When, naive, and blinkered by my rose spectacles, I sauntered in to University, sans a dog-eared Marx, I was hoping to find a melee of open-minded debaters, and more than a few folks with fingerless gloves, adorned by the iconic image of Che Guevara. Together we would have book-readings, exchange ideas, and become more enlightened, cogent debaters. We would become a fraternity of free-thinkers, united by our passion for debate.
Naive, blinkered, I was undoubtedly optimistic about that.
Whilst student unions are usually berated for being zealously left wing, you can hardly say that of some Universities. Instead, many unions have bred a homogenous group of right wing conformist hecklers who try to steal the mantle of reasonable debate for themselves and who complain the Left go round telling people that they’re wrong when the left are merely respecting debating traditions by establishing what is factually accurate and objectively true and asking the right if they might reflect at length on the way they may be wrong, which is met with trolling. The left gather facts and evidence, presented in sober and convincing fashion, and are attacked for it.
It’d be easy to assume from all this that I’ve found university a horrible experience, but I’ve loved meeting new people and contrasting our ideas. Nevertheless, it’s incredibly frustrating when, trying to explore a political tradition, rampant misinformation and stereotyping strangles and suffocates your best efforts.
It’s incredibly frustrating to witness the level of misinformation and stereotyping levelled against advocates of safe spaces. Whilst there is legitimate, scientific research in to the relationship between PTSD and triggers, qualifying claims that safe spaces ought to be nurtured in aid of minorities and trauma victims, there is a paucity of research in to whether or not safe spaces are damaging free speech. That claim is in vogue in the opinion columns but it’s exactly that; an unsubstantiated claim in vogue in the opinion columns. In the apoplectic moral panic around safe spaces, it is absurd, but amusing, how twisted the most privileged knickers get. They are impervious to reason. Is it really too much to demand trauma survivors be spared the horror of their triggers? Is it too much to ask that their are reasonable adjustments made by Universities to accomodate their needs? The free speechers seem to think they are politically repressed by minorities and trauma survivors overcoming their oppression; it is not condescending to point out that that is indicative of privilege.
In addition, many are hiding behind free speech to protect their bigotry from criticism. Too many graduates of tomorrow unthinkingly accept the insidious notion that freedom of speech and criticism means that prejudice parading as debate can cruise down the rapids of public discussion unchallenged. They invoke free speech to defend transphobia. They complain about people being offended by everything and then get offended to be told they are frankly offensive. The level of hypocrisy is astonishing.
To my mind, the left must accept that right wing views are not the moral failure of individual people, but the symptom of a healthy, pluralist democracy. I’d also like to see more discourse with people who are sceptical about the left but willing to debate respectfully. But we musn’t fear being factually accurate and objectively correct about bigotry just because trolls are upset you’ve called out their lies.
If I’m right that the left is a forward thinking, democratic movement, the prestige of reasonable debate is ours to claim, but we must be more confident in asserting it, in taking it out of the hands of people who would happily abuse the tradition of free speech to further their bigoted agendas.