Rhodes Must Fall! The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford has sparked debate about how Britain deals with its colonial past

By Timothy Garton Ash

Rhodes Must Fall! Trigger warnings! Microaggression! Safe spaces! No platform! Challenges to free speech inside the University are now the subject of spirited discussion at Oxford, as they are at leading American universities, and to understand them you may need to acquire a whole new vocabulary. I have spent the last 10 years writing a book and developing a multilingual website about free speech across the globe, based at what I have always considered to be one of free speech’s safest citadels and lighthouses: the University of Oxford. Little did I imagine that free speech would be challenged in the very heart of this citadel.

We at Oxford now face threats to free speech from outside and inside the University. From outside, the British government’s new counter-terrorism legislation, and the Home Office’s deeply illiberal interpretation of it, impose on universities (as also on schools) a so-called ‘Prevent’ duty to ban and/or inform upon speakers and students who support terrorist groups or merely share their goals. In the original, draft Home Office guidelines, we were even supposed to exclude proponents of ‘non-violent extremism’. As I pointed out, this would cover some of the most celebrated radical thinkers in the history of the West, including Jesus Christ. For who can doubt that Jesus was a non-violent extremist?timothy_garton-ashThreats from the Home Office and from legislation have been seen off, protecting a robust tradition of protest 

Fortunately, the whole higher education sector in Britain has mobilised to see off this threat. Lord (Ken) Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions, has been instrumental in crafting Oxford’s response. As a Liberal Democrat peer, he introduced an amendment to the legislation which makes it clear that the ‘Prevent’ obligations are subordinated to the primary duty, enshrined in the 1986 Education Act, to ensure freedom of speech in educational institutions. As Warden of Wadham College, he has led the exercise of developing procedures by which the University and its colleges can comply with the law while fully preserving freedom of expression. And needless to say, we all recognise that preventing radicalisation that leads to violent extremism is an important task.

Our new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, has from the outset commanded public attention by her outspoken defence of the central value of free speech for a university. In this, she has been very much informed by her own academic research on counter-terrorism. The best way to counter extremist political and religious views that might lead young people towards terrorism is to bring those views out into the open, where they can be robustly challenged. ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’ is not just a liberal commonplace; it is also an empirical finding.

While I fear that the Home Office interpretation of this legislation will have a chilling effect on many schools and perhaps on less secure universities, I’m confident that free speech at Oxford is once more safe from government interference.timothy_garton-ashCampaigns such as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, above, should be recognised as an enrichment of free speech, argues Timothy Garton Ash 

However, we also face a more complex, subtle, diffuse set of challenges to (or at least about) free speech from inside, especially from a minority of our own students. Every university teacher worth her or his salt knows that you can learn from students as well as teaching them. So in the context of our Free Speech Debate project I have organised several panel discussions on this topic with a wide range of formidably articulate students (you can watch them at freespeechdebate.com). What emerges is a more nuanced picture than you find in some popular newspapers.

For example, my own conclusion is that the Rhodes Must Fall movement, as it has played out so far at Oxford, is not a threat to free speech but in some ways actually an enrichment of it. The statue has stayed up on the facade of Oriel College, as I am sure it should, but the students have sparked an important debate about the way we treat Britain’s colonial history and legacy in our curricula.CodringtonThe Codrington Library at All Souls has also come under fire from some undergraduates for its links to slavery

Similarly, I do not think the idea of  ‘trigger warnings’  – warnings that certain textual or visual material may be distressing to some students, for example those who have suffered rape or other sexual violence – is to be dismissed out of hand. After all, we do not think it an infringement of free speech when television news announcers warn us that viewers may find images in the next item distressing. There have been wildly over-the-top examples: some students at Columbia University even suggested that Ovid’s Metamorphoses required a trigger warning. But in strict moderation this is not an unreasonable idea.

Where we must very firmly draw the line, however, is at the practice known as ‘no-platforming’. For example, two speakers invited to debate abortion at an event at Christ Church were no-platformed (to use the activists’ beautifully elegant verb). In plain English, this means that one group of students prevented another group of students from hearing speakers that they wanted to hear. In effect, its student-on-student censorship. And some of my student debaters argued that the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen should not have been invited to address the Oxford Union.

I believe this practice is inimical to one of the essential purposes of a university: that young people should be confronted with the widest possible range of views and arguments, in a framework of what I call robust civility (a key concept in my book). 

timothy_garton-ashWhere those views are extreme, controversial or offensive, we should ensure that they face qualified, well-informed challenge on the platform and open questioning from the floor. This is how we enable students to work out for themselves what they think is true or false, right or wrong, and prepare them to be citizens in increasingly diverse societies, where they will certainly be confronted with such views.

