Jamie Boylan-O’rourke discusses UCLU’s unpopular stance on controversial speakers
Studying at a university of roughly 30,000 students, it would be reasonable to say that our student body has a wide range of views. These views, no matter if you disagree with them or share them, should be discussed and circulated.
This is the essence of democracy and freedom of speech. And it’s this which taps into the innate student politico that resides within (a few of) us. We protest, we debate, and we challenge each other in our seminars. Yet, there is an underlying feeling amongst our student body that our voices are slowly being stripped away. But what voices are these? It’s the voice that differs from the university’s view of what our voice should be. It’s the voice that doesn’t agree with the left wing trend of student politics. It is the voice that challenges whatever Social Justice topic is trending. Agree or disagree with them, these voices are just as valid as any other.
Through blocking speakers who challenge these norms, and by creating safe spaces so no one can say anything that is “upsetting’”(in other words: refusing to listen to anyone who challenges their own views), we are policing our own political discourse and we are disenfranchising ourselves from our student body. We cannot let our campuses become a hub of ‘yes men’ who refuse to discuss differing opinions.
Controversial speakers almost always gain the interest of the student body. Last year, the International Relations Society hosted a talk by Daniel Taub the Israeli Ambassador to the UK. His presence at UCL created a political discourse amongst students from peaceful protests by the Friends of Palestine Society, to protesters who were vocal in both the talk and the Q&A. It was controversial, but that is not a bad thing. Listening to those who have differing views and perspectives can help someone become more rounded. Throughout the event, freedom to express opinion was welcomed and was only blocked if it was violent or disruptive. The whole event was essentially what a political discourse at university should be: diverse, democratic, and maybe even a little rowdy. Passionate debate and discussion is dynamic and it’s engaging, it makes people actually interested in political discourse.
However, it seems to be a developing concern on university campuses that by Student Unions blocking certain speakers, some students’ views are being suppressed. It could be also argued that because of this, students feel disenfranchised by their Union. UCL’s General Assembly, which was planned to take place last month, had to be rescheduled because of the poor turn out- only around 50 students attended, well below the 200 needed for quoracy. This raises a few questions: do students simply not know these events are taking place, or do they just not care? It is fair to say, that most students at UCL are here for a degree, and maybe a few messy Sports Nights at Loop, rather than getting involved in union politics. Those who tend to get involved are political fanatics and/or have aspirations of being in politics after university.
There is a growing trend in speakers being banned from university campuses. Both Milo Yiannopolus and Julie Bindle were banned from speaking at Manchester University because some of their previous comments on transsexual people were deemed ‘offensive’. And now, UCLU has banned Macer Gifford, ex-student and YPG fighter, from speaking on our campus.
Asad Khan, the Events and Activities Officer refused to comment when I approached him about the recent event. Rather, he directed me to a link of an article published by the Union, ignoring my questions on how this affects student support and trust in the Union to represent their views. The article states that Gifford was blocked not because his views were offensive, but because they were afraid that his influence would drive students to fight in Syria. It goes on to say that in the absence of police advice, it was difficult for UCLU to approve Gifford as a speaker.
This seems just as bad as language policing. The Union are suggesting that we cannot think for ourselves, and that we need protecting. On the contrary, we are adults and we don’t need to be mollycoddled. We can listen to a speech by a man retelling his experience, and use our own judgement to influence our subsequent actions. Khan was also quoted in The Tab London saying that the Union wanted “to avoid taking sides”. In this case, is there really a question about taking sides? Surely we all know how inherently evil ISIS is.
The article from the Union further stated that: “UCL indicated that their preference would be to not invite Mr Gifford to speak on this occasion, although the final decision rested with [UCLU]”. This indicates that UCL advised the Union not to hold Macer Gifford as a speaker and that UCLU complied, even though it is an independent body that is there to reflect the views of the students. The social media response suggests that the student body wants Mr. Gifford to speak and therefore UCLU should revise their decision if they are truly representative of the student community. However, it seems that they won’t due to the clear pressure they are under from UCL. But, what if they do change their minds? Would UCL accommodate this after their original negative stance? Would they try to block the event from happening?
It is clear that the blocking of Macer Gifford has undeniably been a controversial issue. It has unleashed angry voices within our student body, ranging from the Kurdish Society President, Kavar Kurda, speaking in The Tab, to the Conservative Society President-Elect, Helen Chandler-Wilde, commenting on Twitter that the decision was “disgusting”.
This is a discussion that needs to be welcomed with open arms, to uphold true democratic and political discourse.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons