I was unsurprised to read that Cardiff University has been named as one of the worst universities in the country for the suppression of free speech. It is category ‘Red’ according to independent body ‘Spiked’, which examines the policies and actions of universities and students’ unions and then ranks them on a traffic-light system. ‘Red’ is defined as a university ‘that is hostile to free speech and free expression. It mandates explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words.’
This may sound extreme, however for those acquainted with Union policy, it should come as no surprise. You may well know that you cannot purchase a copy of The Sun, or indeed any ‘lads’ mags’ in our Students’ Union. Now, although a union where 5/6 elected officers are male clearly has its own gender equality issues to contend with, this is a ban that I could defend in principle. As is the ban against advertising sports such as horse racing, greyhound racing, game shooting, and so on. I could also defend the ban against playing certain songs on our radio station, or the extremely well publicised ban against ‘Dapper Laughs’ performing here. In fact, I fully agree with the feeling behind all of these. However, it is not the sentiment behind these bans that are the problem — it’s the fact that they exist at all.
To begin with, banning things simply does not work. If you ban something, you brush it under the proverbial carpet. Yes, you may find temporary relief, but the issue does not vanish, awareness is not increased, and its root problems are not solved. To ban what you dislike is to display the short-sighted arrogance of a dictator. To assume that your ideology is shared by all and then shape an institution accordingly is, undeniably, fascistic. It merely pushes the ‘thing’ that has been banned to the fringes, underground, and thus temporarily away from the critical gaze.
Consequently, the student fetish with banning the disagreeable has achieved very little. I’d like to suggest that those calling for a ‘thing’ to be banned ask themselves this simple question. What will the ‘prohibition’ do to address the root problem? In most cases of student-implemented bans, the answer is nothing at all.
More commonly then, it is a matter of the few students who are in a position of power imposing their own faux-liberal dogma on a majority. I say ‘faux’ liberal because there is nothing liberal in the notion of banning what you dislike. In fact, it is the height of illiberalism. Let me propose, then, that our Student Senate consisted solely of right-wingers who banned The Guardian. Or solely of staunch libertarians who repealed all drinking regulations. In both instances it is not the beliefs themselves that are at fault, but the fact that these beliefs are being imposed on all.
And this is no exaggeration. This problem extends beyond bans and onto fully fledged belief systems and ideologies. For example, at last year’s AGM meeting, there was a lengthy debate about a controversial motion aiming to make our Students’ Union ‘pro-choice’. Now, to me at least, the utter absurdity of that sentence is striking. Why must an SU which serves all students form an official stance on this? The greatest irony can be found in the motion’s ninth requirement, which states that ‘any information about abortion or contraception…presented in Union or University buildings must be unbiased’. This is an astounding claim within a motion aiming to create an openly biased union.
This is a perfect example of the wider problem. Many students only value free speech when the speech is agreeable, and only deplore bias when the persuasion is not. Look no further than the ‘No Platform’ and ‘Anti-Ukip policies of the NUS for examples of this. I’m sure the contradictory nature of opposing ‘fascist views’ by denying a platform for them is not lost on you.
For too long has student politics been dominated by this reprehensible mindset. It is a mindset that is inherently intolerant, close-minded, and seemingly allergic to any kind of discussion of difficult or controversial topics. In fact, the prevalence of this mindset in so many students’ unions, not just ours, is hugely patronising. For example, banning the likes of The Sun and Blurred Lines under a feminist pretence directly implies that young women should be sheltered and protected from these forms of misogyny. I, as someone who identifies as a feminist, believe that female students are both intelligent and strong enough to directly engage with these problems and do not require this futile shielding. This argument applies to all bans; do we really need this political mollycoddling? You may well say that you simply don’t want these things at your university — and therein lies problem number two.
This campaign of bans, boycotts, and motions against all that conflicts with the mainstream liberal mantra is turning universities into ideological bubbles that do not reflect reality. A university should prepare and develop its students for the ever-looming darkness of the real world. A world that is indescribably cruel, unjust and unbearably offensive. There are page-3 gogglers on every train, Ukip supporters in every office and religious fanatics in every town. And this is, whatever you may believe, the way it should be. In our lives we will encounter people or things that we disagree with and should be equipped with the ability to engage in rational debate with them. Universities should be a place where we practice these skills to the full but, as things stand, they are fostering a mentality whereby problems and issues are superficially resolved with bans rather than real debate and discourse.
After all, if there’s anywhere where discussion should be encouraged without fear of reprisal, it should be in a university. Currently, this is not the case.