QotD: “Passionate, experienced informed commentators no-platformed and muzzled, just for having a different point of view, widening the scope for debate and other such major thought crimes”
Pupils at the Simon Langton grammar school for boys in Canterbury have written an open letter, complaining about the decision to ban former pupil, Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, from giving a talk at the school, owing to his “reputational issues”.
Yiannopoulos, who was banned after pressure from the Department for Education, clearly fancies himself to be quite the shock-jock, with his racist and sexist views (“America has a Muslim problem”; feminism is “like cancer”). Proper little charmer, isn’t he? However, the Canterbury pupils say they don’t need to be protected from “indoctrination” and have been denied the right to “interrogate rhetoric”. They said that silencing Yiannopoulos vindicated him, “reinforcing his accusation that our society is against free speech”. Bravo. Give those pupils a merit mark.
What a lesson for all those organisations and groups that have banned speakers (Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell included), sometimes on the most spurious grounds, in the eternal quest for the “safe space”.
Passionate, experienced informed commentators no-platformed and muzzled, just for having a different point of view, widening the scope for debate and other such major thought crimes.
Clearly, such people shouldn’t be banned. Then there are the likes of Yiannopoulos. Couldn’t we ban people like him – go on, just a little bit? After all, does anyone really benefit from standing downwind of such pathetic attention-seeking?
However, Yiannopoulos shouldn’t be banned, not just because he enjoys it too much, or even because it’s wrong, but mainly because it’s dangerous.
It is also nonsensical. Have recent times taught us nothing? There are no safe spaces, it was all a mirage. Or, if you like, a mirage wrapped in a delusion inside an echo chamber. While the anguished central casting liberal “we should have listened to people more” rhetoric is becoming somewhat overplayed, there’s no doubt that, if 2016 has been anything, it’s been the year of “you can run but you can’t hide”. A year that’s demonstrated that however smart, decent and switched-on you think you and your mates are, there’s a big, bad, increasingly powerful counter-reality out there that vehemently disagrees, and the very last thing that people should do is ignore it.
Of course, it’s jarring sometimes. Andrew Marr interviewing Marine Le Pen sent me screaming back into the shower for a good scrub. Then there’s Nigel Farage… everywhere. Let’s be clear: I’m not in the market for normalising certain beliefs, giving prejudice a comfy perch in the national and international conversation or making media darlings or “amusing” circus turns out of the likes of Farage.
While it’s possible to be angered by some no-platforms, and more instinctively sympatico with others, the fact remains that it’s all unworkable. However odious people’s views are, they must be smoked out, challenged, ridiculed, exposed, rather than allowed to fester in the shadows and in the darkest, smelliest pockets of the internet, all the time preening as martyrs.
Above all, it is time to grasp, just as the Canterbury pupils did, that there’s no such thing as “free-ish speech”. Free speech is either truly free, for everybody, or it is the worthless joke that democracy’s enemies want it to be. Nor are there any “safe spaces” – it was all just a lovely dream.
What was called “safe” was just intellectual suffocation, with everyone pleading and cajoling: “Come on world, play nice!” Increasingly, what’s more dangerous than that?
Archive on 4 BBC Radio programme on just now with a good history and discussion on ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’.
The no platforming of Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer are mentioned, as was the intimidation of Maryam Namazie by Goldsmiths Islamic Society.
The NUS policy of ‘No Platform’, which blocks members of six proscribed organisations speaking on university campuses, has been the subject of a huge amount of debate recently. Similarly, the related issue of establishing so-called ‘safe spaces’ within universities, which results in speakers being blocked because their opinions might offend or upset members of the student population, has been widely discussed, with many commentators suggesting the creation of a new generation gap opening up between middle-aged graduates concerned about free speech on campus and younger students who say this older group is out of touch with a politics more concerned with identity than class. As Professor Andrew Hussey explores in this programme, in fact both ‘No Platform’ and ‘Safe Spaces’ were created by that older generation, having been born out of the student politics movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and while they were primarily concerned with keeping the violent message of the far right away from campus, they also saw many other speakers either barred from talking or angrily shouted down. Hussey will hear how no platforming, made official NUS policy in 1974, took its inspiration from the disruptive methods of anti-fascist campaigners in the 1930s. Having examined this history, Hussey will set about (with help from contributors including David Aaronovitch, Kaite Welsh and Richard Brooks from the NUS) examining whether there has indeed been a shift in recent times, making the current incarnations of ‘no platform’ and ‘safe spaces’ a real danger, as many have suggested, to free speech on University campuses. Along the way he’ll consider archive both recent and dating back to the 70s/80s, and examine what for him is one of the most troubling aspects of this whole debate – the use of ‘safe spaces’ as an excuse to barrack and intimidate speakers through the employment of the ‘heckler’s veto’.
