If you hang around (student) politics for long enough, you come to know the features of a particular kind of cult. There’s a belief system with core ideas constantly rehashed, and a tight inner circle of activists, with a larger network along for the ride. Their key players pretend to not know each other. They spend their time not growing a movement, but influencing the “average”- through relentless reframing of eye catching incidents to fit a narrative. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Meet the Revolutionary Communist Party. Not your father’s commies, the RCP was an offshoot of the Revolutionary Communist Group, which had itself split from the International Socialists in the 1970s. Always media savvy, throughout the 70s and 80s it was interested in moral panics like Child Pornography and the AIDS epidemic, finding ways to reframe ideas and events into hardened concepts and tropes. By 1997 it was no longer cool to run a “party”, so it chose to propagate its ideas through a magazine called “Living Marxism”- a kind of Now! Album collection of familiar frames to true believers- along with an exotic collection of front groups. The “Manifesto Club”. “Parents with Attitude”. “Audacity.org”. The “Institute of Ideas”.
If you fancy spending a few weeks through the looking glass, it’s all there. Free speech, “not me speech” and a hatred of “PC” culture. Condemnation of ‘greenthink’ and accusations of climate conspiracy. Constant railing against “meddling policymakers” that interfere in our lives. Campaigns against everything from gun control to the banning of tobacco advertising and, most infamous of all, against the banning even of child porn. The alignment of the interests of the “white working class” with issues like this is where the ‘communism’ comes from, and it’s a remarkably prescient set of frames and techniques now in use by populists seizing control of governments and referenda around the world.
LM closed in the early 00s when, following an article that accused ITN of falsifying reports of Bosnian Muslims being held in Serbian concentration camps, the news organisation sued, won £1 million in damages and bankrupted the magazine and its publishers. But- media savvy as ever- the key players reappeared under the guise of “online magazine” Spiked!- and they continued to provide (click)bait to a media whose political economy had replaced a yearning to explain facts with a need to find facts that fit templates, and talking heads with opinions the public were already familiar with.
Today it retains its tight inner circle. Frank Furedi (now an academic at Derby) rails against emotional intelligence and awareness in education. Joanna Williams (a Kent Uni academic) has spent decades arguing against responding to student input. Brendan O Neill, who along with a student-ish deputy called Tom Slater specialises in Free Speech ranks and rants, runs Spiked! And then there’s Claire Fox- the moral maze regular famous for importing and then popularising the phrase “snowflake” into the UK, who mainlines on arguments about “offence” and “discomfort”.
There’s an outer circle too. Peter Tatchell pops up regularly to talk about being “No Platformed”. Columnist Julie Bindel repeatedly bemoans an NUS ban that never was. Munira Mirza- appointed by Boris Johnson as London’s Director of Policy for culture- was a “Manifesto Club” leading light and a regular rentagob when a panel needs someone to say that “Diversity if Divisive”.
There’s not many of them but they are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Like that photo of graduates used in 50% of HE press stories online, once you spot them you spot them everywhere, writing op-eds about consent classes, or online censorship, or snowflakes. And they even appear on panels without making clear they know eachother- most recently appearing before the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ Evidence to give “evidence” on Freedom of Speech. There’s Furedi, Williams and Slater- spouting out the same set of ‘freedom of speech’ anecdotes to lawmakers that we read all summer- deliberately conflating issues of academic freedom of speech with all sorts of other things (behaviour codes, “PC” culture) to manufacture their outrage.
The Freedom of Speech Debate
The debate on Freedom of Speech is as old as debate itself, and I’ve written about the modern history of the debate over “No Platforming” and Universities before. It reappears every so often, cheered on by a press permanently fascinated by the young that might want to challenge the behaviours and values of the old. In the 70s and 80s the debate centred on race- with students concerned about the National Front, the BNP and the pro-apartheid attitudes of backbenchers choosing to protest and uninvite rather than sit back- resulting in an unnecessary amendment to the Education Act in 1986 (now being endlessly rehashed as new and decisive action).
But for the odd skirmish about evangelical Christianity, the BNP or abortion, the 90s and 00s saw the pressure off- largely because it was student leaders and students’ unions that were being proactive about the anti-semitism and outright racism of Hizb-ut-tahir flooding campuses with pretend societies and inciteful speakers long before the Government told them to under the damaging guise of “Prevent”. Work developed at the time by NUS, UUK and student groups like FOSIS and UJS exemplifies sensible, nuanced policy making- a salient commitment to freedom of speech, but delivered in way that doesn’t harm and guarantees access.
