Facebook-style community standards are making our universities boring. Censorship doesn’t just give students the freedom of tolerance, it prevents them from learning to tolerate.
I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where controversial debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.
What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring (not you, Anna) and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.
It didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s recent Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach. More worryingly though, Bath Spa was listed as one of five universities that actively prevented it.
Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me tell you that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red.
In red universities, the idea of “safe space”, a commitment to provide a tolerant environment for students of all identities so that they are free to express who they are, is deemed more important than freedom of speech. The origins of safe space make sense – it was born out of US protests against military recruitment on campus in the 70s and the ‘no-platform’ policy against fascist groups later that decade. But the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. It’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets community standards.
Last week, for example, comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show, Lefty Cockwomble, was cancelled at red-ranked Goldsmiths University because her views on sex work were flagged as inappropriate. The comedian ‘likes’ the Nordic model of legislation on sex work – which criminalises buying, rather than selling, sex – while Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, according to one of the event’s organisers, “’for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”.
The society voted 70:30 in favour of letting the event go ahead. However, Smurthwaite was branded ‘whorephobic” by a few vehement opposers who threatened to picket the event anyway so the community moderators pulled the plug. Ironically, the show was about free speech and had nothing to do with prostitution, but Smurthwaite is not alone. Both Julie Bindle and Germaine Greer have found themselves unfriended by unions too, for their controversial views on trans women.
A no-platform attitude to outlandishly degrading content or sexist, homophobic or racist hate speech is understandable. Yet Goldsmiths’ view on prostitution is too radical to sensibly enforce rules that exclude non-believers – their femsoc only has 220 likes on Facebook, but the Nordic Model Advocates have a whopping 815. Besides, in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in.
Supporters of safe space argue that while debate is important, there is a place for the discussion of opposing or potentially hurtful views and that place is not, as they see it, students’ homes. Providing a platform for ideas legitimises them, and broadcasting one’s opinion is not an absolute right. It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts. However, it’s all a bit ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. Building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t teach them to tolerate.
If the recent attacks on Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo highlighted anything, it’s that we live in a diverse world where the inability to efficiently debate opposing views can have disastrous consequences. Sometimes in life, there are going to be people who don’t like you and university should help prepare us for that. I did learn one lesson in tolerance from my university, however – how not to deal with people who bore me.