“Fascist” is, like so many words in this debate, open to elastic interpretation. When no-platform policies were first instituted by the NUS back in 1974, they were aimed specifically at the far right in the shape of the National Front, and their sympathisers. Such parties were known to incite racism and violence.
The journalist and author David Aaronovitch was a student at the time and later president of the National Union of Students. “The idea was that fascism appeals to an ur-instinct so you can’t afford to debate it,” he says. “If you debate it, you make it respectable.”
Although he supported the policy at the time, he noticed that from early on there were activists who sought to expand the definition and the categories of people “fascism” would include. Nowadays no-platform policies have given up focusing only on the far right. Many of the people who have found it hard to be heard at British universities in the past year could be described in many ways but not, by any sober definition, as “fascists”.
The veteran feminist and provocateur Germaine Greer, the journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, the feminist and campaigner Julie Bindel, the comedians Dapper Laughs and Kate Smurthwaite – contentious, sometimes offensive, sometimes funny, but none of them a goose-stepping neo-Nazi. Yet all have either been banned, disinvited or had events cancelled at British universities.
Students from Cardiff University attempted to have Greer disinvited from speaking there. Greer, it should be remembered, has made scathing remarks about transgender women. She once wrote that “when a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho), it is as if he murders her and gets away with it.”
But while it may be true that transgender people, women and ethnic minorities may feel more embattled, it’s not hard to find examples of these identities in hostile competition to be heard or silenced. Take the case of Julie Bindel, the lesbian feminist and longtime campaigner against violence against women. With that kind of profile, you’d think she’d be welcomed by student activists all over the country.
However, Bindel has also been critical of some aspects of gender reassignment surgery and transgenderism, which has led her to being declared a “vile transphobe” by the NUS LGBT campaign. Last October she was banned from speaking at an event at Manchester University. The topic of the debate Bindel was excluded from? Censorship.
Or look at the comedian Kate Smurthwaite. She is a feminist and activist against the sexual exploitation of women who doesn’t appear to be a threat to anyone’s safety other than that of men who pay for prostitutes – she supports the Nordic model of prostitution law, which criminalises punters.
Yet Smurthwaite was informed a few days before she was due to play a gig last year at Goldsmiths College in south London that “there is a likeliness that the ‘safe space’ policy we abide by could be breached”. Apparently members of Goldsmiths Feminist Society decided that Smurthwaite’s views on prostitution, which were not in her show, were “whorephobic” and planned to picket the performance.
After the organisers consulted college security, it was decided to call the show off. But that isn’t the most surprising intervention by members of the Goldsmiths’ Feminist Society. They had a walk-on part in another revealing episode in which the concept of safe space was employed by one interest group in order to try to censor another.
Last November a curious scene took place at Goldsmiths that captured something of the contradictions that surround the debate on acceptable speech. It happened during a talk given by the human-rights activist Maryam Namazie. The Iranian-born Namazie is spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims and campaigns for secularism, feminism, freedom of expression and against Islamist extremism. As such she is a controversial figure.
Earlier last year she was barred from giving a speech at Warwick University when an officer from the student union decided that she was too “inflammatory” to be heard. Following media attention, that decision was later overturned by the union president, Issac Leigh. He insists that external pressure played no part in the reversal, that it was simply the normal review procedure taking effect after a poor initial assessment of risk. Namazie remains sceptical. She believes Warwick backed down as a result of public attention.
Namazie had been invited to Goldsmiths by the college’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (Ash) to speak on the subject of blasphemy and apostasy in the age of Isis. Recognising the sensitivity of the subject, Ash informed Goldsmiths Islamic Society (Isoc) of the Namazie event. In reply Ash received an email from the head of the Isoc: “We feel having her present will be a violation to our safe space,” it read, “a policy which Goldsmiths SU adheres to strictly, and my society feels that all she will do is incite hatred and bigotry, at a very sensitive time for Muslims in the light of a huge rise in Islamophobic attacks.”
