Philosopher Karl Popper, in his compendium of works, The Open Society and Its Enemies, asserts that “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
This is not simply the logic by which grand gestures of aggression, such as World War II, can be justified; it is the logic by which bans or, boycotts, are enacted within political and campaigning organisations. In defence of tolerance, we prohibit racists, fascists and homophobes from speaking in our Student Union. If every place of discourse, every university, school, club, branch meeting and festival were to permit (or worse, invite) these kinds of people to a populated voice, then before long there truly would be an “onslaught of the intolerant”, one which would put not just the physical, but the mental and emotional well-being of vulnerable groups in our society at serious risk. We are already seeing this to a degree with the surging popularity and widespread media coverage of the UK Independence Party as every day another bigoted councillor/parliamentary candidate takes to Twitter to make statements about homosexuals or people of colour that hold serious power to depress or trigger physical harm to a survivor of abuse and discrimination.
By the logic of the “Stop the Bans” campaign, this warped, alternate reality would be a desirable choice for our campus, the wider student movement and ultimately, the country. There is certainly an argument for moderation in the ways the Student Union deals with external speakers, companies we buy products and services from and the publication of various forms of media. As a Student Union, we exist first and foremost for the benefit of students, and therefore we should not unduly restrict their freedoms as that would be counter-intuitive to our goal. However, the single most important thing for any student (or person) is their well-being. The defence of tolerance against intolerance is, in the context of a Student Union, an action in defence of students’ well-being: protection from feeling threatened, harassed, unsafe or victimised.
People do not have the right to go about their day free from offence. Indeed, in a society which encourages thoughtful debate, it is only natural that people will be offended by the contentious ideas of others from time to time. However, feeling threatened, harassed, unsafe, or victimised, is not the same as being offended; it is a considerable step further, and one which directly endangers the health of an individual. The idea that any ban or boycott, that at this time, would be voted on by Union Council (the sovereign legislative body of the Union, which every single reader of this article had a chance to elect) needs to be put to a campus-wide referendum is a serious threat to the protection that the Union offers its members against feeling threatened, harassed, unsafe or victimised. Decisions like this are made in defence of vulnerable minorities: for example, the No Platform policy was passed in defence of survivors of racial abuse/aggression, amongst other reasons. If this decision was put to a referendum (each of which would cost approximately £1000, money that comes directly from the Union’s budget to fund societies, sports teams and events), a massive proportion of our campus which has never experienced racial discrimination or aggression would be voting on a matter they understood no genuine reality of. Not only does that put vulnerable minorities at serious risk, it asks students who very often (judging from our election turnouts) do not care about ‘Union politics’ to make decisions that have people’s welfare at stake. I have seen little hung for voting in referendums from the student populace, only a small, radical, short-sighted wing of Union Council numbering between ten and fifteen people.
It is also important to note that the ‘Stop the Bans’ campaign, operationally, is disingenuous and ill-informed. The very name, ‘Stop the Bans’, is intensely misleading. The aim of the campaign isn’t actually to ‘ban bans’, but rather, to ‘turn decisions about bans into referendums instead of Union Council votes’. There isn’t actually any ‘stopping’ going on. Therefore, those who may identify with the campaign’s name may not actually identify with its real message. Then again, I don’t imagine the latter option sounds quite as engaging as the first, and the ‘Stop the Bans’ campaign is evidently very big on engagement.
On top of that, in the entire history of our Student Union, the total figure of ‘banned’ things amounts to less than double figures. We have banned: fur, strippers, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, as well as fascists, racists and homophobes (collectively, via No Platform). Notice the omission of ‘Blurred Lines’, Tim Westwood and The Sun in my list. Tim Westwood has simply not been invited back to play Fresh Festival (by Rockstar Promotions, and therefore not a decision taken by the Union), ‘Blurred Lines’ has not actually been banned, as evidenced by several students on either side of the debate reporting having heard it played in the Union this term, and The Sun has been boycotted only until Page 3 is removed: none of these three things constitute a ‘ban’.
The ‘Stop the Bans’ campaign is a knee-jerk, unsophisticated reaction to situations which require serious thought, even more serious sensitivity, and occasionally, a very mild curtailment of liberties, in the name of the welfare and happiness of our most vulnerable students.
By Harry Wells