“Not far from the walls of Enna, there is a deep pool,” begins Ovid’s version of the rape of Persephone. “While [Persephone] was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, [Pluto], almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love.”
The Greek myth has been recounted for thousands of years in hundreds of languages, scores of countries and countless works of art. It’s considered a cultural touchstone for Western civilization: a parable about power, lust and grief.
Now, however, it could be getting a treatment it’s never had before: a trigger warning.
In an op-ed in the student newspaper, four Columbia University undergrads have called on the school to implement trigger warnings — alerts about potentially distressing material — even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry.
“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote the four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”
The April 30 op-ed has stirred debate on campus and online.
“Grow up, open up, care less about your identity and more about your passions,” wrote one of hundreds of commenters. “Such an insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears.”
The op-ed comes at a time of intense debate about trigger warnings, a term that is 20 years old but only recently has become a proxy for broader issues such as political correctness, identity politics, liberal arts education and sexual assault.
The phrase can be traced back to the treatment of Vietnam War veterans in the 1980s, according to BuzzFeed’s Alison Vingiano. Psychologists started identifying “triggers” that sent vets spiraling into flashbacks of past traumas. With the rise of the Internet in the late ’90s, feminist message boards began using “trigger warnings” to warn readers of content that could stir up painful or paralyzing memories of sexual assault.
Trigger warnings quickly spread to include discussions of everything from eating disorders to self injury to suicide. In 2010, sex blogger Susannah Breslin wrote that feminists were using the term “like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan.” Breslin argued that trigger warnings were pointless or, even worse, self-defeating. A trigger warning is “like a flashing neon sign, attracting *more* attention to a particularly explicit post, even as it purports to deflect the attention of those to whom it might actually be relevant.”
By 2012, The Awl’s Choire Sicha argued that the phrase had “lost all its meaning.”
“Alerts have been applied to topics as diverse as sex, pregnancy, addiction, bullying, suicide, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, victim-blaming, alcohol, blood, insects, small holes, and animals in wigs,” Jenny Jarvie wrote last year in the New Republic. “Certain people, from rapper Chris Brown to sex columnist Dan Savage, have been dubbed ‘triggering.’ Some have called for trigger warnings for television shows such as ‘Scandal’ and ‘Downton Abbey.’”
But the Internet debate over trigger warnings is nothing compared to the controversy over their use on American university campuses. Last year, students at the University of California at Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking professors to put trigger warnings on class syllabuses and allow students to skip classes containing “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to ‘be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,’ to remove triggering material when it doesn’t ‘directly’ contribute to learning goals and ‘strongly consider’ developing a policy to make ‘triggering material’ optional,” Jarvie wrote. “Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart,’ it states, is a novel that may ‘trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.’ Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.’”
Critics on both the left and the right have expressed concern that these trigger warnings are impinging upon free speech and undermining the meaning of a liberal arts education, where students from all walks of life are exposed to new and often disturbing ideas.
“What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off,” Jarvie wrote. “The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”
“In reality, trigger warnings are unrealistic,” argued Breslin, the sex blogger. “They are the dream-child of a fantasy in which the unknown can be labeled, anticipated, and controlled. What trigger warnings promise — protection — does not exist. The world is simply too chaotic, too out-of-control for every trigger to be anticipated, avoided, and defused.”
“Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement — a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day,” Harvey Silverglate opined in the Wall Street Journal. “What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.”
And yet, it’s no coincidence that trigger warnings have arisen just as sexual assault finally becomes part of the national conversation. As Katie J.M. Baker pointed out in a recent BuzzFeed article, discussing rape and sexual assault simply is different than discussing other societal ills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 women in America have been raped. “As far as brutal crimes go, there won’t be any murder victims sitting in class, but statistically, there will likely be survivors of sexual assault,” Baker wrote.
“Of course I understand the import of studying rape in law school,” one Harvard Law graduate told Baker. “That I expect rape to be taught with the understanding that 1 in 5 women are assaulted while in college, and therefore there are very likely survivors sharing the law school classroom does not mean I am afraid. It means I care.”
