Changes in how we respond to offence
Student politics has never existed in a bubble. It has always been a reflection, or a reaction to, what is happening at the level of national politics and in broader society. What distinguishes today from previous decades is that where students of the past could experiment and express their ideas freely, today more radical ideas are being banned for causing offence or because they are deemed to be dangerous. There has been a trend towards the banning of ideas, and even products, that are seen to go against the status quo.
Inherent in the student movements of the 1960s and 70s there was an aspiration to break new ground and have an impact on the world. From the banal, such as the 1968 sit-in against tuition fees at Leeds University, to the more exciting, such as the gay demonstrations for equal rights in the early 1960s, these were movements that wanted to have an impact on society as a whole and often signalled a change in direction. Whether the ideas expressed by students were already popular or not, banning their right to express what they thought, in action or writing, was not an option. It was seen as socially and politically right that they should express their views.
Today there often isn’t the grand sense of a project or a desire to break old moulds within student movements. Student politics tends to follow, rather than impact on, national politics in a very biased way, for example, the university opposition against the Iraq war followed the national inclination that the war was not right and in some cases, illegal. Similarly, Manchester University banning Coca-Cola in the name of environmental and human rights abuses in March 2007 comes at a time when the environmental agenda is widely supported and there is no support for human rights abuses. Other student movements such as the Aegis Trust, a student movement for genocide prevention, or Globalise Resistance, an organisation opposed to the global growth of corporate power, work in a similar frame, playing on already popularised ideas in society. The more offensive groups on campus today seem to transpire around religious issues, from the religious extremist groups to those that dare to print pictures that deride religion.
In a more confident time when there was a stronger sense of what society stood for student revolt was seen as part of the internal dynamic of society. Sometimes reflecting and sometimes changing society, it was not seen as a threat to the way things were, even if the action could result in a change. Today, when there is not a coherent sense of what society stands for, it seems that any ideas or actions that could be seen as extreme or offensive are seen as dangerous and face a ban.
While eroding our formal and everyday freedoms has become de rigueur in national politics, we have seen a steady move towards bans on university campuses, from Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Mujahiroun and the British National Party to the Daily Mirror and Coca-Cola. Perhaps the most damaging restrictions on university life have been those that curtail free speech. Many extremist groups have been censored in recent years for their largely unpopular views. Where universities could once claim to be a place for young bright things to experiment and express a range of ideas, today this Enlightenment tradition has been trampled on by a range of official sanctions.
In 2004, the National Union of Students (NUS) set a ‘no platform’ policy for racist groups, covering ‘radical’ religious organisations. Rather than trusting young people to reject and challenge these organisations on the basis of their own reason, student unions have internalised much of the government rhetoric on the danger that these organisations pose to apparently vulnerable young adults. As Wakkas Khan, president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, said in 2005, ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir is clearly understood to be a[n]...organisation with strong and vocal opinions which the Muslim community may agree or disagree with. This does not warrant a ban on this group as such actions will only be counterproductive’ (Curtis 8.8.2005). In a similar vein, students at Cardiff and Clare College, Cambridge were questioned by police for reprinting offensive cartoons of Mohammed in their weekly magazine. Campus debate on and around religious issues has been almost totally shut off for being both dangerous and offensive.
The idea of university as a hotbed of intellectual debate is one many now fear, from official educational bodies to student groups, and even students themselves. The Department for Education and Skills now encourages lecturers and teachers on campus to spy on students suspected of radicalism. Increasingly, suspicion and reporting to a higher power are encouraged over the university tradition of debate and challenging others’ opinions on a one-to-one basis. The idea of transcending oneself at university to explore intellectually and test new ideas has been infringed upon by this suspicious approach that everybody in and around university is expected to adopt.
