Today's student activists only reflect the censorship of our Government

I was like them once, too, a ferocious no-platform pugilist. But now I accept that when bad ideas are silenced, they can grow

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 21 February 2016 18:20
Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell

Too many students at our universities and colleges are censorious and absurdly touchy. Public figures have to meet strict and ever-changing student union compliance standards before they are permitted to talk on campus. Those who fail these capricious tests are rudely disinvited, stalked and verbally abused online. Some of these cases reach the media, most do not.

Last week the neurobiologist Dr Adam Perkins of King’s College London was informed by the LSE that his planned lecture could not go ahead (for now) because concerns about “negative social media activity”. Activists object to his book, The Welfare Trait, in which he claims that welfare dependence causes generational dysfunction and reduces motivation. I personally hate the thesis already, but I do think he should be asked back to make his case and then be grilled by smart, sharp students.

There have been other such moments of youthful repression. Last autumn, Germaine Greer was due to speak at Cardiff Uni. A storm was whipped up by those who believed she had dissed transgender people. (Did they not know that Greer has dissed almost all interest groups in her colourful life?) Last September, Maryam Namazie, a feminist and a former Muslim, was due to speak at Warwick University. The student union carried out a “risk assessment” and concluded that her modernist opinions could incite hatred. (Her supporters fought back and she was allowed to speak.) University College Union would not let a Kurdish man, Macer Gifford, describe his experiences as a fighter against Isis. Peter Tatchell, the irrepressible gay campaigner, has been blacklisted by several universities and one NUS rep recently refused to share a stage with him and labelled him “racist and transphobic”.

A survey has found that the most “ban happy” universities are Edinburgh, Leeds and Aberystwyth and that freedom of speech is now resisted across our higher education institutions.

I understand the students and their concerns. I was like them once too, a ferocious no-platform pugilist. Payton Quinn, Greer’s nemesis, said: “Language does have a genuine, sometimes violent consequence for those at the sharp end… The trouble is that many in the mainstream have no experience of it and so dismiss it”. I was Payton once. Actually, way, way past my student days, I demonstrated at various sites where fascists and racists were allowed to address audiences. I still adamantly maintain that freedom of speech is not an absolute right. It gives licence to those who debase women, gay, black or Asian people and plant hatreds. (Take a look at the online abuse I get.)

But I now accept that when bad ideas and depraved thoughts are silenced, they become more powerful and potent. And that sometimes, debate can disable the worst ideologues. I have the BBC to thank for this conversion from zealotry to open-mindedness. In 2009, Question Time invited the BNP leader Nick Griffin to be on the panel. I fired off an apoplectic letter to the BBC Trust, then watched as Griffin slowly disintegrated live on the show. The BNP sank into a swamp of irrelevance where it still languishes today.

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, has spoken up for “vigorous debate” in higher education institutions. That means speakers with “contentious, even inflammatory or offensive views” must be allowed to address students. I agree. But pro-platform defenders face a big conundrum, and one that has so far gone unheeded: university students are expected to be free-thinkers, but what are they to do when the state silences their thoughts and tongues? Do they accept that liberties and freedoms are conditional and ephemeral in the real world? Is freedom on campus merely a charade?

Since the spurious “war on terror” was declared, our people have been cowed. Independence of mind, critical democratic engagement and free speech are discouraged. Here is a short list of official government suppression and raids on civil rights:

From May, charities will be banned from using public money to campaign against government policies. They can feed the poor but not comment on the causes of poverty.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005) outlawed peaceful protests outside Parliament, one of our inalienable and long standing rights.

Theresa May’s Prevent agenda requires police, local authorities, prisons, probation officers, schools and, yes, universities, to report anyone who appears to be on the path of radicalisation and to take action. Those “inflammatory” speakers defended by Ms Dandridge above apparently must not include anyone Muslim.

It is frowned upon to criticise Israeli policies which systematically discriminate against Palestinians, or to accuse that state of breaking international laws. Our government is complicit in this censorship. Last week ago it banned public service organisations from boycotting Israeli goods, because such actions are supposedly anti-Semitic.

Muslim preachers are also watched and put on banned lists. Some are indeed dangerous demagogues and need to be stopped. But the Government needs to come clean and say clearly that all freedoms are subject to government control. To be a good citizen, one must acquiesce to authority.

They claim this is all to keep us “safe”. Student bodies want to keep out controversial speakers because universities should be “safe spaces”. Illiberal students are simply reflecting the illiberal society they and we now live in.

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