In their op-ed, the Columbia undergrads — all women of color — recount the story of another female student.
“During the week spent on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault,” they write. “As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.”
The students then call on Columbia to “issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students” and institute “a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors.”
“Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students,” the students write.
Conservative critics claim that the Columbia students want to silence class discussion of certain texts.
“The hyperbolic language of trauma that’s used! Sheesh,” wrote Elizabeth Nolan Brown in Reason. “Apparently this discussion of Ovid was so threatening it was a matter of self-preservation to ignore it. If that’s really true — if the mere discussion of rape causes this student to feel panicked and physically unsafe — than she needs help treating severe post-traumatic stress disorder, not a f—— trigger warning.”
“Op-eds like this are a call for academic vandalism, defacing culture and history with the ugly graffiti of modern class, race, and sex-war politics,” John Hayward wrote in a Breitbart blog titled “Campus special snowflakes melt upon contact with Greek mythology.”
In the case of the Columbia students, however, they say they want more discussion, not less. A trigger warning on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” might help a student who has suffered sexual assault stay engaged by offering her a chance to discuss the brutality in the text — not just its beauty.
“Our vision for this training is not to infringe upon the instructors’ academic freedom in teaching the material,” the students conclude. “Rather, it is a means of providing them with effective strategies to engage with potential conflicts and confrontations in the classroom, whether they are between students or in response to the material itself. Given these tools, professors will be able to aid in the inclusion of student voices which presently feel silenced.”
Free speech is the lifeblood of a university. It enables the pursuit of knowledge. It helps us approach truth. It allows students, teachers and researchers to become better acquainted with the variety of beliefs, theories and opinions in the world. Recognising the vital importance of free expression for the life of the mind, a university may make rules concerning the conduct of debate but should never prevent speech that is lawful.
Inevitably, this will mean that members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive. The University must therefore foster freedom of expression within a framework of robust civility. Not all theories deserve equal respect. A university values expertise and
intellectual achievement as well as openness. But, within the bounds set by law, all voices or views which any member of our community considers relevant should be given the chance of a hearing. Wherever possible, they should also be exposed to evidence, questioning and argument. As an integral part of this commitment to freedom of expression, we will take steps to ensure that all such exchanges happen peacefully. With appropriate regulation of the time, place and manner of events, neither speakers nor listeners should have any reasonable grounds to feel intimidated or censored.
It is this understanding of the central importance and specific roles of free speech in a university that will underlie the detailed procedures of the University of Oxford.
Universities should be safe spaces – safe spaces for free speech. When I started working on freedom of expression some years ago, I never imagined that threats to it in the university itself would become such a hot topic. But today, a great debate about this is echoing across the English-speaking world.
The dean of students at the University of Chicago recently wrote to inform all new students that: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” And a mighty row erupted when the University of Cape Town rescinded (quite wrongly, in my view) a lecture invitation to Flemming Rose, the journalist who commissioned the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.
On Wednesday, the prime minister, Theresa May, condemned the idea of safe spaces in answer to a parliamentary question. Yet the main reason British universities have been wrestling with the issue of free speech is the duty imposed on them by the government’s counter-terrorism legislation Prevent – introduced by the Home Office while she was home secretary, which in its outrageous original version asked academics to be spies on, and censors of, even non-violent “extremism” (never properly defined). So she May be for free speech, or May be not.
One trouble with this debate is that the important and sometimes difficult balancing judgments that should be its focus are obscured by the silliness, hyperbole and hysteria that accompany it like the raucous camp followers of a medieval army. It also comes with a whole new jargon: trigger warnings, safe spaces, no-platforming, microaggressions.
And it is highly politicised. At this year’s Republican convention in Ohio, speaker after speaker garnered a surefire round of applause by attacking “political correctness”. No one had to explain what they meant: just spit out the two words and trigger the Pavlovian response.
But what might loosely be called the other side is often its own worst enemy. The New York Times recently reported a presentation to new students by the chief diversity officer at Clark University. Among her examples of microaggressions to be avoided, she included saying “you guys”, since the phrase could be interpreted as excluding women. One female Hispanic student, who had repeatedly committed this heinous error, commented gratefully: “This helped me see that I’m a microaggressor too.” What a dreary, anxious, puritanical kindergarten a campus would become if students were constantly worrying whether this or that word might cause offence to someone or other.
But having spent many hours discussing these issues with students and colleagues, I think we need to make a few distinctions. For a start, peaceful if provocative student activism around the renaming of buildings, statues, titles, curriculums and so on is not usually a threat to free speech, and can be an enhancement of it.
