The real enemies of free speech aren't the #RhodesMustFall campaigners - they're the privileged students who oppose them

Underneath the hysterical response to valid student activism in the #RhodesMustFall campaign and on countless other occasions over the last year lies this truth: universities, especially Oxford, have long been ‘safe spaces’ for white, wealthy men

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For universities, 2015 will be remembered as the year of the spoilt student brat. Hardly a day went by, nor a newspaper column escaped untouched, without a pronouncement against student activists. If the right are to be believed, teenage feminists have columnists and professors clutching their pearls and fearing for the state of humanity as they rampage through the education system, shutting down free speech and turning once great universities into absurd spectacles of trigger warnings, privilege checking and safe spaces.

Trigger warnings, safe spaces and no-platforming were the main hallmarks of the so-called spoilt and over-sensitive ‘Feminazi’ or ‘SJW’ students in 2015. Now, as we are on the cusp of the first term of 2016, the cause célèbre bringing us into the New Year is anti-racism activists at Oxford University campaigning for a statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from one of the colleges as part of a global #RhodesMustFall campaign.

You might think that this request from students is a pretty reasonable one. After all, Oxford has a tarnished reputation on race issues; data analysis has shown that black applicants are half as likely to be offered a place as white students, even when they have the exact same grades. Black students also report being stopped by staff when they are on university premises who confuse them for construction workers rather than recognise them as students. So for students to wish to open up a debate about racism and white supremacy as embodied by the statue would seem a reasonable and worthwhile debate to have.

Not so, for the right wing ‘free speech’ proponents. Last week, Harry Mount wrote a column for The Telegraph titled: “It’s time to say No to our pampered student emperors”  in which he describes the anti-racism campaigners as “tinpot dictators [with] offended egos” and “little emperors… mollycoddled by their parents” who have had “a lifetime of people saying yes to them.”

Curiously for a man moralising about “spoilt student emperors”, in the 800 word rant preaching about what students get up to during their time at university, Mr Mount forgets to mention how he spent his own Oxford days; namely as a member of the Bullingdon Club.

For students of colour to question monuments of white supremacists on their university campuses is entirely healthy and evidence of the free speech and debate of difficult issues which the right proclaims to be advocates of. Yet, the right’s blustering, bitter response in the form of relentless and defensive denial shows how they’re only for free speech when it promotes their own interests. 

In fact, underneath the hysterical response to valid student activism in the #RhodesMustFall campaign and on countless other occasions over the last year lies this truth: universities, especially Oxford, have long been ‘safe spaces’ for white, wealthy men. Their ‘free speech’ campaigns only highlight how much they squirm and squawk and stamp their well-heeled feet when every single aspect of university life isn’t dedicated to massaging their offended egos and protecting their interests.

Free speech is tremendously important and we need to ensure it is protected on campus. But to opponents of student campaigners, free speech means the freedom for the privileged to say as many racist, sexist things as they like without hearing any criticism from those who suffer from it. It does not extend to oppressed groups freely speaking back.

Universities were designed by and for wealthy, white men; their curricula are devoted to praising the work of white, wealthy men of the past and instilling confidence in the white, wealthy men of the future.

Buildings, portraits and statues surround students on every side in dedicated to the monumental myth of great, white maleness. Consciously or not, they benefit from a society which prioritises and privileges such people, as well as establishing it as a false norm from which others simply deviate.

Because white, male upper class gaze is conflated with neutrality in our society, it wrongly assumes itself to be exempt from identity politics and is blind to how it asserts its identity politics on people as much as those on the left do.

It turns out, ironically, that it is they who are afraid of ideas, refusing to open their minds to the thought that a statue mightn’t just be a sandstone homage to a fondly remembered founding father but is in fact a tribute to a revolting racist.

As we slowly remove patriarchal comforts from universities, we strip back the absurdity of the myth of wealthy, white men and their dominance. Like the moment the curtain is pulled on the great Wizard of Oz to reveal a faintly ridiculous and puny little man, so do challenges to white patriarchy reveal how absurd their privilege is. This is precisely why backlash to student activism has been so bitter and brutal as the right hiss and attempt to shut down any real debate about them.

So yes, the right are correct that our universities are full of an elite group of spoilt, self-indulged identity politic-ers, who have “had a lifetime of people saying yes to them”; it’s white, upper class men - and they do it with aplomb.