Just over a fortnight ago, on 24 September, the latest in a long list of bizarre incidents occurred at my alma mater, the University of East Anglia. Several representatives from the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS) confiscated sombreros which were being given out by Pedro’s, a local Tex-Mex restaurant, to potential customers at a fair for local businesses held on campus during Fresher’s Week. The Union reps said that the sombreros were a form of ‘cultural appropriation’ and were, therefore, ‘racist’. The story was first reported by a student newspaper, The Tab, before being seized upon by the national press.
The Union reps did not claim that they themselves were offended, instead they decided that someone else might consider the sombreros offensive. Let that sink in for a second. They did not receive a single complaint about the sombreros (why the hell would they?). Instead they took it upon themselves to highlight what another person might consider to be offensive and then proceeded to ban it on their behalf. Why? Well, in the words of the Union’s Campaigns and Democracy Officer, Chris Jarvis: ‘we want all members to feel safe and accepted’. If there is a better example of doublespeak then I am yet to come across it.
I can’t say that ‘sombrero-gate’, as it has been named, came as a complete surprise. Throughout the United Kingdom students’ unions are embroiled in a push for political correctness (PC), led by the regressive Left who dominate student politics. They desire a utopia where nobody causes offence and they think that enforcing PC will achieve it. To them PC is appreciating and acting upon the knowledge that all people are different and thus see things in different ways. They believe that offence is the ultimate taboo and, even if it is taken inadvertently or retroactively, one must apologise profusely until they are forgiven. Special consideration is given to the feelings of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, people who identify as a different sexuality or gender, and those who call themselves religious; therefore one must factor in how one’s speech, writing, clothing or action could be interpreted by one of these groups and act accordingly so as to avoid causing offence. The job of the regressive Left is to be the enforcer and make sure that we all cooperate. If we refuse then we risk being censored and blacklisted. Blacklisting, known as the policy of ‘no platform’, means that you are refused all opportunities to speak publicly on campus with or without a union official present.
The regressive Left believe that what they are doing is for the greater good. If they can prevent people from taking offence while, at the same time, opening the eyes of the privileged to the suffering of the dispossessed and the marginalised then they feel that curtailing free speech in pursuit of this goal is a necessary evil. As always, humans are all too ready to sacrifice liberty for security, not realising that they end up with neither. Offence is always taken, never given. If people want to consider something they have seen or heard offensive then no one can stop them, but what they do about it is more important. Do they debate with the party who caused offence, which could improve the understanding of both themselves and the offending party? Or do they act like a child: claim offence, complain, and wail until the offending party leaves or is forced out? The regressive Left favour the latter. To them offence is painful and causes psychological trauma which leaves lasting damage; hence, offending someone’s sensibilities is akin to abusing them. This is why they so strongly believe offence must be avoided at all costs. To do so they sacrifice the liberty of free speech for a heightened feeling of security. But that is all it is: a feeling of security.
I believe that offence – both being offended and causing offence – is necessary. It expands debate, offers ideas up to criticism, and improves or betters one’s intellectual position. In the past I have written in favour of Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists being able to express their ideas, explaining how their freedom of expression should not be diminished because said ideas might be considered unpalatable. They might behave like inconsiderate bigots – David Irving taking a group of Holocaust deniers to Auschwitz, for example, or 9/11 Truthers marching to Ground Zero – but free speech trumps offence every single time. For this reason their arguments must be given more protection than those holding mainstream views. The mainstream often finds it easier, and is ready, to shut down debate because it believes itself to own the final copy of the truth. I hate to sound like a broken record on this subject but ‘sombrero-gate’ and other incidents make me feel that I must repeat myself.
Freedom of expression must be free and must include the right to offend or it is not freedom of expression. I’ve quoted Salman Rushdie before so forgive me as I do so again: ‘you can’t slice it [freedom] up otherwise it ceases to be freedom.’ Let me also quote my soon-to-be step-father-in-law: “if you don’t like it, turn it off.” That’s not censorship. That’s not using a position of authority to order a decree of cease and desist. It is being a consumer in a capitalist market. I don’t like X; so I shall buy Y instead. I don’t agree with the views of Z, so I shall not read/watch them anymore. It really is that simple. When was the last time that someone forced you to read a Katie Hopkins article? You probably know that she writes some rather odious things for a living, yet you avoid her. She hasn’t been censored. She has the right to express herself and her newspaper, the Daily Mail, has the right to publish her. I defend Katie Hopkins’ freedom of expression. I defend Peter Hitchens’ freedom to express his belief that ‘addiction’ is a con and thus the concept of an ‘addictive personality’ is unfounded. I defend Brendan O’Neill’s freedom to express that transsexualism is a fad. These may be unpopular opinions, but the simple fact that they are unpopular does not mean that they don’t deserve the same protection as their mainstream counterparts. Freedom of expression protects the freedom of people you agree with and the freedom of those with whom you wholeheartedly disagree with every fibre in your body. That is how it works.