Alumni may chunter against the political correctness of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford, and threaten to withdraw their donations, but if student activism has contributed to Georgetown University’s admirable attempt to make amends for having used and sold slaves in the early 19th century, that is surely a good thing. Interestingly, some younger scholars at Oxford are initiating a similar discussion around the Codrington library at All Souls College. (Christopher Codrington was a slave owner.)
A Chicago student defends trigger warnings against the dean’s criticism, saying they simply involve a professor warning his class that, for example, the reading for this week includes a graphic description of sexual assault. In principle, that’s hardly an infringement of free speech. After all, we’re used to television news anchors saying that the next item contains images that some viewers may find disturbing. Some of the suggested trigger warnings – on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example – are absurdly over the top, and we do need to watch out for a creeping chilling effect, but in moderation, where reasonably called for, why not?
The same student explains safe spaces as areas on campus where “students – especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalised – can feel comfortable talking about their experiences”, and gives the example of a Hillel House for Jewish students.
Now if that is all it means, this can also be an enhancement of free speech: people may speak more freely when they feel among their own and, since it involves no compulsion of others, they should be free subjectively to define “their own”. (Whether the safe space idea extends to privileged white men, of the kind known in England as Hooray Henrys, is an interesting question.)
But this is not how the slogan of safe spaces is often used in British and American universities. Rather, the suggestion is that the whole university or college should be a safe space. I have several times heard British students say that to invite a fascist or transphobic speaker to their college is like “having them in your living room”.
Here, anyone who believes that free speech is vital to a university must draw the line. For what these student activists are claiming when they insist that, for example, Germaine Greer may not speak on a particular campus (because of her view that a woman is not “a man without a cock”), is that one group of students has the right to prevent another group of students hearing a speaker whom the second group actually wants to hear. Such no-platforming is, in effect, student-on-student censorship. It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be “unsafe” because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.
In fact, one underexamined question is precisely this: what kind of space is a university? And the answer, which also explains some of the confusion, must be: several different kinds of space, which should have different standards.
Thus, no one should be obliged to have Donald Trump in their dorm, or as a special guest at the Hispanic social night. Nor would I want to see him as a lecturer in political science, let alone on race relations. But I would want to see him invited to speak at a student debating society, where I’m sure the other speakers and student audience would subject him to a well-deserved roasting.
I think it’s fair to say that the erosion of free speech is still only at the margins in major western universities, and mainly concerns a few particular subjects. But we must always watch out for the thin end of the wedge, whether it is being pushed by student activists or government. That’s why I drafted, together with Ken Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions and now head of an Oxford college, a statement on free speech that is now on Oxford University’s website and has been formally adopted by a number of its colleges.
“Free speech is the lifeblood of a university,” it begins, going on to observe that “inevitably, this will mean that members of the university are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive. The university must therefore foster freedom of expression within a framework of robust civility.”
To many, this may seem like a statement of the self-evident. But there are times when a fundamental liberal position needs to be stated explicitly, and these are such times.
In a decision that begs to be characterized as “First Amendment gone wild,” an appeals court has all but struck down a 1988 law that requires pornographers to maintain records showing that actors aren’t underage. For good measure, the court said it violated the Fourth Amendment to require the documents to be available anytime for government inspection. These twin holdings are both plausible applications of recent Supreme Court doctrine. But the results are so absurd that they call out for review by the highest court itself.
The laws in question appear in section 2257 of the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988. They arose from Congress’s desire to fight child pornography when the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect adult pornography, including depictions in which an adult actor is presented as underage.
The 2257 laws essentially require anyone making sexually explicit films to keep records documenting the identity and age of all performers. The records in turn must be available for inspection by the attorney general of the U.S. “at all reasonable times.”
Since 1988, these laws have applied without causing any crisis for constitutional free speech or privacy. In 2012, free-speech advocacy groups acting on behalf of pornographers brought a challenge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit — and lost. But in 2015, the Supreme Court decided a major free-speech case as well as an important Fourth Amendment case. Buoyed by new hopes, the challengers returned to the courts.
They were right to do so: The Third Circuit reversed its 2012 holding on both fronts. The free-speech holding is probably the more shocking, so I’ll start with that.
