A confession. When I read that a student at Brown University had responded to a debate about rape culture on campus by establishing a literal safe-space with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies”, I laughed, heartily, like the callous old monster I am. Even with my stern and serious head on, the idea that survivors of sexual assault should be patronised and treated like toddlers is profoundly wrong-headed and actively harmful.
The details emerged in a piece by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times this weekend, which railed against the supposed creep of “safe-space” culture on campuses and the supposed chilling effect it is having on free speech.
I read a lot about this phenomenon. I read about it in the New York Times, in the Washington Post, in Reason, in the Guardian, in Spiked, in the New Statesman, in THES etc etc etc. Without exception, the pieces condemn student radicals for hiding from ideas, for curtailing free speech and for being anti-intellectual. The authors are almost invariably older journalists, authors and academics, at the tops of their professions.
It is not accurate to call this a debate. That would suggest two roughly equal sides putting their points of view with comparable prominence and allowing the audience to judge which has more merit. This issue is almost entirely one-way. An unholy alliance of liberal-left establishment and libertarian ideologues are collectively shitting on student radicals without the barest hint of a right to reply.
Take the examples in Shulevitz’s piece. At a lecture by a Charlie Hebdo journalist, a Muslim student stood up at the end, raised concerns about Islamaphobia and said that “she felt threatened too.” An exchange of opinions then followed in the student newspaper.
We are clearly meant to mock the student, comparing herself to a Charlie Hebdo journalist in the aftermath of the slaughter in Paris. But what Shulevitz did not mention is that the lecture was held 15 days after the brutal murder of three Muslim American students in Chapel Hill, 14 days after a Muslim family had been assaulted while shopping in Michigan, while Mosques were being firebombed and vandalised across the US and numerous Muslim organisations were receiving specific death threats. Whatever one’s views on the (complex) politics of Charlie Hebdo and broader issues of Islamophobia, I’d suggest that “feeling threatened” was not necessarily an unreasonable reaction for a Muslim student.
What else? Well, a couple of weeks ago, a professor called Laura Kipnis wrote an article attacking “paranoia” around sexual relationships between staff and students. Around 30 students held a little march and handed in a petition to the University administration, asking that they reaffirm the institution’s commitment to its sexual misconduct policies and to distance themselves from the opinions of their senior staff member. That was it. Shulevitz says that in response “last Wednesday, Northwestern’s president, “Morton O. Schapiro, wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal affirming his commitment to academic freedom.” In fact Schapiro’s article makes no mention of the Kipnis affair, unsurprisingly, since there never was any challenge to academic freedom. There is no suggestion he even had the Kipnis protests in mind.
This is the pattern, again and again. When examined, these incidents of students suppressing free speech turn out to be no such thing. In actuality, a handful of (relatively) powerless activists raise a whisper of objection to something objectionable – often a single raised hand in a lecture hall or a tentative first opinion piece in the student newspaper- only to be denounced as bullies and oppressors by an array of the most powerful voices from some of the most prestigious and elevated media platforms on the planet. It is a bizarre, Alice in Wonderland topsy-turvy narrative where those with the loudest voices yell constantly about being silenced by a handful of sophomores.
Once all the total non-events are stripped from the Shulevitz piece, what are we left with? Well there is the story from 2013 of a student Halloween ball where an Afrobeat band were supposedly cancelled for being “too white.” On closer inspection, it appears what happened is that a low-key Facebook discussion about “cultural appropriation” was invaded by outside elements who turned it into a full-blown flame / troll war. It appears the organisers decided the booking wasn’t worth the stress and cancelled.
This leads neatly on to the one example in the article which really does raise a free speech concern – the cancellation of the abortion debate between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill at Christ Church, Oxford, last year.
As is made clear here, the debate was not cancelled to shield delicate students from nasty thoughts. It was cancelled because some students were angry and planned a protest or picket of the event. It appears that the powers that be (whether student or staff, it makes no difference) are now so terrified of student activism that they will cancel an event at the merest whiff of a protest. There is a clear parallel too in the cancellation of comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s gig at Goldsmiths. In that case a protest wasn’t even organised, just the slightest mention of the idea of a possible protest was enough to elicit panic among organisers.
This is the real story here. Back in the real world, away from the delusions of persecution of the world’s most privileged voices, universities in London, Birmingham and beyond have been taking out injunctions to ban student and staff protests on campus. In Cambridge police were caught trying to recruit students to spy on and inform upon their peers. Not so long ago the president of ULU students’ union was arrested on his way home from speaking at a peaceful rally.
It is easy to point at student politics and laugh. As the well-meaning activist with her rape-culture rumpus room made only too apparent, sometimes students can be very silly indeed. It was ever thus. Nonetheless, student politics matters – even if only as a training ground for years to come, campaigns to come, careers to come.
The right to free speech on campus is non-negotiable, academic freedom is essential. So too is the right to protest, the right to agitate, the right to organise, the right to picket. Free speech not only means the right to say unpalatable and unpopular things, it also involves the right to call oppression and bigotry for what they are when we see them.
At present, the real danger on campuses is not from plaintive student demands for safe-spaces and trigger warnings, but the systematic and often concerted efforts to avoid or prevent protests and demonstrations, to shame and bully radicals into silence, into acquiescence with their seniors and presumed betters. While for decades patronising old lefties have bemoaned the lack of radicalism and political consciousness among students, now many of the same old lefties bemoan its very existence.