Last week, many young anti-NUS activists across the UK were both thrilled and surprised to hear that Prime Minister Theresa May, and also Tory MP Victoria Atkins, have heard our voice, as they hit out during Prime Minister’s Questions at the “safe space” policy found on many university campuses. Fascinating words, and potentially a crucial development, as it was just last year that the Times suggested May’s counter-terrorism and security bill’s imposition of a duty upon universities to ban extremist speakers and root out would-be radicals would only further erode the free debate for which universities are renowned. Meanwhile, others are wondering what on earth a “safe space” even is, and why May’s words caused induced such excitement in some student activists.
Few people would object to the notion that an educational institution should be a space where students feel safe regardless of their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other protected characteristic – but it is not to this principle that opposition has arisen. Rather, controversy has been borne of students’-union policies that many critics see as an Orwellian muzzling of free debate, and a willingness to stifle speech not just to address and prevent actual danger, but to go a very crucial step further, and do so instead to allay nothing more than the fear of such. All over the country, stories have emerged of emotional cosseting that beggar belief – earlier this year, for example, a student of the University of Edinburgh was threatened with being expelled from a meeting for raising her hand; this was deemed a violation of “safe space” rules. These allegedly heinous crimes of thought or innocent expression can earn their respective offenders a “trigger [of discomfort] warning” from the students’ union; other infractions include clapping one’s hands, for supposed fear of traumatising other students. Laughably unenforceable though these rules may seem, they are becoming more widespread with each passing month, and are seen by many as directly responsible for a climate not dissimilar to that which permeated the pages of Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty Four
Perhaps fittingly, an Orwellian Newspeak has been penned to describe these worryingly illiberal policies by their advocates and architects. One term in this new lexicon is “triggering” – that the words or actions of others can cause flashbacks. It is important to stress here that this is by no means an invention; it would be wrong, both factually and ethically to deny that the sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder are genuinely afflicted by such episodes, and it is only right that they are given support. However, true sufferers of trauma are belittled by the protests of these spoilt and arrogant dilettantes, who form a set of pampered elites in the social terrain of indulgent Islington. It is an insult to the genuine sufferers of trauma disorders for this progressive bourgeoisie to engage in such spoilt screaming, simply because they were exposed to a different religious or political view. From cradle to grave, they are catered for so ubiquitously, that, rather than learning to accept and welcome the diversity of opinion which marks free society, they become offended that their bubble of virtuous left-wing purism can ever be punctured by someone with the courage to say, “Hang on a minute…”
It is thus an issue of national importance that our most prized academic institutions are being taken over by these bourgeois bullies. In the name of “safety”, students’ unions now censor any speech or events which left-wing academics (not uncommonly sociologists) fear could possibly make a student feel at all uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of protected characteristics – and, naturally, this list of proscribed opinion has come to represent huge swathes of right-wing political ideology. Two years ago, Derby University Students’ Union refused to lift a ban on UKIP, justifying this with the explicit statement that “students had a right to feel safe while studying on campus”.
There is thus much truth in Tory MP Victoria Atkins’ claim that this “sense of righteous entitlement, by a minority of students, means that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate”. The National Union of Students supports and effectively promotes the system of “safe spaces” around the UK, restricting the expression of any and all ideas that do not meet the regressive-left political agenda it agrees upon at its conferences. As an institution, the NUS believes it has a default, innate and unarguable ideological supremacy – and thus, because any political movement driven by mere emotion is made to feel insecure and terrified of fact-based arguments, it resorts to political hysteria whenever this asserted supremacy is challenged.
Said Atkins, “Freedom of speech is a fundamental British value which is undermined by so-called safe spaces”. This concept of freedom of expression can be traced to John Stuart Mill’s arguments in Chapter II of his magnum opus, On Liberty. To the surprise of some, Mill did actually place upon free speech a limit, though said limit was at once simple and complex. It is simple insofar as the avoidance of harm is the only allowed limit, but complex in that there is much controversy as to what should meet such a definition of harm. Locke, John Stuart Mill, Jefferson, Rand, Rothbard, so many key writers on individual liberty, agreed that the sole caveat to freedom was that it cannot be used to harm others, in a qualification known as the “non-aggression principle”. But let’s be serious about this: as was explicated by Atkins, the right not to be offended does not override freedom of speech. Independently-thinking individuals advance the search for truth by following their thoughts as far as they can – even if doing so yields conclusions that make them, and their fellow citizens, uncomfortable. The 21st-century Newspeak of the safe-spacers would be alien to the pioneering champions of liberty, but I think it safe to say that Locke would not support being “triggered” as justification to silence one’s peer. Offence is taken, not given, and so it can never form part of any objective definition of “harm”.
However, the National Union of Socialist Safe Spaces would think otherwise. In a recent debate about free speech on the BBC2 Victoria Derbyshire programme, Richard Brooks, the NUS Vice-President, summed up their view with accidental but telling accuracy as he (presumably inadvertently) paraphrased another of Orwell’s great works, Animal Farm, stating that “everyone has an equal right to freedom of speech; however, some people have more equal rights than others”. The leaders of Soviet-like students’ unions claim to represent all students but they enforce a tyrannical ideological homogeneity upon their student bodies, with all the political diversity – or, rather, cult-like loyalty – of a Nuremberg Rally. The environment they create is one in which only the bravest and most principled of students dare to express a contrarian view, and the free marketplace of ideas and arguments is itself seen as the flawed, neoliberal child of a colonialist past. It is only in this repressively hostile climate that one could so innocently quote Animal Farm.
Brooks seems to be blissfully unaware that, for centuries, British legislation and classical liberal ideology has increasingly promoted the idea of individual rights, with no more state intervention in people’s lives than is necessary; he should realise that the individual is always the smallest minority. To this effect, universities are places where free speech is supposed to be sacrosanct. Hence, Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 states that every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of universities has “the duty to ensure” that freedom of speech within the law is secured, including “that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with: a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body”. Simply put, the NUS policy of “No Platform” would appear to be illegal – but you can bet that the NUS has an army of lawyers ready to defend it from the membership that pays for them.
The first casualty of this suppression of free discussion is truth. Mill argued that if the majority silences its opponents, it will never have to defend its belief and over time will forget the arguments for it; hence students must be encouraged to stand up to and rigorously debate ideas, rather than “no-platform” speakers they don’t agree with. Theresa May made it explicit how it should be: “We want our universities not just to be places of learning but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged, and people can get involved in that.” As Mill continued, it is often the case that neither party has complete truth, which is why it is so important that ideas can meet in the argumentative intercourse of open debate, and birth new orthodoxies and understandings that combine the partial truths of both sides. This is analogous to evolution – and it is not just our undisputable past, but our only positive future.
It’s thus long time we rejected the National Union of Students, and the students’ unions they give succour to; these useless, Orwellian, bureaucratic organisations have ceased to be platforms of representations, and are instead a tool of the radical left; there is no organisation in Western society more uncomfortable with the views of its members, including the Labour Party. Last academic year, four universities disaffiliated from the NUS, and those of us who champion the fundamentally human values of free debate and intellectual diversity, are determined that more will join them this year. A culture in which opinions are subject to challenge promotes the development in individuals of strengths of character that are invaluable to a society, including the ability to engage in critical inquiry, a willingness to challenge beliefs held firmly by oneself and others, and the courage to stand up for convictions that are not widely held. The NUS stands for none of these, and its illiberal and intolerant leaders are long overdue a revolutionary overthrowing of their own. Long live the revolution.