The plaintiffs’ core argument was that, under a 2015 decision called Reed v. Gilbert, the 2257 laws are not content-neutral, and therefore must be subjected to what the courts call strict scrutiny. That means the law must be justified by a compelling state interest, and must be narrowly tailored to that interest. This standard is so high that in the free-speech context, it is almost always fatal to the law. Holding that strict scrutiny is necessary is almost (but not quite) a holding that a law is unconstitutional.
In 2012, the Third Circuit had held that section 2257 was content-neutral because the purpose of the law was to protect against child pornography. That was correct under then-existing precedent.
But the new Third Circuit opinion says that the 2015 Reed case should be read to say that purpose is irrelevant to content neutrality. The Reed case said that a sign-display ordinance in an Arizona town wasn’t content-neutral because it created different rules for different signs. The Third Circuit held that section 2257 is similarly not content-neutral, because it applies only to sexually explicit speech.
The government tried to save the statute under a doctrine that the Supreme Court has only ever applied to adult theaters and nude dancing. That doctrine says that when speech or expressive conduct is regulated for its “secondary effects” not its content, it can be subjected to lower level scrutiny known as “intermediate” — much easier to survive.
The court flatly rejected the invitation to extend the secondary-effects doctrine to other free-speech contexts. It said, somewhat plausibly, that doing so would endanger much free speech, because the government could almost always say its goal wasn’t to ban some type of speech but the effects of the speech.
This holding shows the absurdity of taking the Reed decision to its logical conclusion. Section 2257 doesn’t target sexually explicit speech in the sense of banning it. It simply imposes the burden of record-keeping as a way to avoid the separate, completely illegal practice of child pornography. That purpose should matter.
The lower court might say the law survives strict scrutiny — but don’t count on it. Almost any law can be tailored more narrowly.
The Third Circuit went on to strike down the inspection provision of section 2257 on the basis of another 2015 decision, City of Los Angeles v. Patel. That case overturned a city ordinance (straight out of a film noir) that allowed L.A. police to inspect hotel registers without a warrant.
If you think that there’s a stronger privacy interest in who’s sleeping in a hotel than in the ages of actors in sexually explicit films, then I think you’re right — but the Third Circuit ignored that distinction, taking the Patel precedent as near-absolute.
There’s a well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement for heavily regulated industries. But the court said that pornography isn’t as closely regulated as, say, the funeral home industry. If that’s true, it shouldn’t be. At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s much more risk to regulate with live people having sex than with dead people being prepared for interment or cremation.
Like the First Amendment holding, the court’s Fourth Amendment holding is tone-deaf to the situational need that created the section 2257 regime. Without records and inspection, the dangers of child pornography will increase. The law addresses this risk without barring any speech or granting government access to any private information. Its loss will be felt. And the Supreme Court, which has in the past made new constitutional law to allow bans on child pornography itself, is likely to respond.
I have covered already how the recent UK porn regulations are not ‘anti-woman’, and the acts it bans not ‘feminist’. Pandora Blake is not a ‘feminist pornographer’ she is a female pornographer, selfish-individualism while female is not feminism.
This is barely a victory for ‘free speech’, it proves nothing about porn being ‘speech’. Ofcom didn’t actually rule on whether or not the site’s contents counted as ‘harmful material’, just whether it was the type of site that fell under the regulations. It’s about a regulatory body acting outside of it’s remit, it’s a technical victory only.
A [female] pornographer has hailed a victory for freedom of expression after she won her appeal against an order that had forced her to take down a sadomasochism fetish website
Pandora Blake, from London, said she believed she was targeted by the Authority for Television on Demand (Atvod) watchdog because she spoke out publicly against rules on porn deemed “harmful to minors”.
Now, after Ofcom ruled that Blake’s website, dreamsofspanking.com, did not fall under Atvod’s remit, she is free to reinstate its content. “Now I’ve won my appeal I feel vindicated,” she said. “The war against intrusive and oppressive state censorship isn’t over but this decision is a landmark victory for [porn], diversity and freedom of expression.”
“If you look at [Atvod’s] archive, the sites they were ruling against, a lot of them were run by women,” Blake said. “It did really feel like they were upholding a kind of patriarchal sexuality.”
Atvod, a quango which regulated video-on-demand websites, was stripped of its powers earlier this year. It had been widely criticised for acting against sites outside its remit and, after new rules were introduced in 2014 banning some sex acts in pornography, free speech campaigners also said it disproportionately acted against websites run by women.
