Sombreros: Campus Censorship vs. Free Speech

Pedro'sFriday 9 October 2015

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.

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Jeremy Corbyn and the Foreign Policy Mess

Friday 4 September 2015

In the early years of this century, a coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom went ahead with military intervention in Iraq. The arguments in favour of leaving Saddam in power were rejected and they rallied support around the pretence that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Those who considered that liberating Iraq from a fascist dictatorship was a good thing thought that once the anti-war Left came to terms with their loss, they would begin gazing through a humanitarian lens. Their campaign had been to prevent the war from beginning, thus, as it had started, it was believed that they would make the best out of a bad situation and fall back on the Left’s classical, fail-safe positions: anti-totalitarianism and pro-human rights. The Left of the 1970s and 1980s, for example, had been fervently against the rule of Saddam Hussein and routinely protested against the human rights abuses of his regime. Saddam had not changed in that period — human rights abuses continued unabated — so, surely, advocates of liberation thought, we would now all work together to help a broken country and its poor, downtrodden people who had lived under tyranny since the late 1960s.

Nothing of the sort happened. The anti-war Left stubbornly continued to protest the Iraq War, their momentum congealing into the toxic belief that anything the West touches is evil by definition and must be opposed. This was not a new phenomenon. The anti-war Left has a long history of opposing the West. During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, for example, the anti-war Left saw no reason to prevent genocide if those wanting to put a stop to the mass killings included the West. The plight of the Iraqi people ever since the start of the Gulf War in 1990 had been nothing but a token in the anti-war Left’s ideological battle against the greater enemy — the West. In 2003, the anti-war Left started supporting those fighting against the coalition. Its members and its groups celebrated ‘the insurgency’. One of the leading groups — the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) — released a statement in favour of Iraqis resisting ‘by whatever means they find necessary’. Did it matter that this ‘insurgency’ was made up of former Baath Party members and suicide murderers from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq? No, they knew it did, but the warped logic of the anti-war Left embraced with open arms the concept of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. If you were against the coalition, if you were anti-West, then you were a comrade. The anti-war Left has continued down this path for the last twelve years and has turned a blind eye to those who want to kill Westerners, and especially those who want to kill Israelis and Jews.

I occasionally think about how different it would have been had the anti-war Left rid themselves of their self-imposed shackles and become the pro-human rights Left by supporting, at the very least, the anti-totalitarian dimension of the Iraq War. I routinely look with contempt at those commentators and politicians who decided against this noble idea and opted instead to continue organising Stop the War marches and rallies, rejecting liberalism and supporting Baathism and Islamism. Admittedly these people, until recently, were fringe politicians; however, the anti-war Left has reappeared in the Labour Party’s leadership race.

My dislike of Mr. Corbyn stems from his opinions about foreign policy and the company he has kept when discussing those issues, especially Israel and Palestine. Professor Alan Johnson put it best in an essay for the New Statesman recently when he wrote that

This corrupting ideology can be called “campism”. It has caused parts of the left to abandon universal progressive values rooted in the Enlightenment and sign up instead as foot soldiers in what they see as the great contest between – these terms change over time […] – “Progressive” versus “Reactionary” nations, “Imperialism” versus “Anti-Imperialism”, “Oppressed” versus “Oppressor” peoples, “The Empire” versus “The Resistance”, or simply “Power” versus “The Other”.

Again and again, the curse of campism has dragged the political left down from the position of intellectual leader and agenda-setter to that of political irrelevance, or worse, an apologist for tyranny.

Only when we register the grip of this ideology will we understand why some leftwingers march around London waving placards declaring “We are all Hezbollah now!”. Only the power of the ideology accounts for the YouGov poll that showed 51 per cent of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters believe America is the “greatest single threat to world peace”, and one in four think a “secretive elite” controls the globe.

Writing in The Spectator, James Forsyth understated the issue when he described Mr. Corbyn as ‘Michael Foot without the anti-fascist record.’ By choosing to share platforms with certain people, Mr. Corbyn has given tacit support to extremists, if not fascists. Mr. Corbyn is, therefore, indifferent to fascism when it presents itself as the oppressed, anti-imperialist, reactionary resistance to the hegemony of the West – even more so if it is specifically against the United States or Israel.  Not having a record of fighting fascism is one thing, indifference is quite another. ‘I tried’ versus ‘I don’t care’. Take, for example, what Mr. Corbyn said on PressTV after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011:

This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy.

The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died. Torture has come back on to the world stage, been canonised virtually into law by Guantanamo and Bagram.

Can’t we learn some lessons from this? Are we just going to sink deeper and deeper? The next stage will be an attempted assassination on Gaddafi and so it will go on. This will just make the world more dangerous and worse and worse and worse.

Put aside that Mr. Corbyn was appearing on PressTV – a propaganda arm of the Islamist regime in Iran. Let us also ignore that Mr. Corbyn questions whether it was actually bin Laden that was killed and that this is possibly why the United States does not want to release the photographs (see the full clip here). Furthermore, let us overlook that Mr. Corbyn said that the attempt to free the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban was an attack on the country, and that he clearly does not have a clue about – nor, I presume, wish to understand – why Islamists despise the West. Can you see what Mr. Corbyn did? He morally equated the September 11 attacks with the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, and the death of Osama bin Laden. Why? He did this because he wants to paint the picture that the United States is just as evil as any terrorist, especially someone like bin Laden. In doing this he has created the notion that the USA has committed crimes equal to al-Qaeda. That they’re even. You think al-Qaeda is evil? Well take a look at your own country and sort out your own affairs before you comment on those of another people! I’m sure I don’t need to explain why this is wrong so I will merely point out that the intent of Jihadist attacks is to kill civilians specifically, at no point during the Iraq War or the Afghan War did the US have that aim. There is a huge moral difference between the two. I loathe Mr. Corbyn because he does not understand or acknowledge this difference. (For those who say that this is 2011 and Mr. Corbyn has grown since then, here is a recent example of Corbyn morally equating the coalition with ISIS – this time on Putin’s propaganda channel, Russia Today in 2014.)

