In February 2013, the deputy ambassador of Israel was invited to the University of Essex to give a political science talk; anti-Israel protestors attempted to storm the venue, and the talk was cancelled for security reasons. Then, in November 2014, a society at the University of Oxford organised a debate entitled ‘This house believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts all’, intended not as a demonstration of pro-life views but as a discussion, with both opposing and supporting speakers. However, student groups put pressure on the university to call off the debate, claiming it was wrong for there to be male participants, as only people “with uteruses” should be able to discuss abortion.
Finally, October 2015 saw several thousand people sign a petition to block the feminist writer Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University, because of her comments about how transgender women are “not women”. Once again, the talk – which was not on the subject of transgender people – has been cancelled. In a comparable situation, the freelance journalist and political activist Julie Bindel was recently banned from the University of Manchester for expressing sentiments similar to those put forward by Greer in an article she wrote for the Guardian 11 years ago. Regardless of the specific facts of each individual case (and I have only mentioned a selection of incidents) they all share a common thread: freedom of expression at university ends up bleeding on the altar.
I did not come to university to surround myself with people who think exactly as I do. I came to learn, to be challenged, to be offended. I believe this is where my opinion differs from the people who have protested the above events. Do they really want to study in an environment lobotomised of disagreement and castrated of debate?
Their argument is that university should be a safe place, that controversial debates, such as Oxford’s discussion on abortion, pose a threat to vulnerable students. However, I argue that the censorship this creates represents the very opposite of a safe place. Is it possible to feel safe in a place where only one opinion can be expressed, and others are censored via mass protest? What should you do if your opinion is not in the majority?
It seems that the proper conduct is to cower quietly in a corner and hope that no one asks you what you think; perhaps this is what the people who signed the petition against Greer’s lecture believe she should have done, rather than speaking her mind. Greer herself described her comments as “an opinion…not a prohibition”. It is likely that many of the students of Cardiff who were to attend the talk would have disagreed, as I do, with Greer’s comments about transgender women, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have been an interesting and relevant talk all the same.
I think that we, as students, are tougher than the protestors think. To draw upon my own experiences: as a vegan, my personal life is full of people who disagree with me, but I don’t protest if my boyfriend eats meat in front of me and I am not offended by the sight of the bacon rolls in Unio as I queue to buy a slice of vegan cake, even though I believe their consumption is immoral. Those people who protested against the talks in Essex, Oxford and Cardiff may claim their actions are for the protection of vulnerable students and may believe themselves that this is the case, when in fact what they are doing is infantilising them. University society is not homogenous; it is diverse and that should be celebrated. As students at UEA, I believe we should welcome reasoned discussion whilst remaining resistant to those voices shouting that any opinions not a cookie-cutter facsimile of our own are offensive and malign.