Blake had been among those who spoke out publicly against the Audio Visual Media Services regulations (AVMS), which in 2014 banned the depiction of sex acts that were judged morally damaging or life-threatening, including face-sitting, female ejaculation and spanking that leaves marks. She appeared in panel discussions on Newsnight and Women’s Hour opposing the new rules.
She says she was placed under investigation by Atvod soon after. In August 2015, after a five-month inquiry, she was forced to censor her website, which Atvod ruled had breached rules in three areas: a failure to pay regulatory fees, a lack of effective age controls to restrict access to over-18s, and the broadcast of harmful material.
Atvod’s investigation into her work had been traumatic, Blake said. “Making porn was part of an act of self-acceptance for me, to say I’m not ashamed and to reach out to other people who share the same sort of fantasies,” she said. “As a result, the films that I was making did show very honestly the sort of play that I enjoy in real life, it does include quite heavy impact with things like belts and canes – always consensual, but it does leave welts and bruises that might take a few days to heal.”
In a ruling published on Monday, Ofcom decided in favour of dreamsofspanking.com. A spokesperson said: “Ofcom found that the site was not a video-on-demand service and therefore it was not subject to regulation. When regulated video-on-demand services break our rules, we take robust action to protect children.”
At UC Davis, where student activists still hope to oust Chancellor Linda Katehi, critics of their activism are using concepts like “safe space” and “hostile climate” to attack it.
The student activists had occupied a small room outside Katehi’s office, planning to stay until their chancellor resigned or was removed from her post. By the time they left 36 days later, a petition that now bears roughly 100 signatures of UC Davis students and staff were demanding that they prematurely end their occupation, criticizing their tactics, and alleging a number of grave transgressions: The signatories accused the student activists of sexism, racism, bullying, abuse, and harassment, complaining that many who used the administration building “no longer feel safe.” The student activists say that those charges are unfair.
The conflict illustrates a pattern that campus observers are likely see more and more in coming years: Insofar as progressives succeed in remaking campuses into places unusually sensitive to psychological harms, where transgressing against “safe spaces” is both easy to do and verboten, confrontational activism will no longer be viable.
[The] anti-activist backlash is relevant to those trying to understand campus politics and to activists who care enough about righteous causes to avoid derailing them. The 100-some critics of the campus activists began their statement as follows:
Some of us agree with the broader issues of the protesters, like greater transparency and more dialogue between the students and campus administration. But we write to strongly condemn the tactics of the protesters, including sexist and racist behaviors, threatening and bullying of staff, students and faculty who come to Mrak Hall to work. We feel that these actions undermine not only the values of our campus community, but also the ideals which the protesters claim to defend. Several students and staff have been treated abusively by the protesters.
It’s worth pausing here to note that, this being a group petition on a college campus, what’s characterized as “threatening” and “bullying” and “abuse” may describe behavior that others would call “harassing” or “annoying” or “irritating.” Concept creep has robbed us of linguistic clarity or precision in these matters.
That said, the first specific allegation is disconcerting:
Several protesters took to shouting that an employee was a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) for being a Latina who works for UC Davis.
Since my days in college, when I first heard a friend attacked as a “banana” for challenging a belief of a campus Asian American group, my blood has boiled at the tiny but noxious subset of leftists who stress the importance of identity in politics, then try to exclude people of color from their own respective racial groups–– often using slurs––to evade an inconvenient reality: Neither African Americans nor Latinos nor Asian Americans nor Pacific Islanders nor women are ideologically monolithic. Social-justice progressives do not speak for many in those groups.
The statement continued:
Several students and staff were stalked for a period of time after leaving a meeting with the Chancellor. Many students and staff who are supposed to work in Mrak no longer feel safe. Staff and student workers have been also filmed without their permission. For the sake of the daily operations of UC Davis, we call upon the Mrak Hall protesters to move their protest to a location that does not lead to these aggressive disruptions of UC staff and student work spaces in case they have plans to continue this protest.
Again, I suspect my threshold for what constitutes “stalking” is higher than that employed by the authors of this letter. What’s beyond dispute is that a group of protesters followed Katehi and a small group of students and staff she was speaking with across campus, filming them without their consent, snarking at Katehi, making her companions visibly uncomfortable—as almost anyone would have been in similar circumstances—and coming off … well, you can judge for yourself.
This was petulant and self-indulgent. It was an excuse for two or three activists to peacock and self-aggrandize. The fact that it was posted publicly, as if those who took the footage thought it reflected well on them even in hindsight, astonishes me. The female activist who shouts her head off across campus, literally serenading her chancellor with insults, claims at one point that she is being silenced!