Despite the Isoc protest, Ash decided to go ahead with the meeting and the student union did not prevent them. The president of Ash at Goldsmiths, Asher Fainman explains his reasoning: “In regards to the external speaker policy, there needs to be a clear distinction between people who condemn the personhood of a religious group and a criticism of religion as ideology like any other. And these are often conflated. So you can get people barred for criticising your ideology on the grounds that they’re discriminating against your race. It’s a dangerous conflation because it leads to this toxic atmosphere of identity politics.”
There is a video of what took place on YouTube. Namazie is heckled and subject to a prolonged campaign of disruption by a group of students from the Isoc. They shout out, get up and sit down, walk around the room, laugh when she refers to Bangladeshi bloggers being hacked to death, and at one stage shut down her overhead projector when it displays a [British webcomic] Jesus and Mo cartoon.
An atmosphere of agitation and tension pervades the room, and in spite of the presence of a security guard, the sight of a number of men trying to silence a lone woman seems uncomfortably close to physical intimidation.
“I absolutely support the right of Isoc members to protest our event,” says Fainman. “I think we need more of that but you have to draw the line at where they’re preventing the speaker from talking – turning off the PowerPoint and shouting her down.”
Yet when Namazie finally cracks and tells her tormentors to be quiet, one of the ringleaders calls out in reply: “Safe space! Safe space! Intimidation!”
It’s an almost comically discordant moment. The bearded man shouting “safe space” doesn’t look remotely intimidated. Instead he seems like someone who knows exactly what the approved complaint is to make, someone who is fully aware of his consumer rights.
The problem is that the assertion of such rights inevitably infringes on the rights of others. Indeed Goldsmiths Isoc should know all about the give-and-take of free speech. Up until relatively recently, Isocs were largely ignored by students, student unions and university authorities and left to invite whoever they wanted to speak, without any real scrutiny at all. Few students felt compelled to protest, perhaps fearing the accusation of Islamophobia or racism.
Many notorious hate preachers have given lectures at Isocs in the past decade and several prominent Isoc members were involved in terror plots. Kafeel Ahmed, a former member of Queen’s University Belfast Isoc, died in the suicide bomb attack on Glasgow Airport in 2007. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber” who tried to down a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, had previously been president of the University College London Isoc.
As a result the government Prevent strategy sought to clamp down on extremism on university campuses. However legislation is invariably a heavy-handed method of speech control and many observers feel that Prevent has served to increase the climate of censorship and also single out Muslim students for special restrictive treatment.
But if the aim of the Prevent strategy was to deter the kind of extremism that could lead to terrorism, while at the same time allowing unsavoury views, then the experience of Goldsmiths Isoc would suggest it hasn’t been a complete failure. In the past few years the Isoc has invited speakers who defend wife-beating and the criminalisation of homosexuality. What’s more, soon after Namazie’s visit, it emerged that the Goldsmiths Isoc president’s Twitter account contained several homophobic messages, and he was forced to resign.
Yet critically both Goldsmiths LGBTQ Society and its Feminist Society condemned Namazie and offered their support to the Isoc. As the Feminist Society’s statement read: “Goldsmiths Feminist Society stands in solidarity with Goldsmiths Islamic Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and agree that hosting known Islamophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.”
“It’s been very much my experience that much of ‘progressive’ student politics has bought into the Islamist narrative that sees any dissent as bigotry and an ‘attack’ on ‘Muslim students’,” says Namazie. “This is absurd given that ‘Muslim students’ are clearly not homogeneous. What the societies did was not to side with ‘Muslims’ against bigotry but to side with Islamists who condone homophobia, misogyny and the death penalty for apostasy.”
The paradoxical nature of this situation was not lost on the Student Rights blog, which noted: “So the feminist and LGBTQ society think it appropriate to ban a vocal opponent of wife-beating, lethal homophobia, apostasy laws and terrorism, while supporting a society that promotes and invites misogynistic and homophobic Islamists.”
All of this might seem like a storm in an unwashed tea cup – just more student politics getting worked up over nothing. But that would be to miss a new paradigm which the Goldsmiths incident illustrates. Universities are not just becoming less tolerant of a range of viewpoints and more indulgent of those who demand that such views be silenced. The language of equality, justice and “safe spaces” has been adopted by groups who intend to promote their own views at the expense of others.