Pity the poor folk at Liverpool University's Guild of Students. A few weeks ago, they were responding to a petition calling for the renaming of a hall of residence, on account of William Gladstone’s colonialist ties. Now, in what should be the gentle bedding-in period of “re-freshers week”, they are faced with the news that the University of Liverpool Labour Students Society has made a threat against the monarch, and is being investigated by Merseyside Police.
Except, of course, they haven’t really made a threat. It was just an ill-judged attempt at humour, a tweet wishing followers a “Happy Regicide Day”, on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, followed by “we did it once, we can do it again!” Not exactly Robin Williams’ standard, but a joke nonetheless.
The tweet was later deleted, and the society made a statement in which it was forced to clarify that they were not in favour of murdering the Queen. It came too late, though, with Merseyside Police stating they were looking into the matter, having received multiple complaints. On Twitter, the society was bombarded with messages criticising them and calling for reprisals.
Offensive jokes aren’t something, really, that should lead to censure and police action. But is it any surprise in the current climate that this has garnered such a response? Unacceptable jokes of all colours have ended comedians’ careers and forced people into grovelling apologies: Chris Rock even said he would no longer play college campuses in the US for fear of offending someone.
What is ironic, in this situation, is that the joke has come from a left-wing student society, which generally tends to be one of the first groups to be offended by – and call for safe spaces against – anything risqué on campus. A plethora of university societies have “no platformed” potentially “offensive speakers”, such as Julie Bindel and Germain Greer.
This has fostered an environment whereby a deluge of condemnation from people who disagree can lead to even the most mundane tweet being looked at by a police force. It happens so often, that forces around the country often pre-emptively tweet to warn people not to be offensive. This is roundly ridiculed, but it is happening more often. Considering the financial and recruitment crises in the police, you would think they would want to spend their time on more important matters.
It is a culture of intolerance towards humour that has spread from campus into the mainstream. Now, though, as these students have discovered, it is no longer the preserve of the left to use faux outrage to silence and harass opponents. They are now as likely to be the hounded as their enemies are.
But what’s even more interesting is how, potentially, tweets like this can be spun to come to represent the views of the whole, rather than a minority.
The person responsible for the tweet doesn’t share the same views as the majority of Labour students, at Liverpool University or elsewhere. Even staunch republicans don’t want the monarchy to be removed by execution, and most of them probably won’t have found the tweet amusing. But this tweet will be a cross borne by all society members, in the same way thousands of Labour supporters have become complicit by default in John McDonnell’s equally poor joke about lynching Nadine Dorries.
For years, the politics of identity in Britain (and indeed, America) has led to the approach of grouping all opponents together for the misdeeds of the few. Some Brexiteers are racist, therefore all can be called racist; Donald Trump said deplorable things, ergo all his supporters are deplorable. Once those become the rules of the game, however, if one person tweets a joke about murdering opponents, all associated people can be accused of tacit agreement.
Let us be very clear. Liverpool University is not some great bastion of radical students. Even the ones who are leaning to the radical end of the spectrum are not particularly dangerous, as events of the past couple of months have shown. But by buying into the ideals of outrage, they must recognise they are feeding a beast that will devour them. Maybe the Labour Students Society will receive a harsh punishment for a single tweet, or maybe nothing will happen. But I’m sure they’ll think twice about using mass opprobrium for political gain in the future.
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