Dani Garavelli: Student bans just add to the debate

Yale University students protested over comments about Halloween costumes. Photograph: Arnold Gold/New Haven Register/AP
Yale University students protested over comments about Halloween costumes. Photograph: Arnold Gold/New Haven Register/AP
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WHEN Edinburgh University student Imogen Wilson wanted to signal her disagreement with a speaker at a council meeting last week, she didn’t boo or jeer, as they would in Westminster – she simply raised her hand. But even this subtle gesture of disapproval was too much for the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA), which has outlawed “discriminatory language and actions”, and she was threatened with ejection. Further opprobrium was heaped upon her rebellious head when she was seen to shake it.

The latest row over EUSA’s illiberal approach to dissent has thrown the spotlight on the latest US exports to our campuses: “safe spaces” and the equally contentious no-platforming of people with “unacceptable” views. Last year Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell were prevented from speaking at Cardiff and Canterbury (Greer because her views were considered transphobic, Tatchell for defending her).

In the wake of the hand-raising scandal, Edinburgh philosophy student Charlie Peters – who had already launched a petition – wrote a piece for the Spiked online magazine, the voicepiece of the Libertarian left, claiming it reflected “a broader cultural disdain for the idea of liberty and open debate”. Peters’ views echo those of the magazine, which prints Free Speech University Rankings, using a traffic light system of green, amber and red to measure the extent to which various institutions have authoritarian policies. Other leading figures who have spoken out against the blight of “campus censorship” include Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, writer Nick Cohen and Professor Richard Dawkins.

When a student body outlaws the shaking of heads, it deserves to be lampooned, just as it does, I suppose, when it bans “offensive sexual noises” (Dundee Student Union). Such OTT behaviour makes it easy for critics to present students as fragile flowers who crave protection from reality, and universities as places where ideas are stifled not celebrated.

Yet the current movement against safe spaces and no-platforming is not so very different from the anti-PC campaign of the 1980s when extreme, often apocryphal, examples of the policing of language – Islington Council’s supposed ban on the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep, say – were used to discredit the “loony left” and sabotage genuine attempts to tackle racism in schools and nurseries.

When those who are leading the charge against “censorship” zoom in on a handful of outlandish policies they risk derailing a complex debate over acceptable behaviour on university campuses and use freedom of speech to justify misogyny, racism and homophobia. If you look closely at Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, for example, you will find Edinburgh University listed as amber for the crime of having a “dignity and respect policy”, and the union as “red” because it tackles “rape culture and lad banter”.

However uneasy you feel about the concept of safe spaces, they didn’t come out of nowhere; they were a response to entrenched discrimination. When I started at Glasgow University, the Glasgow University Union (GUU) was still acclimatising to having female members, and any unsuspecting woman who wandered into the beer bar during Freshers’ Week was considered fair game for abuse. Today, it has a gender-neutral toilet, but the misogyny endures. In 2013, two female debaters were subjected to sexist heckling, with a third called a “frigid bitch” when she complained. And Glasgow University is far from unique. The catchphrase “No means yes and yes means harder” has gained currency in campuses on both sides of the Atlantic, and students say they are regularly groped on nights out. In such a climate of intimidation, freedom of speech may be little more than the freedom of straight, white males to make themselves heard over everyone else. No wonder they feel threatened by attempts to redress the balance.

The same point can be made about the Yale professor castigated for telling students they had the right to wear whatever Hallowe’en costume they wanted. Nicholas Christakis became a martyr for the freedom of speech movement when he was harangued by an angry, swearing mob. What happened to him was wrong, but few of those who expressed their outrage looked at the backdrop against which it unfolded: a history of racism and a recent frat party with a white-girls-only door policy. In this context it doesn’t seem unreasonable to insist students refrain from blacking up.

More pernicious than this, perhaps, is the silencing of “unacceptable” opinions during tutorials (Peters claims his tutor privately apologised to other students after he [Peters] criticised the criminalisation of Holocaust denial) and the no-platforming of individuals invited to speak.

The comedian Kate Smurthwaite had a show at Goldsmith’s College cancelled because some feminists who disapproved of her views on the sex industry threatened to picket it.

This is all a bit silly, but not as great a threat to freedom of speech as is being suggested. University unions are no more obliged to provide a forum for Greer or Tatchell or Smurthwaite than a newspaper is obliged to carry a comment piece from someone whose views run counter to their editorial line. Counterintuitively, far from shutting debate down, no-platforming actively stimulates it, as students argue over whether or not the speaker ought to be banned and everyone else piles in to discuss how misguided they are. I learned a lot about the split between radical feminists and transgender women as a result of the stooshie over Greer.

In any case, there’s a mischievous part of me that relishes the idea of student activists trolling the likes of Dawkins, who uses his freedom of speech to foster intolerance, and O’Neill, who thinks homophobes are being persecuted. Where other people see safe spaces and no-platforming as a sign that students have changed, I think they’re doing what they always did: finding new ways to act provocatively, push boundaries and annoy the hell out of the establishment.