But the part that struck me most is when, at roughly 6:25, one of the student activists reacts to the apparently unplanned arrival of an adult black male, who is friendly toward Katehi, by accusing the chancellor of “doing what they usually do, which is grabbing a person of color as a shield—that’s a tactic that the chancellor likes to use.”
This for merely talking to a black person who approached.
That activist couldn’t see the black man as an autonomous subject—only as a white person’s prop. The offensive jump makes sense within a highly stylized ideology wherein Katehi is “the oppressor” and all black people are “the oppressed.” By that logic, the only possible reason she would be doing something as enlightened as cordially interacting with one of “the oppressed” is if the black man was functioning not as a person, but as a “prop” and a “tactic,” never mind his agency.
The whole encounter is dripping with dehumanization.
It’s ironic, this recurring feature of campus protests: Time after time, activists wield phone cameras, intending to publicly discredit any adversary who lets so much as a “microaggression” slip. And in doing so, they inadvertently reveal prejudices that spring predictably, though quite unintentionally, from flaws in their belief system.
The civil-rights movement, the free-speech movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, and protesters on both sides of the gun and abortion questions have all deliberately tried to make others uncomfortable, intellectually if not physically. They’ve all shouted, insulted, provoked, and tried to deny their opponents “safe spaces.”
Today’s strain of campus progressivism has a more ambiguous relationship with traditional liberal values, finding them too viewpoint neutral and rough-and-tumble.
Still, most campus protests are left-leaning. And administrators cannot help but realize that almost all of that activism is, on some level, about confrontation—that it frequently involves a lot of shouting or chanting or marching or banging on drums. Now, any time such protests challenge the interests of the administration, or make their jobs marginally harder or their lives marginally more inconvenient, they can always pinpoint some folks who are earnestly upset or unnerved by all the ruckus.
They can always undermine the activists of the moment by finding the students experiencing “trauma” from all the conflict; the staff members who feel “unsafe” around protesters, the community member who, in the new paradigm, somehow feel “silenced.”
As best I can tell, this does not worry leftist activists yet, perhaps because they mostly operate on shorter time-horizons than other campus power brokers, or perhaps because they see themselves as marginalized and mistakenly believe these standards will never be applied to them, even though it’s already happening.
Mahad Olad, a high school student, used to be active in “the local social-justice scene” around Minneapolis, Minnesota, attending meetings and leading demonstrations for feminist, LGBT, and anti-racism groups. Then he became disillusioned.
When he was just 16, the ACLU profiled the teen activist. He came to the U.S. as a child. Later, his immigrant parents took him back to their home country, Kenya, so that their son could experience what it was like to live in that culture as well.
“In Kenya, he saw the harsh realities faced by women trying to access reproductive health-care services and how the gay and lesbian community is forced to live underground,” the ACLU explained. “While Mahad cares about many social-justice and civil-liberties issues, he is especially drawn to reproductive freedom and LGBT rights because of his experience in Kenya. He has been one of his school’s biggest advocates for comprehensive sex education and has helped to organize events at his school to teach students important information about comprehensive safe-sex practices, something that his school does not teach in class.”
Two years later he was sending off a frustrated email to me.
“I genuinely cared about these causes—still do,” he wrote, referencing everything from anti-racism to LGBT rights to reproductive health. “I believed I was doing something noble. At the same time,” he added, “a large part of me was not quite in agreement with some of the views and concepts espoused by social-justice groups. Their pro-censorship tendencies, fixation with intersectionality, and constant uproar over seemingly trivial and innocuous matters like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘microaggressions’ went against my civil-libertarian sensibilities.”
He fit in fine at the ACLU. But interacting with social-justice groups made up of high school and college students, he increasingly found himself having to bite his tongue.
“I never voiced my personal disagreements because having dissenting views is strictly forbidden in the activist circles I was a part of,” he explained. “If you’re white, you will be charged with being a ‘bad ally.’ (There’s also certain gatherings you cannot come to because your mere presence might be threatening.) If you’re a person of color, your disagreements will usually be dismissed as some form of ‘internalized racism,’ ‘internalized sexism,’ or ‘respectability politics,’ among many other activist jargon’s thrown at individuals who do not conform the groups views.”
Eventually, he started to speak up anyway, he said.
