By Isabella Lyons
Once a melting-pot for political activism, the debate-provoking, thought-inducing, risk-taking nature of the British University bubble is firmly on its way to being popped; and Cardiff University isn’t a stranger to this worrying reality. From Dapper Laughs in 2014, to the more recent, and eventually overturned, decision to “No Platform” Germaine Greer in October last year, we as students have been exposed to some of the most severe, national-headline worthy cases in destabilising a celebrated fruit of Western liberty: the Freedom of Speech.
Highlighted by the online publication spiked and their “Free Speech University Rankings” which, using a traffic-light system, categorised all 115 University’s in the UK based on their approach surrounding the freedom of speech: Cardiff was ranked red. Alongside 63 other higher-education institutions, Cardiff is considered to have “banned and actively censored ideas on campus”. Part of an increasing majority linked as far back as the 1970’s, University’s in the UK have been subject to decades of growing political censorship filtered through the structure of the “Safe Space”. This isn’t some Orange Is The New Black tangent – however, it does beg one to question the irony behind the growing imprisonment of our thoughts – but it is a genuine mantra employed to ensure that no student ever faces discrimination. Now, whatever idyllic, utopic, flawless fantasy this may appear to promote, it quite simply is not a reality.
Described on the Cardiff University Student Union’s website as, “Under the umbrella campaign “Not on our Campus”, the Students’ Union will seek to educate students on the standards expected of them whilst continuing to ensure that Cardiff University and its Students’ Union is a safe and welcoming place for everyone.” Firstly, not only does this highly patronise my independent ability to “educate”, and essentially execute, moral decisions on my own, but the irony – when taking into account that the very title of the account is “Dapper Laughs is not welcome in Cardiff” – is borderline hilarious. Regardless of whether you agree with Dapper Laughs or not, whether his jokes cause you to roll on the floor laughing or cringe in a pit of moral despair, his right is to do exactly that: to make some people laugh, and others to woefully disagree with him. However, as demonstrated perfectly by CUSU, the moment this is undermined we start to blur the lines (Robin Thicke pun intended) between “free speech”, and what the moral-majority would deem as “acceptable speech”.
The point that mustn’t be forgotten is that the freedom of speech has never been about saying what people “want” to hear, nor evoking ideas that sat “safely” or comfortably with the harmonious majority of society. It’s what allowed Martin Luther King to profess a dream; for Charles Darwin to expel religious fundamentalism with the theory of natural selection; it has given us Salman Rushdie’s, ‘The Satanic Verses’, Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in The Rye’ and D.H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’; it’s what gave even bloody Socrates the courage to declare when on trial in 399BC that, ‘If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, “Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.”‘ It has been a vital tool – and not to mention a priceless Western privilege – in carving out the lives, liberties, and societies that we live by today. It’s a tool fundamental to our University life, evident from the 78 per cent of students that expressed concern in Cardiff’s red status, right down to the name of the very newspaper you are reading this article in, deriving its name from the Welsh translation of “free speech”.
The fact of the matter is, the world is inundated with bigoted, prejudice, morally-incoherent, and quite frankly, shitty beliefs, professed by equally as questionable people; University Campus’ are no exception to this. Yet, banning them doesn’t make them disappear, it doesn’t prevent them from speaking elsewhere, nor does it incite change or, more importantly, invite challenge. How does one get rid of hate speech? By coming back at it with better speech.
Cardiff University needs to start having a conversation; to engage in what is being said, and respectively reply with our own, self-sourced, intellectually-developed belief’s as to why we understand something, or someone, to be wrong – rather than having the University body to do it for you before they’ve even crossed the Severn Bridge. We are all at a stage in our lives that is imperative in developing our sense of selves. The very premise of University is to grow-up; it’s a stepping stone into the real world; it provides an intellectual and personal independence that inspired many of us to go in the first place. Yet, the second your University makes the judgement on what you can and cannot hear, it is immediately undermining your ability, and inferring your incapability, of doing it yourself.
What shouldn’t be confused is that those, myself included, campaigning for the absolute freedom of speech on our campus’ aren’t condoning the beliefs of hatred, prejudice or misogyny. But, by encouraging the confrontation, not censorship, of it, we are resonantly striving to end it. I ardently believe in the value of our generation’s political perspective, and much of that starts with our right to exercise it. With every speaker we “No Platform”, every comedian we petition to ban, or every individual we deem “unwelcome” on our campus, we are asking for a cushion between us and the real world.