Image: Warwick Media Library

A vote against NUS affiliation is not a vote against progression

As a leftwing student (it’s very telling that I feel I have to state this at the top of an article), one line from Lucy Gill’s recent Huffington Post article leaves me distressed. Gill, a former sabbatical officer here at Warwick, attempted to rebuke those who want Warwick SU to disaffiliate from the NUS with a gruesome aberration of facts.

“There is, clearly, considerable irony in a group of right-wing activists so frequently critical of boycotts, walkouts and “safe spaces” now attempting to essentially ‘No Platform’ the NUS for deeply partisan reasons.”

There is something gravely, terrifyingly wrong with society when free speech is conflated with an opposition to progressive values. And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening here.

There is something gravely, terrifyingly wrong with society when free speech is conflated with an opposition to progressive values

This is not an attempt to ‘mansplain’ to Gill. I may disagree with her opinion, but I’ll fight anyone who contradicts her right to hold it. However, with her views aired via such a public platform, it’s important to consider the other side.

Free speech as a tool can be used to posit a range of views and therefore is not inherently left, right or center. However, supporting the principal of free speech is a progressive value – a belief that everyone has the right to an opinion, even an objectionable one.

Everyone has the right to an opinion, even an objectionable one

Gill’s article implies that if you’re considering voting for us to disaffiliate from the SU, you must be right-wing. Worse, criticism of SU boycotts, walkouts, ‘safe spaces’ and the NUS’ ‘No Platform’ policy are all roundly dismissed by the article as beliefs held by backwards thinking, non-progressives.

If, like me, you’re voting for Warwick SU to leave the NUS because you disagree with the ‘No Platform’ policy among others, don’t let bullying or peer pressure dissuade you. You’re not ignorant, elitist, right-wing scum. You are, in fact, progressive – someone who believes that to suppress a group or individual’s right to speak is to indulge despotism.

You’re not ignorant, elitist, right-wing scum. You are, in fact, progressive

Warwick can be a hostile place for students who support political pluralism. I’ve seen Maryam Namazie, a secularist and human rights activist, blocked from speaking. I’ve seen a former Warwick SU President embroiled in controversy over the Conservative Association’s posters being torn down. I’ve seen students ostracised – indeed, supposedly hounded out of lectures and bars – for holding views most of us object to.

These are all signs that Warwick needs to take a long, hard look at itself. Although, like me, you might feel at home in a left-wing environment, everyone has a greater moral duty to fend off confirmation bias and essentialism.

Everyone has a greater moral duty to fend off confirmation bias and essentialism

Our freedoms of speech and expression are inalienable human rights. Enshrined by the UN and historically hard-fought-for, they allow journalists to expose sinister regimes, artists to provoke thought and protesters to campaign for change. Google Edward Snowden, Pussy Riot and Ai WeiWei and you’ll have the briefest taste of what happens when free speech is treated not as a right, but as a benefit those in power want to take away.

To be fair to Gill, boycotts and walkouts can be good devices of free speech. ‘Safe spaces’ we’ll have to put aside for now – that’s an entangled, complicated argument on both sides. But the ‘No Platform’ policy has historically been used by the NUS to close down discussions, such as in 2010 when NUS officers halted a debate on multiculturalism at the University of Durham.

Our freedoms of speech and expression are inalienable human rights

Freedom of speech allows people to disagree, to debate, to demonstrate. The moment we deny this right to groups or individuals, we undermine the whole concept. Are there people with hateful views out there? Views we might find distressing or ‘triggering’? Of course. But when we relegate free speech from a right for all to a benefit for some, we set a precedent that invites totalitarianism, fascism and tyranny into our society.

The Civil Rights movement, the Suffragettes, Gay liberation. These are just three examples of progressive movements which would have been impossible without free speech. These were far from conservative movements – each was iconoclastic, a paradigm-shift from oppression to liberty. And make no mistake, there are many battles yet to be fought.

When we relegate free speech from a right for all to a benefit for some, we set a precedent that invites totalitarianism

In the 17th century, John Milton’s published a treatise on censorship entitled Areopagitica. In it, he states, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race”. Milton’s point was one for the ages: only when we expose ourselves to evils and choose to abstain from them can we call ourselves righteous. Refusing to listen to misogynists, racists or political extremists does not make you enlightened. It makes you a denier.

John Servante

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