Free Speech: In Defence of the Students | Gabriel Rutherford

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The debate over free speech in universities and colleges in the Western world is a subject that has come to prominence in the last few years. While, much like American politics, it takes increasingly radical directions, this debate is still a worthy one to have, as the political future of this country depends on what kind of people we produce from academic institutions. Frankly, what I have seen happening in universities over the past years has been mostly good, and it’s time to dispel the myth created and perpetuated by the ill-informed that students are turning universities into fascistic anti-free speech biomes. 

This article is partly a rebuttal to an article posted on Student Voices by Daniel Clark. Clark made many points, raising the issue of pronouns and no-platforming, so I will attempt to provide my own take on these issues, while also rebutting the points that were made in that article.

The first issue we should look at is the pronoun issue. The idea that we should use the pronoun ‘ze’ or ‘hir’ is an extremely controversial one, with some calling it the next battle for equality while others call it ridiculous nonsense. Clark appears to reside in the latter camp, while I am in the former. For too long transgender people have been mocked and bullied for their sexuality. A study by Manchester metropolitan University found that 73% of transgender individuals have experienced harassment at school. 47% did not use public leisure facilities out of fear of harassment and discrimination. Transgender students are more at risk of having depression and becoming alcoholics or drug addicts due to their oppression. And it is oppression, by cultural means rather than by the state or its institutions. So universities attempting to create an accommodating environment are actually long overdue.  Clark, however, seems to oppose this. He points the example of Oxford university telling students they *must* use gender neutral pronouns, which might sound shocking if it had actually happened. It was the student union that put out leaflets basically saying “please don’t assume people’s gender, it isn’t nice for trans students”, not the university saying gendering was banned.  Even then, the Student Union said that there actually was no leaflet banning gendered pronouns at all and that a campaign to aid transgender rights had been utterly blown out of proportion. Clark also claimed that misgendering people is an offence at Oxford University. This is incorrect. Deliberate misgendering, which is a form of transphobic bullying, is an offence. Basically, bullying isn’t okay with Oxford University.  This was either a rather poor attempt at scaremongering by Clark or a simple mistake caused by Clark only checking one source: The Times perhaps didn’t report further on the story, but The Independent did.  Nobody is forcing intersectional pronouns on anybody-cisgender students are simply being asked to acknowledge and recognize the rights of transgender students. 

Now, on to no-platforming. In Clark’s article, he states that no-platforming is “disgraceful” and clams that “George Orwell must be turning in his grave”, because the Orwell thing definitely isn’t a cliché that has been used in the past by right-wingers trying to defend bigotry when it is shut down. Also on a side note-why do conservatives invoke Orwell so much when he was a socialist who fought for an anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War? Stop it. Get your own figurehead. Use Ayn Rand or something.  But here comes a big statement: no-platforming is a good thing. Why? Because we cannot allow hatred to flourish in our society. It is important that bigotry is weeded out. Not every racist goes around in a wifebeater in a council house shouting the n-word at immigrants. Some are far more subtle.  People who would intentionally disrupt a community and cause racial hatred, like Milo Yiannopoulos, should not be allowed to speak when all he does is sow the seeds of division and bigotry.  Let’s take Yiannnopoulos. This is a man who abuses women, transgender people and was rightfully banned from Twitter for organizing a racist hate mob. 

Yiannopoulos himself might be joking, as some claim, but the damage he, his associates and his words cause are real. And it is the right of student unions to exercise their freedom and ban people like Yiannopoulos if they so desire. It’s worth remembering that you don’t have an automatic right to speak at any institution you like, or say anything you like. If I invite you over to my house to hang out and you turn out to be a monstrous racist, I’m going to kick you out of my house .   If you’re gaming online and you keep saying the n-word through the mic on a public game the server admins will probably ban you. The principle must remain the same in a good society, where people aren’t allowed to try and provoke or trigger vulnerable people for the sake of a laugh or to be a contrarian edge-lord. Free speech is something we must uphold, but like democracy, speech cannot be absolute.  Hate speech deserves condemnation, and no-platforming is just another part of refusing to accept bigotry in a public space as a part of society in an era where we should be looking to eradicate hate in all forms.

University students haven’t lost their minds or become snowflakes.  They’re standing against oppression and bullying, something that we should have been doing a long time before now and I hope we will continue doing. If the rise of politicians like Trump and Farage teaches us one thing, let it be to never tolerate hate and bigotry and to weed it out at the source. Because the fear and terror spread by these two men alone has been despicable, let alone their supporters. Universities should be places where the mind broadens, not closes, and by making transgender students as comfortable as possible and by refusing to accept bigotry on campus we can achieve that goal.
Free Speech: In Defence of the Students | Gabriel Rutherford Free Speech: In Defence of the Students | Gabriel Rutherford  Reviewed by Student Voices on 23:45 Rating: 5

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