There are numerous other points on Mr. Corbyn’s record, for example, blaming the USA and NATO for the Ukrainian crisis, not Vladimir Putin’s aggressive imperial nationalism, and believing that any and all support for the Ukraine is folly. I would like to briefly highlight a few people who, in the past, he has welcomed to the United Kingdom with open arms. According to Mr. Corbyn, Raed Salah “represents his people extremely well and his is a voice that must be heard.” In 2007, Salah was found guilty of spreading the blood libel – the ancient antisemitic accusation that the Jews use the blood of gentile children in their Passover matzos. Mr. Corbyn ignored this and other comments Salah had made when he invited him to tea on the terrace in 2012. When asked, Mr. Corbyn said he could not remember meeting a man by the name of Dyab Abou Jahjah, but there is a photograph of them sitting together. Jahjah has also recently spoken of his “collaboration” with Mr. Corbyn who is “absolutely a political friend.” Jahjah has said that he counts “every death of an American, British or Dutch soldier as a victory”; he’s also added that homosexuals are “Aids spreading faggots”. Finally, Mr. Corbyn has said that Hezbollah and Hamas are “friends”, arguing that the latter are not terrorists.

Supporters of Mr. Corbyn claim that he acknowledges when one has to open a dialogue and that these are smears by the Tory establishment to discredit him. The latter is clearly incorrect as a smear is a claim based upon a false accusation and these have all been proven. The claim that this is the opening of much needed dialogue is more troubling and harks back to campism. The common cause these groups share with Mr. Corbyn is being, in one form or another, pro-Palestine. Israel is considered a part of the West, so must be opposed and those groups fighting against it should be given support, even if those groups are viciously anti-Zionist or antisemitic. The issue with saying that this is a process of dialogue is that nobody has been able to find an instance of Mr. Corbyn speaking with the other side since his election in 1983. A dialogue is not a dialogue when it is one-sided, then it is merely a conversation between likeminded individuals. This is no dialogue, so that is no defence.  Free speech dictates that these people not be censored, but –as many universities are finding nowadays – if you lend these people your good name then you are all but supporting their views, especially if an opposition is nowhere to be found and you don’t unflinchingly condemn their immoral beliefs. There is a difference between saying ‘you can’t speak’ and ‘I won’t speak with you’. This is a difference Mr. Corbyn understood in 2012 when he congratulated Ken Livingstone on refusing to share a platform with the far-right British National Party.

I’m sure that my opposition to Mr. Corbyn’s campism is as distinct as the anti-war feelings of those who were against attempting to free the Iraqi people from fascism. So, if Mr. Corbyn is announced as the leader of the Labour Party in September, should I do what I think the anti-war Left should have done back in 2003 and put aside my objections? Should I try to make the best out of a bad situation and continue to support the positive things which the Labour Party stands for while clearly rejecting Mr. Corbyn’s hideous campism?

The arguments are not comparable. The anti-war Left had to choose between:

a.) continuing to rally against an ongoing war and rejecting the opportunity to help Iraq and the Iraqi people.

b.) continuing to state that the war was wrong and that they were against it, but recognising that it has begun and diverting energy to giving humanitarian aid to needy Iraqis. Aiding the rebuilding of a country which had been described as a mass grave underground and a concentration camp above.

The decision that the anti-war Left and Mr. Corbyn, who is still a member of the Stop the War Coalition, had to make was help those in need or refuse to do so.

The decision which I and my likeminded contemporaries face is either:

a.) rally against the democratically elected leader of the opposition by continuing to point out the disastrous position in which Labour finds itself. If all is lost and the party becomes the playground of the StWC and the hard Left, then we will take our votes elsewhere. After all, we will have kept both our principles and our sanity intact. If the hard Left element fails of its own accord then we shall help to rebuild the party.

b.) continue to support the Labour Party regardless. Suppress any and all cognitive dissonance while repeating the old Labour mantra: “anything is better than a Tory government.” Convince ourselves that Corbyn is electable. Preach an inevitable Corbyn landslide in 2020. Keep an edible hat to hand just in case a Paddy Ashdown-esque statement escapes one’s lips on election night.

Friends of mine have approached me and whispered “don’t worry, sweetie – Jez is electable. You’ll see. Just stick with us.” My response is that even if Mr. Corbyn was certain to be the next prime minister it does not matter. Electability is irrelevant – this is a matter of principle. Campism is immoral, and we – my co-thinkers and I – refuse to compromise our principles for another depraved attempt at another man’s utopia. The position we hold is unambiguously anti-totalitarian. Whereas Mr. Corbyn’s is one which tolerates totalitarianism if it suits his interests. We believe all totalitarian regimes – communist, fascist, Islamist – should be opposed by whatever means we have at our disposal. Diplomacy and economic sanctions must come first and military intervention is always a last option, but it is an option. Furthermore, we believe deeply that human rights are international. Mr. Corbyn consistently associates with those who want to curb human rights because they support a cause close to his heart. It is imperative to remember that human rights are for everyone – they’re global or they do not mean anything. A government or even an opposition with a Corbynian foreign policy would be despicable and disastrous for the UK. It would place campism – an assorted hierarchy of anti-Americanism, anti-Israeli, self-hating anti-Western thought – above anti-totalitarianism and above human rights. The cry of ‘it’s for the greater good’ is often the cacophony one hears before the inevitable plunge into depravity. By all means enjoy the ride, but leave the rest of us out of it.