Unsurprisingly, the sombrero incident wasn’t the only time that the Union of UEA Students decided to censor freedom of expression. In October 2013 the Union passed a boycott on the Sun newspaper, preventing it from being sold on campus. People were, however, still allowed to read their own copy on campus. (In February earlier this year the Union voted to extend this boycott to include the Daily Star.) In November 2013, the Union put forth a motion to ban the Robin Thicke song ‘Blurred Lines’ from being played. Luckily, this was forced to a referendum (unlike those over the Sun and the Daily Star) and was comprehensively rejected by the student body (75.21 per cent voted against the ban). As part of the referendum the Union had to explain how the ban would work, even including protocol on what to do if a non-UEA radio station was being listened to on campus and the DJ chose to play the song: ‘immediately change the station,’ it said, without a hint of tongue in cheek. Each of these examples have similar approaches: make people ‘safe’ by stifling debate. So it was insulting when the Union’s Ethnic Minorities Officer, Hassam Hussein, put out an unctuous press release saying that the Union are ‘glad we’re having the debate’ about the sombreros, as if a debate consists of immediately shutting down the opposition. ‘We are just asking you to be aware of the possibility of mocking a culture, perhaps unknowingly’, Hussein wrote, not recognising the parallels with totalitarianism which keeps its populations docile through its ability to indict a group of people for a new crime which had not been a crime until they said so.
The most credulous aspect of UUEAS’s clamping down on free speech is that the reps seem to believe that the student body are easily brainwashed and cannot think for themselves. The Union imagines that exposure to the Sun, the Daily Star or Robin Thicke is like feeding a mogwai after midnight: men instantly metamorphose into rapists who hunt the vulnerable women reduced to tears after hearing the chorus of ‘Blurred Lines’ or seeing why ‘Kate, 20, from Birmingham’ sometimes has back ache. Surely, if that were the case, rape on campus would have dropped since the boycott of the newspapers or spiked because Thicke’s song wasn’t banned. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that humans are not robots brainwashed by the media and that they can actually think for themselves, which is why no statistics have been published anywhere to reinforce the Union’s stance.
This surrendering of critical faculties is not solely the domain of those students clinging to power in the union of my alma mater. It is a problem with the regressive Left and is only most obvious in universities because they have managed to achieve power there. Pick another university, any university, and you will find an example. At Warwick University, last week, the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists’ Society invited Maryam Namazie to speak at one of their meetings. Namazie is a human-rights activist who fled Iran with her family during Khomeini’s Islamist revolution; she subsequently renounced Islam and now works for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and several other secular organisations. Unsurprisingly, the students’ union at Warwick banned her on the grounds that her appearance would ‘incite hatred’ of the university’s Muslim students. The union only backtracked after Namazie found support in the media and on Twitter. They said she could attend pending a review, and shortly afterward said no review was necessary. Namazie proved that small victories can be won, but they will remain small because of the opposition’s desire to curb free speech for PC.
On 26 September, in Copenhagen, Denmark, just a few days before ‘sombrero-gate’ flared up, there was a conference to commemorate 10 years since the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. Douglas Murray, a journalist and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a bi-partisan think-tank based in London, made a speech which he concluded by saying
Freedom never was a very popular idea. If you look back at history, at almost any phase – not just the mid-20th century which is all anyone seems to know about these days – but almost any period in history: most people weren’t bothered particularly about freedom. They wanted security, and they wanted safety, and they wanted a comfortable and an easy life, and they wanted to be cosy. Freedom of speech was only ever defended by a few people. Just as freedom in general was only ever defended by a few people, but maybe it only ever needed a few people.
Maybe it did, but it could always do with a few more. The Union at UEA are not the most prolific censors in the UK, but as they stand against free speech they should be opposed. A few days before the sombreros were confiscated, the T-Shirt Party, another Union event, was held. Each student was given a t-shirt to decorate in their own time however they liked. A few had written ‘YES MEANS ANAL AND NO MEANS YES’ on theirs, so Union officials forced them to change before they could enter. Making them change was wrong, and I defend the students’ right to express themselves. Nobody should feel ashamed because of what they decided to wear. Sound familiar? It should do, as this is what is said – rightly – in riposte when bigots complain about women wearing almost anything, from nothing to a niqab. The right to wear a t-shirt with crass slogans on it is as fundamental to freedom of expression as the right to wear a bikini. Defend both. If you need another example: defend the right of a Jew to wear a yarmulke, but also defend the right of a neo-Nazi to wear a swastika. The regressive-Left don’t understand that freedom of speech is universal. They want to choose who gets to have it and who does not. But if it isn’t universal it ceases to be freedom. I’ve chosen to sound like a broken record on this subject because so many people don’t get it. Being one of the few is an honour.