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Oct 11 2013

Updates on student union goings-on at LSE

Abishek Phadnis, one of the students castigated at LSE for donning Jesus and Mo t-shirts, gives his version of events in an account at Trending Central. Given the swamp of student union trouble waded through by atheists there in the past, he’s had no end of practice drafting succulently barbed rebukes; this latest doesn’t disappoint.

The trouble with advertising yourself as an institution for people who enjoy being “challenged intellectually, socially and personally” is that some of us will actually believe it, and expect you to live up to that promise by being a haven for free inquiry and free expression.

Paul Thornbury, the Head of LSE Security, was summoned to inform us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that our wearing the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could create an “offensive environment”, which is an absurd claim to make of wholly innocuous t-shirts whose writing, in any case, is obscured unless you stop, stare and squint at the right angle while the wearer is still. And that’s if you visit the Atheist Society Stall, never the most popular hangout for deeply religious people anyway.

Mr Thornbury was unmoved by our arguments, and had us surrounded by security guards, with the warning that should we disobey his command, we would be dragged out. Browbeaten and awaiting a clearer interpretation of the rules, we said we would temporarily put on our jackets, and so in a surreal sequence, the Head of LSE Security hovered about us like a short-sighted tailor, assessing whether we had concealed enough, pausing to protest at one point that the word “prophet” was visible from a certain angle. He then deputed two guards to stand in the aisle, facing our stall, to stop us attempting to take our jackets off and to shadow us wherever we went till closing time.

Shortly after midday, Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara descended on us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had redacted them this time, and offered to use our home-made tape to cover any other areas he wished to see covered. Our concessions came to nought. He refused to hear us out, and left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to remove us from the premises.

Surprisingly, several hours passed before their next move (a curiously tardy response for an administration purporting to counter harassment), in which Mr Thornbury reappeared near closing time, armed with a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield, which claimed that since some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure. It claimed that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation” and concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery” and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”. On our way out at closing time, we saw Mr Thornbury, General Secretary Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara skulking in the corridor, accompanied by a posse of security guards. They shadowed us to the exit.

Mr Stoll and the School have some nerve to claim that we were threatened because “it was feared” that we would “disrupt the event”, when in fact the event was progressing perfectly smoothly until it was disrupted by the ham-fisted intervention of the student union. We strove to remain calm, pacific and reasonable, standing our ground even as we were subjected to a barrage of increasingly egregious demands and jostled by security guards. If harassment is, as the LSE Harassment Policy defines it, anything that “violates an individual’s dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, then we were harassed.

Our critics contend that we were being needlessly inflammatory. Quite apart from the cliché that the people who rule over us are the people we cannot criticise, do these people genuinely think it is a waste of time and effort defending freedom of expression from religious reactionaries? Could they suggest a better cause? Perhaps they will be swayed by the fact that the gifted cartoonist whose t-shirts we wore publishes his work under a pseudonym because of threats to his life.

These sickly invocations for decorum are of a piece with the risible claim made by Mr Stoll and the School that their clampdown was prompted by the fear that we were sabotaging the prospects of a sanitised Fair “designed to welcome all new students”, and that our t-shirts and posters were welcome once this delicate initial period had passed. We have good reason to doubt this.

For one thing, Mr Thornbury contradicted it with his warning that we would be evicted if we were ever seen wearing these t-shirts on campus again. And just last year, our efforts to better signpost ourselves for Muslim apostates on campus by adding “ex-Muslim” to our Society’s name (on the lines of ex-Mormon groups in the U.S., and for the same reasons) were gratuitously frustrated. First, the Union ordered us to prove “clear cooperation with the Islamic Society” before they would consider our application; then, they backed out with the wet excuse that the change could jeopardise the “safety” of ex-Muslims in our group, which came as news to the ex-Muslim organisations on whose insistence we’d sought the change.

But it isn’t all gloom.

In one of those beautiful little ironies of life that makes even a staunch atheist like me wonder if there might, after all, be a god, the LSE student newspaper reported in its edition of October 3 that LSESU had been rated the worst Students’ Union in London[.]

General Secretary Stoll, everything about whom smacks of New Labour, invited me last week to correspond with him about his student union’s actions, offering to comment on the record (i.e. for this blog). Our exchange of emails looked like this:

Hi Alex

How do you want this to work? You send some questions and I answer? Would just want to point out now that Im [otherwise engaged] all day, so you’ll probably have full answers to any questions by tomorrow night at the latest. 

Hope this is okay,

Regards

Jay

All right, let’s begin like this.

Since your official statement from Friday, while failing to mention details like attempts to confiscate society material and use of security staff, doesn’t challenge your atheist society’s account of what took place on Thursday, I’m assuming you don’t dispute it.

Perhaps you could start by explaining how that society’s treatment by LSE’s student union and staff is justified: why forcing them to cover their t-shirts (below), surrounding them with LSE security, trying to expel them from the building and threatening disciplinary measures was a fair course of action.