Presumably miffed by this type of liberal logic- and seeking revenge for their own student activists being mocked within SUs and NUS for decades, Spiked! then launched their masterstroke in 2015. Rampant marketisation had caused a proliferation of league tables and rankings that would fill electronic inches, and so the Spiked! Free Speech rankings were born- aimed initially squarely at Students’ Unions. In this world racist “banter” wasn’t oppression- it was merely something the new authoritarians found “offensive”. Choosing not to stock something or invite someone wasn’t a proud display or collective democratic decision making- it was a “Ban”. Sexual Harassment policies aren’t an escape from oppression, they are oppression. “We don’t need these people to keep us safe”, suggests Brendan at the Oxford Union. ‘We are strong’, suggests O Neill. ‘They are weak’.
The year that ensued was a particularly tricky one for Students’ Unions- and we felt pretty lonely as University Press Offices tried to stress that SUs were separate and VCs went to ground, hiding under some coats until it all went away. Never mind that there was almost no evidence of any SU actually banning anyone. The political economy of the news, the populism of Trump and Brexit and Claire Fox’s #1 Hit ‘Special Snowflakes’ kept it all going- to the point where our own HE Minister this year felt compelled to launch (and then regularly relaunch) a regulator for HE not through the optic of teaching, or value or money, or empowering complainants- but by announcing a crackdown on “Student Snowflakes”.
The choice of “Snowflake” as the term de jour for student activists is particularly interesting. Back in the 70s and 80s, the student activists and leaders were branded as aggressive thugs. But the rise of women and LGBT+ students involved in student activism and students’ unions- along with LM’s hatred of “PC” and its obsession with white, working class men meant a new frame was necessary. Women? LGBT+? This generation can’t be strong thugs- they must fit the gender and sexuality tropes necessary. They’re weak. They’re emotional. They’re hysterical. Their “mental health problems” are always in parentheses. Their weakness leads to “trigger warnings” and their “intolerance” leads to called “no-platforming”. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Free Speech- From rankings to regulation
Given the geopolitical factors, it’s not a particular surprise that the clock still hasn’t moved on. But what is a surprise is the enthusiasm with which Ministers, Parliamentarians and now even the chair of the supposed arm’s length regular- a man promoted as focussed on data on evidence- have bought this hoary old LM twaddle driven by a handful of anecdotes about Sombreros and Jazz Hands.
“We will stand for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech- anything within the law”, says Michael Barber in his piece in the THE. He recalls a time when he read “The Theory of Possessive Individualism” and felt uncomfortable, as if at some stage NUS was trying to ban C. B. Macpherson. “Admittedly, this had nothing to do with my identity” (you don’t say) [but] “my Pakistani friend… enrolled in a comparative religion class and suddenly found himself faced with questions that challenged his religion, culture, upbringing and, yes, identity. Uncomfortable for sure. And life-changing”. There it is- the LM right to be “offended”- via a crack down on people like the student activist he met. “A well-informed student I spoke to agreed that freedom of speech was important but added that it might need to be limited in relation to questions of identity because otherwise it might make some people feel uncomfortable”.
I’ve worked with student activists and leaders and sabbatical officers for over 20 years- in small colleges and large Universities, in institutions, SUs and in NUS. The truth is, I’ve barely ever met a single one with a real desire to censor ideas, or stifle debate, or police speech- more a desperation to avoid hurting other people’s feelings by displaying inadvertent prejudice, and a real bravery and determination to tackle the world around them.
- There’s the students who weren’t prepared to put up with being groped in nightclubs any more- and had the temerity and bravery to launch social norming campaigns and behaviour codes amongst students long before Universities were shamed into joining in.
- There’s the students who, when running their own shop, didn’t want to profit from selling The Sun. Note not wanting to profit from the sales- not banning it, or geoblocking the URL on eduroam, or confiscating copies from the local Tesco. They just got together and decided through open debate what they wanted to sell to eachother.
- There’s the students who wanted us to ask other students not to “black up” at social events, or to parade around at fancy dress events mocking people of colour or people that are poor. There’s the student who wanted to know what to do about her “handsy” lecturer who women had developed ways to avoid over 20 years. There’s the students campaigning to have some reading from talented people and thinkers that aren’t white.
- There’s the Jewish students who spent much of the 00s sick of having Hizb ut-Tahrir organising front societies to spread vile messages of anti-Semitism. There’s the LGBT+ students who weren’t happy that the Hockey Team thought it was just “bants” to play Gay Chicken on their way to fixtures. There’s the students who wanted to get through a night out without a DJ playing “Blurred Lines”, slurring down the mic that it was time for the “lads” to go “blur the lines with the ladies”, with obvious consequences.
- And then there’s the students- not studying politics or philosophy or religion- who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence. And the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.
In the Students’ Union sector, there tend to be two cliched type models for student leadership. The first is the “head boy or girl” type- polite, constructive characters that dress up smart for University meetings, appear in prospectus photos, and run awareness campaigns. They are concerned for “ordinary” students. They trust power. In my world they’re called “the right”- but here let’s call them “passive”.
