‘Well I am just a student sir, and I only want to learn / but it’s hard to read through the rising smoke of the books that you like to burn’.
These lines from a mid-sixties protest song by Phil Ochs convey the same message as many of the era: cultural and political conservatives had, for years, tried and succeeded in policing what students could read, watch or listen to, but it was time to challenge old authorities.
More recently, there has been a trend which can be seen as an inversion of this model. Student campaigns, considered broadly left-wing, have been advocating, with some success, various forms of modern day censorship. The chances are you’ve heard of some of them – the removal of (often seemingly benign) texts from syllabuses, or the addition of misrepresentative ‘trigger warnings’, the cancellation of speakers, or the removal of items such as building names or statues from university campuses.
The general aim has been to create and protect ‘Safe Spaces’ for those often marginalised or discriminated against. No doubt well-intentioned, the trend is nonetheless disconcerting.
It’s an emotive topic, and it seems wise first of all to explain what this article is not. It is not an argument against the concept of Safe Spaces, the idea that universities should take into account the sensibilities of an increasingly diverse student population.
I will not be arguing that white, male, straight people are the real victims of discrimination nowadays. They aren’t. Neither is it an argument in favour of untrammelled free speech. There have always been laws and customs limiting free speech, and rightly so. I will, instead, argue in favour of open, honest, challenging academic debate. This cannot always, or perhaps shouldn’t always, be comfortable. To use a word well-worn by the advocates of Safe Space, censoring things that might offend is, in the least, problematic.
There is a precedent of left-wing censorship at universities, including for less-than-honourable ends, as any reader of Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical campus novel, The History Man, can attest. But in general, forces of the Right were the ones (usually not literally) burning the books. On the Left, the obvious antecedent is the longstanding NUS No Platform policy on racist parties like the BNP. As a student, I supported this, but now, I’m not so sure.
What were we afraid of – that impressionable students would be converted into fascists by one of Nick Griffin’s half-wits? No, we don’t want them goose-stepping all over campus beating up ethnic minorities, but letting them have their say is a different matter. Racism is easy to defeat in open debate, and we shouldn’t have been afraid to do so.
No Platform has now been extended, on different campuses, to all sorts of speakers from feminists to UKIPers. But whatever their views, is it justifiable? In a university of all places? It makes us look frightened, like we don’t trust people with certain arguments. Let’s treat people as rational adults who can make up their own minds. I don’t like Germaine Greer’s views on transsexual people (or her views on men for that matter) but I don’t see any inherent harm, as students at Cardiff evidently did, in letting her have her say.
The now well-known Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove colonialist Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College, Oxford, is symptomatic of the movement. It seems like a good idea at first glance, proposed by people whose motivations are understandable. But Britain’s troubling colonial history is surely addressed best head-on, not swept under the carpet.
Contextualisation, not deletion, might help: a plaque describing, in soberly factual terms, what Rhodes actually did. This view is hardly tantamount to colonial apologism, as some would have it.
The problem with censorship, or even the perception that it is being pushed for, is that it encourages taboos. Taboos become cool and subversive to defy, giving rise to a narrative of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘snowflake’ (i.e. hypersensitive) students.
I instinctively dislike the tendency to pile-on, mob-like, to decry an individual or book as racist or misogynistic; there’s something of the witch hunt about it. It looks closed-minded and reactionary, and it feeds this narrative. The Left shouldn’t end up as a mirror image of the Right’s moralising censorship, setting itself up for challenge by daring convention-breakers.
There’s another problem inherent to this type of identity politics: it can lead to competitive, sometimes directly contradictory, grievance raising. One group’s affirmation of safe space may be the violation of another’s, as was the case in the odd events involving the ex-Muslim Iranian human-rights activist Maryam Namazie at Warwick and Goldsmiths universities, recounted here.
The criticism of those arguing against censorship is often that it’s easy for privileged people (white, male, straight etc) to denigrate Safe Space; we’re not the ones who need it. For people like me, they say, the presence of a particular speaker is merely a philosophical issue, whereas for minority groups, it’s an act of aggression.
I don’t agree. I’m not telling any less privileged group what they’re allowed to be offended by, although I appreciate it may sound worryingly close to that. If words hurt, then the best way to counter is to argue back. Education should thicken the skin and broaden the mind. This ought to apply to those demanding Rhodes’s removal, as well as those who cannot countenance any questioning of his existence without crying ‘political correctness gone mad’.
Universities must, first and foremost, be centres of febrile and fearless discussion. So, by all means, protest, counter-argue and demonstrate. Campaign for syllabuses to recognise different perspectives or be less Eurocentric. But censorship of academic work or political speakers is an apparently easy fix that’s more likely to foment opposition than solve structural prejudice.
Perhaps the trend is just a side effect of the marketization of higher education; students, paying exorbitant tuition fees, see themselves as customers and therefore entitled to complain. This may well be true, but as a society that aims, however falteringly, towards multicultural integration, we need to find ways of balancing respecting the sensibilities of others with free and open debate.
Universities, often a microcosm of, and trendsetters to, the wider world, are the perfect place to work out how.