I’d like you to answer both in terms of ethics and of how they were breaching regulations – including specifically LSE’s harassment policy, which School Secretary Susan Scholefield told the group prohibited these t-shirts.

Thanks.

Alex

Hi Alex

Sorry to have to renege on this, but I have been advised by the LSE to not give further comment as we are releasing another official statement today. Further, I will be addressing the Union at our General Meeting where I believe the National Collective of Atheist Societies will be present – so there won’t be a deficit of accountability!

Again, apologies for the inconvenience but as Im sure you will appreciate, the press situation is constantly changing and we have to act accordingly.

Best

Jay

The statement in question says nothing very new:

At the LSE Students’ Union Freshers’ Fair on Thursday 3 October two students from the LSE SU Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) wore t-shirts that were clearly designed to depict Mohammed and Jesus in a provocative manner. A number of students complained and the ASH students were asked to cover their t shirts by representatives of both the School and the SU.

This has led to a great deal of debate on social media platforms and concerns that the School will stop students from wearing similar t shirts at an event hosted by ASH on 15th October, the topic of which is the wearing of the Niqab. This is a student society event, open to the public, and utterly in the spirit of LSE’s commitment to free speech and the discussion of contentious issues. It will be chaired by Professor Chetan Bhatt, the Director of LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

The event is quite different to the Freshers’ Fair, which must be accessible, inclusive and welcoming and which was in danger of being disrupted. The School hopes that those attending the event on 15th October will do so in a spirit of open discussion and respect and that any views expressed – orally, on clothing or however – will be in this spirit.

The School and the SU would also like to put on record concern over the nature of some of the social media debate, which has been highly personalised. The good campus relations group at LSE will take forward work to discuss the issues raised by the recent events in a calm manner that can further understanding, bring reconciliation and continue to make LSE the centre of global debate on the issues that matter to us all.

It’s a back-to-front approach to free expression, to say nothing else. If for instance LSE’s Islamic Society want to prohibit cartoons of prophets at their meetings, that’s up to them – communal spaces are exactly those from which heretical items shouldn’t be banned.

I’m inclined anyway not to trust the competence of a body whose work on ‘good campus relations’ starts with threatening and trying to intimidate people who wear blasphemous t-shirts. (‘This is an inclusive event,’ they told the atheist group, as Jesus and Mo‘s author puts it. ‘Get out!’) I’m especially disinclined to trust a student union whose staff and representatives seem unwilling, pressed over and over again, to answer critics.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    A. Noyd

    I’m especially disinclined to trust a student union whose staff and representatives seem unwilling, pressed over and over again, to answer critics.

    Sounds like they have it all figured out when it’s allowed to remain a jumble in their heads. They can wedge it to some extent into boilerplate for their “official statements,” but addressing particular points, like justifying how the shirts were against regulations? Well, that requires un-jumbling the jumble and realizing it’s nothing but a discontinuous mess of contradiction, righteous indignation, double standards and abuses of power.

    Also, is “a spirit of open discussion” what you get after you kill genuine open discussion and need to raise its much-attenuated shade for the sake of appearances?

  2. 2
    dukeofomnium

    It’s funny that they use the word “provocative” as a pejorative. What, exactly, is a university for, if not to provoke — learning; thought; discussion?

  3. 3
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    We have to be open to all opinions and maintain a safe and comfortable space for them. Well, all of them excepting yours, you atheist scum.

  4. 4
    Joseph

    My take:

    It doesn’t surprise me in the least. British mainstream culture conditions us to give organized religion a favourable bias, based purely on the fact that it’s a religion and irrespective of the details. Atheism gets no such pass because it isn’t seen to qualify, even though this relies on the fallacy that atheism isn’t a set of beliefs, but the absence of belief.

    Anti-theism of the type the LSE students were engaging in is a headache when in the same room as organized religion because they are as fundamentally inimical.

    The hypocrisy, of course, is that very few would dare to stop Muslim or Christian organizations preaching the ‘good word’ as long as it was done in a non-coercive fashion.

    Yet whereas the sharing of religious views are held as somehow intrinsically morally worthy – or at the very least neutral. Proactive atheists are inevitably hounded from the get go because their expression of beliefs is interpreted as intrinsically aggressive, an ‘attack’ or a ‘provocation’,

    Which of course is deeply ironic given the actual detail of the material that organized religious are generally pushing.

    A further irony is that the hostile/confrontational vibe that this sort of crackdown induces isn’t a product of atheism itself, but of those harassing it.

    Unfortunately the people performing this sort of punitive action generally go away feel vindicated because their prejudices are always confirmed. Beforehand they perceive atheists as troublemakers and party-spoilers. Thus they pre-emptively crack down on the atheists. The atheists kick up a fuss (because they feel persecuted). The party is spoiled. The organizers meanwhile, feel as if they were proven right. It’s affirmation bias 101.

  5. 5
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    Oh man, student unions… gotta hate the politics. Completely agree with the somewhat snide “New Labour” comment too when thinking back to my university days in the early 90s, pseudo-lefty* and overly sensitive BS.

    * They didn’t even have the grace to be properly left-leaning!

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