Where students have never been sure of their moral compass or what they believe in, they have always articulated their interests by engaging in political and social debates. It was by engaging in discussions and having the freedom to test even the most radical ideas that students were able to confidently lead the way when they left university. Today, it is almost impossible to challenge ideas rigorously when the NUS has banned the most important debates for being too ‘extreme’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘offensive’. Even lecturers are uncomfortable with holding discussions on such topical issues as racism and religious extremism because discussions no longer take place under their guidance, but under the guidance of several race relations, incitement and terrorism bills.
Banning extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the British National Party is more likely to increase their popularity than diminish it. When the ideas of extremist groups cannot be freely challenged it is sometimes hard to think that there isn’t something about them worth listening to. Moreover, it becomes very difficult for those defending liberty and equality to do so as the central forums for debate on campus are shut off.
As John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty:
No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study, and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think (Mill 1989:36).
Mill gets to the crux of why we should be free to listen and respond to apparently dangerous and offensive ideas; because a strong society is made up of people that understand why, and not just what, they believe in. Intellectual life is not about believing in the ‘right ideas’ but understanding their value, which is hard unless apparently good ideas are tested against opposing arguments.
On campus it is not just non-PC views that are being banned for being offensive, but also non-PC products. As the idea of the ethical consumer becomes ever popular, many ‘unethical’ products have been banned on campus as these too have been seen as offensive. Steps have been taken on many campuses to change the canteen coffee so that it is Fair Trade, to ban Coke for being unethical, and at Sussex University there was even a ban on the Daily Mirror for being offensive. Increasingly, students revolting is not engaging in debate and being seen to have opted for a more radical argument, but disengaging entirely from debate and banning products, like offensive arguments, because they are seen as unethical or offensive to a minority of people and therefore beyond debate.
As with banning sensitive arguments, banning products on campus means that a university is seen to have adopted a position on an issue with no debate about what those issues really are or an attempt to gauge just how many students agree with the changes that have taken place.
Bringing back the right to be offensive?
Returning the right to be offensive and to discuss all things freely is not just about defending freedom of speech on campus for its own sake; it involves rediscovering what university is for, a place to intellectualise and develop ideas. The government often uses universities to push agendas, and many students see it as a means to getting a job. When this is the context in which universities work, it is not entirely surprising that there is no backlash against the banning culture and in favour of free speech. Far from being a place of academia for those with the will and intelligence to study a subject at a high level, university is often seen as a lifestyle choice or a matter of utility. Yet scholarship has traditionally been about more than this, it has been a way of satisfying the human quest for truth, exploring intellectual curiosity and the pleasure of discovery. It is through this prism that university must be understood in order to fight meaningfully for free speech on campus.
The trend towards banning has already spread beyond extremist groups to more mainstream ideas. A group of students at Oxford University, Student Action for Refugees (STAR), has tried to ban Professor David Coleman for his anti-immigration ideas and at the London School of Economics, Professor Eric Ringmar faced a free speech battle after the Government department tried to ban his blog for his views on the way LSE is run (Ringmar 5.3.2007).
As Noam Chomsky once said, ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all’. We should let the BNP, Daily Mail and Islamic extremists have their say and stand up to the authorities that are trying to bring their own insecurity and uncertainty over what they stand for into our universities. Banning arguments does not mean that they have been defeated and it is in that spirit that many of these debates need to be tackled rather than brushed under the carpet.
The best form of censorship is when people no longer want to listen to certain ideas, not when they are patronisingly deemed as being too ‘dangerous’ for us to hear. Ultimately, extremists will only ever be as good as their ideas and on this basis alone we have nothing to fear by letting them have their say.
Suzy Dean is a sales manager at cScape and a researcher and writer on multiculturalism and cities.
Curtis, P. (8.8.2005). ‘Blair’s ban provokes mixed reactions on campus’. Guardian Unlimited.
Mill, J.S. (1989). On Liberty and Other Writings. Stefan Collini (ed.). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. First published 1859.
Ringmar, E. (5.3.2007). ‘Free speech and censorship at the LSE’. Forget the Footnotes blog.
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