Saturday, October 03, 2015

Political Madness Gone Correct

So the other week a university needlessly banned a feminist advocate for democracy from speaking at one of their events, an act which supposedly demonstrates our rocket-propelled downward spiral into a morass of relativism and political correctness.

It looks like nobody else will say this, so I will - I am intensely relaxed about this situation, and possibly even in favour of it, all things considered.

Why, you might ask?

Firstly, because this story has followed the standard trajectory of such incidents, which almost always go like this:

- Student group asks perfectly reasonable speaker to appear at public event;

- Some puritanical berk or glowering religious ballsack complains about it, on bullshit grounds of ideological deviation or offensiveness;

- A minor student administrator takes a fit of the vapours about potentially offending someone, somewhere, and disinvites the perfectly reasonable speaker;

- A great roaring crowd of self-proclaimed rationalists turns up on the university's digital doorstep, throwing kung-fu shapes and screeching about defending free speech, and then

- The matter comes to the attention of somebody sensible at the university, who immediately overturns the administrator's decision and reinvites the perfectly reasonable speaker.

It doesn't always go like this, but this precise flow of events has now happened so many times that we can predict with a fair degree of confidence that, whenever a speaker is disinvited somewhere, it will play out in exactly this fashion.

This being the case, I think we can agree that what we are dealing with here is usually a minor official making a bad decision, one that can be quickly and painlessly overturned.  This not a particularly difficult problem to overcome and it should be easily dealt with in calm and reasoned tones, with no need for grand declarations or denunciations.

Now, there's a strain of thought* that says such incidents are reflective of a dangerous illiberalism in campus culture, one which reveals a far greater problem in the entirety of left-wing politics, or some such cant.

This hysterical message, most commonly conveyed in apocalyptic tones, does actually contain a grain of truth, and once again - I am entirely unconcerned by this.

It's certainly true that there are plenty of people knocking about who will get their knickers in a twist if you make certain arguments, e.g. "I don't approve of Muslim women wearing the headscarf", or "Prostitution is a really bad career choice", and so on.  It's also true that certain individuals - not many, but actually existing - will attempt to prevent anyone making such arguments on campus.

Mostly, this is because students tend to be young and daft, and have always been prone to seeing the world in definitive terms that they will relax later in life.  To a lesser extent, it's also because there's a small but vocal minority of tiresome knobheads wandering around, but this has always been the case.

Nonetheless, the actual real-world effect of such people's actions translates into a bit of hassle, rather than tyranny.  We can, I think, all survive a bit of hassle by knobheads - we've all been dealing with it all of our lives after all, and we will probably survive a bout of knob-headery in even its right-on form unharmed.

More to the point, I see much of this as the inevitable result of our much-improved interpersonal relations in recent decades.  When I was a kid, racism and sexism were indulged to a far greater extent, and homophobia was only seen as a serious problem by a few activists who were repeatedly mocked in the gutter press as a shower of loony-left woofters.

Now, not so much.   The social unacceptability of these forms of prejudice has greatly improved everyone's lives, I think, and this situation is resented mainly by people who would prefer to go back to the bad old days.

Unfortunately, this has also spawned tiny gaggles of irritating self-appointed Commissars, mostly on social media, but occasionally bleeding out into the world.  I consider this an annoying but entirely acceptable cost.  The fact that these jokers get up the noses of e.g. Melanie Phillips or Brendan O'Neill is unfortunate for them and for others of their ilk, but is no reason at all to imagine that we're worse off now than we were before.

*I made an effort here not to launch into ad hominems, but I think that a few are called for.  It's worth noting that the loudest screamers about campus activism broadly use student dafties as stand-ins for their political foes, none of whom are thick enough to give them the kind of ammunition that only a bunch of painfully right-on 19-year-olds can supply. 

Suffice to say that I think this is a dishonest trick, and that any writer in their forties who regularly gets up on his or her high-horse to issue grand proclamations about student politics, is probably telling you more about themselves than they are telling you about student politics.


Anonymous said...

It is not an acceptable cost. The commissars need to be bullied into leaving normal people alone.

organic cheeseboard said...

When I was a kid, racism and sexism were indulged to a far greater extent, and homophobia was only seen as a serious problem by a few activists who were repeatedly mocked in the gutter press as a shower of loony-left woofters.

I do think that transgender issues are going to be this generation's version of the above. So many mainstream commentators seem totally opposed to the trans community per se, and justify this by saying 'but some of them say rude things to us on Twitter'. I remember the Observer printing a reprehensible Julie Burchill article on this - Nick Cohen enthusiastically copied and pasted some of the worst bits into his Twitter feed, then, having realized that it is not actually OK to call a transgender person the equivalent of the black and white minstrels, promptly pretended that he was copying and pasting her words to express disapproval. Suzanne Moore told trans people to 'cut your dick off and claim you're a better feminist than me' before leaving twitter for 5 minutes because SHE was getting abuse... Aaro a while back claimed to have been 'converted' to the trans cause by reviewing a memoir or some such, but the fact that he needed to be 'converted' says quite a lot. Yes some transgender people can be a bit noisy and unpleasant on social media, but opposition to them - disbelief in their existence, even - is pretty widespread even now.

Student group asks perfectly reasonable speaker to appear at public event

Maryam Namazie seems like a decent enough person, but it's funny that she, a proper Communist (as opposed to e.g. 'far left' objects of Decent hatred like, um, Corbyn) is a Decent cause celebre.

Phil said...

