended into chaos due to its sole focus on academic censorship of Israeli universities, rather than maintaining a more global view. The focus on Israel made sense, but we were dragged into a messy and at times unpleasant (an anti-Semitic slur was shouted from the audience at Barnaby Raine) debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Despite the hostile audience, angry questioners (I thought one woman would have to be tackled before she would give up the microphone) and heckling, SOAS professor Sai Englert and Barnaby Raine gave a well-reasoned argument. Raine claimed that supporting real academic freedom meant supporting Palestinians whose right to education had been severely restricted and Englert’s detailed study into how Israeli universities assist in human rights abuses was highly convincing. Joanna Williams, Spiked’s Academic Editor, pointed out that many other countries have records of human rights abuses yet don’t face academic sanctions, and that penalising academics for their government’s choices was highly unfair. Annoyingly, however, she did keep repeating the phrase “BDS stands for bigoted, dishonest and stupid”: not the most devastating critique.
The last debate of the day was ‘No Platform: Is Hate Speech Free Speech?’, the discussion I was most looking forward to, considering how frequent it is becoming on UK campuses. I was, however, disappointed. While Maryam Namazie provided a measured and passionate defence of why freedom of speech is so necessary in combatting extremism (Namazie herself has been at the centre of a no-platforming storm as an outspoken critic of Islam) both Douglas Murray and Brendan O’Neil, faced with no opposition on the panel, became more and more smug. Their arguments reminded me of an article by author Harry Mount in The Telegraph that claimed the root of increasing campus censorship was the fault of “pampered little emperors” who had never been told no. The belief that students are “poofs” (as O’Neil so charmingly put it), “soft-hearted” and “wimps” went down well in the audience consisting mainly of baby boomers. Murray spoke of St George Syndrome; after slaying the dragon, St George has so little to do that he has to wander the country looking for smaller, hardly-worth-slaying dragons. He is obviously implying that his generation has done all the nasty work of slaying the big dragons (racism, sexism, homophobia and so on), and that we students are fighting the baby dragons that are the gender pay gap, an “institutionally racist” police force, a rise in homophobic violence and casual and constant transphobia. As my co-Chair (who was listening along in York) reminded me- it’s a generational thing- but it seems profoundly ignorant to think students only care so much because they have nothing better to do. Students care because there is still systematic inequality across all level of society. And while I think no-platforming is a repressive and ineffective way of challenging outdated viewpoints, this panel was a very good example of exactly how not to argue against it.
Perhaps what was most surprising for me about the New Intolerance conference was how much it challenged beliefs I’ve always held dear. I realised that most people who share my opinion that expression should be free no matter what hold very different political convictions to me. Many people on the panels came at the free speech debate from an aggressively libertarian standpoint and were spouting rhetoric I found highly distasteful. I’m sure they’d argue it’s because I’m a coddled, soft-hearted student, but I don’t think it’s necessary to resort to casual homophobic and transphobic language just to prove that ‘you can’t talk like that anymore’. I don’t think that hate speech laws are a travesty against democracy. I don’t think political correctness is the worst thing in the world. You can believe in academic freedom and debate while still seeing a need to defeat offensive and outdated views, in fact academic freedom and debate are the only things that will topple them. I left the event dismayed, annoyed, uplifted, encouraged and insulted. And that was probably what Spiked wanted.