BY DYLAN JARDINE
Our universities are rapidly, and perhaps irrecoverably, becoming intolerant of opinions beyond the fold of the mainstream, however legitimately expressed, and more obliging to those who seek to silence such opinions. The rhetoric of justice and equality has become that used to shout certain opinions at the expense of others. And now our university takes up the mantle, once again, with Tommy Robinson’s proposed arrival on campus in January, formally leader of the English Defence League (EDL), to speak with laughable irony about free speech. It’s the same dull story now familiar to us all: a controversial speaker is invited, or the proposition of such made, to a university only to be met with fierce, seemingly unstoppable opposition by a “consensus” of offence-seeking students. The rage of the approved consensus is cause enough to justify the rejection of platforms and censor the opinions of those deemed “too” controversial to speak – and just as importantly be heard. It’s a troubling and illogical development; a university-styled microcosm of the very real menaces we face to a free society outwith our hallowed halls. What are the left left with after they dismiss all opinion deemed unsuitable by their own definition? A tyranny of centrist mono-opinion and, for their efforts, a complete gulf between university culture and the diverse reality of society where views such as Robinson’s are rife. It seems George Orwell hit the nail on the head with his remark that ‘Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.’
There have been some truly hysterical comments surrounding Robinson’s visit. Graham Martin, an activist within the York People’s Assembly, has said:
“Many will say we should defeat the likes of Robinson in debate, but doing so will only promote his message that white people are victims of a conspiracy, whilst putting not just Muslim students but all York’s residents from ethic minorities at risk.”
One wonders exactly where the correlation lies between a talk on free speech, even if it is delivered by an insufferable bigot, and forcing Muslim students and ethnic minority residents into a position of risk – I certainly don’t see it. I do wonder if Mr. Martin actually took the bother to look at the proposed topic of discussion. It seems what Robinson is actually going to talk about is of little or no importance to his protesters, it’s what the offended mob believe he will be talking about that is. By the reception so far, you’d be forgiven in thinking the talk was on his usual topics of immigration or radical Islam. The whole notion that the potentially offended must be protected from the potentially offensive is cringe-inducing and demeaning to those who apparently need “protection” from words. The mindboggling array of campus opinion is such that somebody is always going to be offended if exposed to it – and that’s okay. Nobody has the right not to be offended and everybody has the right to offend. I, myself, am often offended by people and their opinions, but I don’t seek to shut them up or, indeed, take them off a platform. I take the responsibility of being offended graciously alongside the right to say things which inevitably offend and that’s the nature of grownup discourse.
As far as the argument that giving Robinson a platform somehow encourages his agenda goes, it does no such thing. A platform doesn’t make opinions respectable in itself and it’s important to hear those opinions when they clearly represent such a considerable amount of people and not just members of the EDL or the like (the same people middle-class students are too keen on forgetting). It offers an opportunity to expose and criticise; debate and enquire; learn from and about. And in any case, no-platforming Robinson will only further spur on those who would consequently prescribe him as a victim and consider him a martyr for his and their neglected cause as they’d see it. Closing the door to debate and dialogue only furthers his cause which the protestors are so sternly against and annihilates any hope of progress however unexpected that may seem.
It is as much a right to hear and be exposed to opinions as it is the speaker’s right to voice them. Our own Socialist Society’s Chair recently posted an ‘urgent message’ to all members informing them that ‘the committee propose buying up as many tickets as possible’ with no intention of going in order to ‘buy him out of a platform comrades.’ For every ticket bought by the Socialist Society for their babyish purpose of buying Robinson out of a platform, they have systematically taken away the right of any potentially interested person, whatever their motives, from being exposed, and indeed to engage with, what he has to say. I, for one, am extremely keen to hear him out – if only to better understand his position and by extension that of a great number of people. And who would seek to deny me this opportunity? Those who claim offence on my behalf, of course, and/or that their own offence takes priority over my right to be exposed. In any case, students should relish the opportunity, within the confines of civil debate, to have their opinions challenged and (re?)determine the strength of their own convictions. Asking such important questions as: How exactly do I know what I think I know? And, perhaps, how do I know this other than the fact that it’s what I’ve been told to know?
The talk is, as mentioned, on the topic of free speech and Robinson is no longer leader of the EDL but suppose, as I think many have made the mistake of doing, that it was rather on his usual penchant of immigration and radical Islam. I’d even then still be writing against the case of no-platforming him. As everyone should know, the suppression of unfashionable opinions does not make them disappear; it only drives them underground until such point when matters erupt (Brexit and Trump, anyone?). When you tell people their opinion isn’t credible enough to be voiced by accusations of embracing a phobia in large numbers, for which university is just one context, you get devastating consequences. People then turn to populism and become enchanted with its leaders which has implications for us all – as we’ve already seen and will continue to see if the lesson isn’t learnt soon. The student leftist establishment of this country has played its part in amplifying the already huge divisions and helped to write-off any potential progress lest we students become offended. The lesson? Don’t get too comfortable in the seeming safety of the approved consensus so that you cockily undermine the significance of other opinions which, extreme or not, are alive and well and will come back to bite us all on the backside soon enough. And let’s not make the mistake, either, of assuming that the EDL represents a tiny minority of unsubstantial opinion. Using that trusty indicator of popularity – Facebook likes, of course – we can see that the EDL currently have over double the number of likes than the Liberal Democrats do and more than half of that of Labour. With the one hand, the student left push those who they disagree with off platforms and with the other shake their fist in fury over the consequences of populism yet fail to see the irony that one is directly playing a role in encouraging the other.
That opinions legitimately expressed and held by people in their numbers, such as those of Tommy Robinson though I don’t share them myself, can be rejected a platform on account of their potential offence and disreputability of the speaker is an absurdity. It exemplifies anything but the beginning of a profoundly unsettling tyranny – albeit a fashionable one. To throw the word ‘fascist’ about when mentioning his name, as if that constitutes an argument in itself, ought not to be a means of censorship but rather a cause for dialogue. The sooner we learn to engage the opinions of our opponents with logic and reason rather than fallacy and one-word accusations, the sooner we can attempt to reach some understanding of progress. And for Robinson, it looks questionable as to whether he will actually come or not with all the confusion surrounding who will be hosting him, but I won’t be surprised if nobody is willing in the end. If he does come, then remember that you can always refrain from attending the event if doing so will cause you undue offense (best to be on the safe side, eh?). But to finish, let’s remember the wise words of Rosa Luxemburg, who I will be very brave and attempt to paraphrase, that the freedom of speech, a fundamental pillar of any civilised democracy, amounts to nothing if it doesn’t mean the freedom of those who go against the consensus.