Then there’s the activist type- scruffier, louder, more “rebellious”; where demonstrations and occupations are the go-to tactics of any campaign. If they do turn up to University meetings they’re unlikely to have dressed up, and are more likely to disrupt an open day than contribute to it. They are concerned that some students- especially Women, LGBT+, BaME and Disabled- are not seen as “ordinary” whilst others are. They distrust power. In my world they’re called “the left”, but here we’ll call them “aggressive”.
The tendency is for both of the archetypes to accuse the other camp of the extremes of the cliché- not least on the floor of the NUS Conference, where the bifurcation of a stream of “Yes/No” votes on resolutions forces delegates to choose sides. And I’ve met hundreds of University leaders over the years who are frustrated at the tactics of the “left” only to be disappointed (or worse, thrilled) when they’re apparently replaced by the emptiness of the “right”.
But day to day, most student activists and leaders embody neither of the clichés. They’re just plain old assertive. They challenge authority. They point out elephants in the room and raise uncomfortable things at uncomfortable times in uncomfortable ways. They do appear in prospectus photos and they do go on protests, but they also present evidence and make arguments and provoke the powerful. They tackle each other’s behaviour. And they’re genuinely brave. Any glance at social media demonstrates this. Almost uniquely in the UK, we have built a powerful set of organisations and processes and people within our HE sector capable of delivering more local accountability, transparency and bravery within a University than any Office for Students ever will- and we should be proud of it.
Instead, it’s under threat- and some in the sector don’t help. I know- I’ve seen it with my own eyes- that HE types (especially in management positions) can get frustrated with the concerns and behaviours of so-called snowflakes when what they want is “student” input. It’s true that some students are louder than others. It’s true that some lose their temper. Some take up leadership positions. Some are more “extreme”.
Students above the parapet
But to imagine that the people putting their head above the parapet are unrepresentative or dismissable is dangerous. Remember that HEPI research– 76% of students express some support for No Platform. 68% of students support trigger warnings. 51% of students think universities should sometimes or always get rid of memorials to controversial historical figures and 55% think universities should be safe spaces where debate takes place within specific guidelines.
For the faux outrage of the RCP mob and intergenerationally irritated baby boomer HE leaders, this lack of faith in freedom, democracy and debate is baffling. But can you blame them? For students, the “Free Speech” revolution created through endless streams of internet enabled communication is cripplingly exhausting- especially for women, LGBT+ and BaME students. And when we tell them that free and fair debate will win out- only to find that a lie on the side of a bus can pull us into economic suicide and an incoherent, narcissistic predator can lose debates but end up as the leader of the free world- we ought to realise that our exhortations will sound empty.
Yet despite all of this, they do believe in Freedom of Speech- passionately. They just want everyone to be able to access it. They are sometimes inconsistent and hypocritical. They can look unrepresentative, but they represent something deeper. They are beacons for disclosure and carry astonishing burdens from students inspired by them. They are brave, not weak. And their emotional intelligence and focus shames most of us.
Of course they can tend to use baffling and exclusionary language, creating rarified environments that seem hard to access. How do you think they feel in University committees? Or watching Parliament? And they can be dogmatic, and difficult, and occasionally just daft. But the yebbutism of parts of HE in that year they came for SUs (exemplified in the Cardiff VC evidence to the JCHR) — full of dismissal like “where’s your evidence”, or “you’re inconsistent”, or “what about the university’s reputation” didn’t help- and now look at the mess we’re in.
Because the whole of HE is one big special snowflake snowstorm right now. There is no freedom of speech problem in UK Universities. But there is an endless, coordinated campaign of tropey stories where the facts are secondary to the frame — a runaway train that left the Spiked! station some time ago but is now firmly out of control. There’s a ministerial crack down, and a concerned regulator and a cross party enquiry.
Over the years, my real concern for the snowflakes has been their inability to persuade others. There is a comfort in shared language and frames that can lead to laziness about growing, or bursting, the social bubble. Like there was in the “remain” campaign. Like there was in Clinton’s campaign. Like there is right now in HE.
I’m not sure whether this pseudo-intellectual version of populism, being propagated by the likes of Johnson, Gove, Timothy, Adonis, the RCP and now Barber is being coordinated- or just memetically transferred as people cast around to capture the anger of the oppressed without looking like a Nazi or Trump. But I am sure that right now HE is on the wrong side of it. We need our own frames- crafted, tested and relentlessly promoted- and we need to get out of our bubbles and into theirs.
Ultimately, for the “snowflakes”, the intergenerational injustice is real. The lack of faith in democracy and freedom of speech is understandable. The understanding of mental health, behaviour and emotion is inspiring. They are who we wished we were then, and who we wish we could be now.
They’re not kids that want our help, nor are they always right or fit to lead Higher Education. But they are our colleagues, partners, comrades, customers, members, clients- our equals. And in the battle of ideas ahead, we’ll need them.