Bahar Mustafa, responsible for developing and enforcing safe spaces to avert harassment and discrimination at Goldsmith University, is arrested under a law designed to prevent harassment and discrimination. for comments made during an argument about her advocacy of safe spaces to protect people from harassment and discrimination. This woman of colour had commited the (seemingly) criminal offence of tweeting the phrase #killallwhitemen.
Meanwhile another feminist woman of colour, my FTB colleague Maryam Namazie is invited then banned then unbanned then reinvited to speak at Warwick students union, the fiasco created by disagreement as to whether her feminist, socialist, secular, anti-fundamentalist views might incite religious hatred or Islamophobia and create an unsafe space for Muslim students.
Jane Fae, feminist and trans activist, is harassed and threatened by feminists who feel that her views and / or presence at the Feminism in London conference will compromise their sense of safety. She withdraws from the event. Other feminists Julie Bindel and Caroline Criado-Perez also pull out of the programme in her support.
The self-same Julie Bindel, who has just withdrawn from a major feminist event in support of the rights of a trans woman, is banned from speaking at a debate in Manchester because her history of transphobic remarks and opposition to transgender rights are said to create an unsafe and threatening environment for trans students.
Another speaker at the same debate, the professionally misogynistic and transphobic Milo Yiannopoulis, was to be allowed only if extra security measures were in place. The ban on the event was justified with reference to policies that are almost identical to those enforced by Bahar Mustafa at Goldsmiths. In a definitive demonstration that the chaos of the universe is scripted by a comic genius, the debate was to have been entitled ‘Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?’
Now at this stage, if you are not confused you are really not paying attention. Over recent weeks the clouds that have been rumbling for years have finally broken in a perfect storm of self-referential, self-destructive irony. At least in respect of freedom of speech versus safe spaces, feminism has become the Ouroboros, the snake which curls around and eats its own tail.
I have written before about my scepticism around much of the media coverage and commentary on issues of safe spaces, trigger warnings etc. Many of the problems stem from the conflating of protest or objection with censorship. I believe universities (both institutions and student bodies) have a responsibility to facilitate both free expression and opposition and protest against the views being expressed. Too often event organisers would rather pull a plug than manage the demonstrations. The biggest threats to political freedom on modern campuses come not from censorious students but legal injunctions against activism and organisation.
Having reiterated that, there is no escaping the truth that there is a real and growing problem at universities, particularly around the politics of gender and the politics of secularism / atheism.
There is a juvenile libertarian line on this problem, promoted by the likes of Spiked and Breitbart. This advocates an untrammelled free-for-all on opinion, expression and speech, up to and including so-called hate speech and incitement. It might look like a tempting solution, but it too quickly swallows its own tail. You can easily imagine a student union filled with fascist skinheads cheering proposals to chase non-white people off campus or Islamic fundamentalists insisting that homosexuals should be thrown off cliffs. Hurray for free speech, unless you are queer or black or both and now completely unable to attend the union to exercise your own freedom of expression. This is the fundamental freedom-for-the-lion dilemma. Libertarians will tell you that it is the deeds that should be punished and policed, not the words – ie you don’t intervene when someone threatens to kill gay people, only when they actually attempt to do so in reality. This is of course why libertarians are overwhelmingly privileged white men who have neither the experience nor the empathy required to understand how systematic structural oppression rules through fear and intimidation.
And talking of privileged white men, where do I come into all of this? Well, from time to time I am invited to speak to students, and over the years I have spoken about civil liberties, about anarchism and protest politics, about secularism and (particularly) about gender politics. Now there is never any money in this and little else to gain, I say yes when I can because it is flattering to be invited and polite to agree, but I’d just as happily stay home and watch the football. However I am increasingly discomfited by the thought that my views and expressed opinions must be corralled within arbitrary limits of safe acceptability, my presence and contributions are conditional upon my beliefs. I am not sure I wish to speak under those conditions.
Is there a way out of this impasse? I’d hope so. It is more than reasonable that outside speakers on campus are asked to agree not to incite hatred or violence, not to intimidate, harass or discriminate. It is reasonable, I believe, for students unions to exclude any organisations that are defined by their oppressive politics, whether fascist or religious fundamentalist or whatever. It is not reasonable (or indeed practical) to exclude anyone and everyone who has ever said or written something which someone, somewhere might consider offensive or discriminatory.
There will always be marginal decisions. There will always be difficult calls and controversy, that is the nature of balancing competing rights and interests. But there can be no doubt that the situation as it stands is unsustainable and increasingly, laughably ridiculous. More pertinently, it is no longer even achieving its own objectives of maintaining campuses as a place where it is safe for all students to learn, to live and to grow.