“On Twitter,” he wrote, “I discussed how trigger warnings have almost been rendered useless now that they’re used to alert individuals when talking about normal everyday things, like food, cars and animals. And that their use could potentially have adverse effects on academic freedom. I was accused of being outrageously insensitive and apparently made three activist cohorts have traumatic breakdowns.”
“In another tweet,” he added, “I criticized the usual tactic of campus activists to disrupt and heckle controversial speakers and advised them to raise their strong objections during the question and answer session, which lectures usually reserve long hours precisely to debate opponents. This time, the attacks got a little more personal. I was accused of being a ‘respectable negro,’ ‘uncle tom,’ ‘local coon’ and defending university officials to continue to ‘systemically oppress minorities.’”
I asked if he thought his race and ethnicity made it easier or harder to dissent. “A little easier, I guess,” he replied, “But it really doesn’t feel good being a called a ‘house nigger.’”
He says he was ultimately kicked out of student-led social justice groups.
“In no way am I denying or minimizing the appalling fact that, sometimes, racial and ethnic minority students face abhorrent discrimination—even hate crimes— on certain college and university campuses” he wrote. “For that reason, occasionally, there’s very legitimate reasons for these student activists to be worried, aggrieved, and lead emotionally charged protests. I earnestly believe that the best and most beneficial method to simultaneously fight against blatant bigotry and for marginalized groups who are the objects of hate is more speech, not less.”
He wonders how a kid with beliefs like his will fare in higher education.
“When I go off to college next year, I honestly don’t know where I’m going to fit in… The only political/social group accepting of my views are normally libertarians,” he wrote. “For the most part, these campus activism groups have my sympathies. I just wish that they didn’t have such a hostile attitude towards free speech and didn’t dismiss opposing viewpoints based on the person’s identity.”
Events at Yale were particularly upsetting to Olad as he pondered going away to college himself.
“From Mizzou to Ithaca to Amherst, I was initially very supportive of the nationwide protests that sparked across college campuses against racial insensitivity. I believed, and still do, that student activists have every right to hold demonstrations, push for robust changes and confront their respective administrations if they truly suspect that they are being treated unfairly or feel threatened,” he wrote. “However, Yale made me take a different look not just at just at these protests, but some of the core concepts these student activists (and the groups I was involved in) take almost too seriously. I sympathize with the student protesters and wholly understand their frustration is not stemming from a simple email, but the overall atmosphere of Yale for students of color. Nonetheless, I believe Erika and Nicholas Christakis were wronged on many levels.”
If social-justice activists on college campuses were committed to respectfully considering the perspectives of individuals from historically marginalized groups, as almost all claim to be, a black immigrant from a relatively poor country would have no reason to worry about being accepted into their communities to fight racism and advance gender equality, even in spite of the well-trod disagreements that have long divided civil libertarians from parts of the social-justice community.
Unfortunately, I think that Mahad Olad is correct to be concerned, and that too many left-wing student groups treat no one as badly as students of color or women who consider themselves to be classical liberals, libertarians, or conservatives, or who merely disagree with the actions of progressive protesters on campus.
They’re seen as special kinds of traitors.
Last week, while reporting on UC Davis, I noted the allegation that a Hispanic staff member loyal to Chancellor Linda Katehi, the object of ongoing protests, was called “a coconut” by several activists, meaning “brown on the outside, white on the inside.”
Back in college, when I edited student newspapers both at Pomona College, my alma mater, and the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of 5 undergraduate institutions, I was constantly urging people who expressed thoughtful opinions in conversation to contribute to our op-ed pages. On four or five occasions, students of color regretfully declined, saying they didn’t feel able to set forth their opinions publicly without being savaged by a tiny subset of campus activists who, despite their small numbers, managed to chill speech. I always wondered if these students were exaggerating the likely backlash—their ostensibly heretical views were almost always extremely mainstream—until a conservative Asian American woman began writing for The Student Life and I got an education in leftist racist hate mail.
Alton Luke II, a black student at Occidental, told the Los Angeles Times about the backlash that he faced after questioning aspects of last semester’s protests at his institution.
Many right-leaning journalists and college professors have encountered black, Hispanic, and Asian American students who’ve been subjected to hatefulness because they dared to depart from the political line some expect them to toe. If you’re a white liberal, which is to say, a person those students wouldn’t typically choose to confide in about this particular problem, it would be easy to be totally blind to it.
So I’m glad Mahad Olad is sharing his experience. Others like him are hearing the same slurs and being subject to the same prejudices. They should be aware that they’re not alone.