"Sure, cut your dick off and claim you're a better feminist than me" isn't telling anyone to do anything, it's a woman expressing irritation at having feminism explained to her by somebody not born female (mansplaining, I think the youngsters call it). I hardly ever agree with Suzanne Moore, but I felt some sympathy with that line.

flyingrodent said...

"Sure, cut your dick off and claim you're a better feminist than me"

Consider this my declaration that I'm not touching that issue with a bargepole. Vicious pissfights about wars are one thing, but even one mild brush with the snakepit of bile and mutual recrimination that is feminist Twitter was enough to put me off getting involved in it. For life.

Maryam Namazie seems like a decent enough person but it's funny that she, a proper Communist (as opposed to e.g. 'far left' objects of Decent hatred like, um, Corbyn) is a Decent cause celebre.

She's always seemed very reasonable and cogent to me and I think her communism is seen as acceptable, in a way that other communists' plainly isn't, because she's the kind of person that Decency ostentatiously Supports.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is interesting that Decency approves of a hard-left activist. Presumably Decency puts her fundamentalist secularism (understandable in her case, when one considers her background) to the foreground and conveniently overlooks her thoroughly inDecent politics in other areas.

Broadly speaking, I rather like the tone of the original post. Although I think it's important to oppose religious bigots and tell those who live in fear of offending religious bigots to ignore them, there's also the need to keep such episodes as Warwick and that silly kid at Goldsmith's in some sort of proportion. 'Calm down, dear; it's only some daft students faffing about', as that awful bloke on the telly ads might have put it. Blimey, as if Student Union shenanigans have any real significance in the wider world today!

Dr Paul

Chardonnay Chap said...

Agree much more with Phil here than OC. I think there are still very few transgender people and, because of that, it doesn't translate into latterday racism or sexism. It's an abstract principle, not a sizeable minority being held back. Where transgender people seem to be in real world danger is when they're out looking like they're cross-dressing. It would seem they should be making common cause with gay cross-dressers; instead, they seem to slag them off. (Wasn't there a Pride event where dressing up was discouraged lest it hurt a few feelings?)

Also, anyone who uses TERF anywhere seems like a colossal wanker.

I think students deserve better. All of this seems to be about trying to block speech (odd when even China and Turkey are learning this isn't possible), rather than support opposing views. No one "trans-inclusive" invites, say, Jan Morris: it's all about "shut up".

The SU officers of today are the Guido " Hang Nelson Mandela " Fawkes of tomorrow. Let's make their future lives bloody hard.

Lee Griffin said...

I think that some people need to understand the position that student officers can find themselves in. They are a diverse bunch of personality types all told, but in my very anecdotal experience (and very real, I was an elected student officer for a year in the mid 00's) they split as thus:

75% are people that have a well meaning intention to "represent" that has spurred them to ultimately take a job that is comfortable for them as a bridge between university and the real world, they are doing the role as a job, they enjoy working with the permanent staff, and they are utterly unsure as to what is truly "right" or "wrong" in this world.
10% are there for the CV and little else, they have very real political aspirations, don't want anything to sully their time in role, and want to use that as a jump off to NUS or other political orgnisations.
5% are single issue driven, they are there because they feel super passionate about a single (or small set) of issues and they are using their time to push the agenda forward. Probably the best type of person to get elected to the role, but all too rare.
5% are real political activists with real agendas. It's not that real activists (of the left-wing ilk) don't stand for election, it's that they don't tend to be elected. Students are more likely to vote for lower beer prices than a more sustainable environmental policy on waste disposal at the university
5% are there by mistake because they thought it'd be a laugh and realise actually there is stuff they need to do, and none of those things is ever going to be the major structural estates work that they promised they'd make happen within a year.

So... why is this important? The vast majority of people that you'll ever find in an SU elected officer role anywhere (IMO) is someone that is almost by design out of their depth, and by a few months in will be acutely aware of the dilemma (and actual crushing feeling) of not being able to solve everyones problems at the same time. Officers are unrealistic in their expectations by default. What you then do is you add trustee status to them and tell them that every decision they make will haunt them for years and if the students' union goes down, either by running out of money, or being sued, or whatever other legal horror-show may happen, then they will be able to be judged on their actions and held responsible if found that they were part of the process that led to that problem and held personally (financially) responsible.

Lee Griffin said...

There's a space for bodies like the NUS here to act as official intermediaries in some sense, not to resolve conflict but at least to give solid and legally based (if required) advise on how to tackle potential conflicts of interest between speakers and special interest groups on site, but they are surprisingly terrible at actually helping students' unions do anything other than sign up to their trade arm and use them to make their AGM legitimate (again, my anecdotal experience), and only seem useful to the elected officers for the first few weeks where they tend to supply people for training on the basics of trustee life and inter-personal/team work skills.

So... I agree with this article. Students' union officers will make poor decisions, but IMO that's built in to the nature of the role. You can't stop bad decisions making without a better and more responsive support structure for potentially controversial happenings, and/or better initial training for these people. As long as there is a process that students can go through to essentially appeal that decision then I'm not sure what the fuss is. That those making the fuss tend to resort immediately to the pitchforks style of accusation tones is the thing that, more than anything else, really needs to change.

Students' Union officers are just people, slightly in a little echo chamber, definitely with a bit of fear about the potential repercussions of their decisions, that are only really being broken out of their comfort zone for the first time. Mistakes will happen.

ejh said...

the pitchforks style of accusation tones is the thing that, more than anything else, really needs to change

What do you think the chances of that are?