In short, far from no-platforming Donald Trump, I hope the Oxford Union will invite him at the next opportunity. A peaceful but loud protest outside the Union would continue a great tradition, while inside that hallowed hall I would confidently expect our students to give him a thorough grilling.

Timothy Garton Ash (Exeter, 1974) is Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College.

Images © Oxford University Images, John Cairns, Shutterstock

Comments

By michael royster
on

"No-platforming" is not a new phenomenon. While at Princeton in 1963, I was an officer of the undergraduate Whig-Clio Society, which invited former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, and former Viet Nam "Dragon Lady" to speak on campus. The backlash was formidable, with many "liberals" begging the University to un-invite them. The University did not cave, so the speakers came, were greeted with protests, spoke, and were subject to "a thorough grilling". Free speech won out and so did learning. May they always do so.

By Christopher Normand
on

Few of us who had the privilege of an Oxford education would argue the case for the suppression of free speech. However, like many other "totem poles" now worshipped by rabble-rousers, free speech merely allows agitators the freedom to express a view, but not to misinform by inventing quotations or to circulate falsehood deliberately or in ignorance. The anti-Rhodes campaign is based upon false premises, proposed by political extremists and, has a very limited following (the original petition attracted a tiny following despite the noise it created).
Please let us now ignore the braying of a tiny movement to impose an irrelevant viewpoint.

By Peter Weygang
on

My main concern about this unbridled rhetoric on social history is that it is history. Throughout human history many things have happened; some are now considered good, perhaps tomorrow they will be seen as bad. They may be discussed, praised, condemned, or ignored. But they cannot be rewritten. Running around splashing whitewash everywhere does nothing.
In fact, that may be the worst thing to do. One current example is the expurgated image of Muhamad that is so popular. He has been sanctified, with this new status used as a moral shaming weapon against jihadists, and other extremists.
Early biographies of his life, such as that by Ibn Ishaq, show a typical war lord of his era. In the modern day, his behavior would be abhorrent, and his values rejected. It is better to learn from truth, even a painful one, than to remove its tokens from public view.

By Stephen Warren
on

Campus wars and Oxford
There is a deeper and broader aspect to this subject: the politicisation of “facts” and “truth”, as described by Orwell in 1984, drawing on his knowledge of the Soviet Union. The Brexit campaign on both sides was guilty of exaggerating and withholding information and Donald Trump was the causative agent in coining the phrase “post-truth” to describe statements made by politicians, knowing them to be implausible or false, who subsequently absolve themselves and transfer the blame to their audience for believing them. Speaking about the need to Africanise the curricula of Oxford subjects the RMF representatives praised the economic policies of Mugabe and demanded that the physics of Newton should be rejected and research funds used to investigate the supernatural powers of African individuals. Were these demands “post-facts” or just silly?
Returning to Russia, it would be unwise to neglect the possibility that Kremlin voices are behind some of these EU student demands. Their dream of a collapsing EU and a greatly weakened NATO are looking closer to realisation than ever before, which would give Putin a breathing space to prepare his population (“subjects”) for further adventures. Disrupting the EU higher education systems would be a useful (to Russia) distraction for the already overstretched British administration.
Before we start drafting new syllabuses and curricula we should consider carefully what we and our students have to learn from Africa and what changes might be desirable in Russian University courses, on which we might offer advice (short of actual help). Russia (Putin) is vigorously opposed to freedom of speech but enjoys seeing other countries, especially the UK, tying themselves in knots trying to reconcile the inherently incompatible policies of allowing people freedom of expression on the one hand and preventing them offending those who disagree with them on the other.

By RH Findlay
on

It seems to me that the governments of the UK and other western democracies are set on passing increasingly restrictive legislation of the sort that would have made certain dictators of the 1930s rather happy.

Oxford is to be commended for its stand. Sunlight is indeed essential.

By Jane Fae
on

I thoroughly agree with about 95% of this article, but with a few qualifications, mainly of the "it's more complicated than that"variety, since i believe "free speech" is very much a topic "du jour" and, any topic, reduced to cliche, rapidly descends into a series of competing slogans that contribute more heat than light.

On "no platforming", i am very opposed to such practice and have supported a number of speakers with whom i am in disagreement and who other bodies have sought to ban. However, i have also been less than impressed by the attempts of some to weaponise "no platforming", in the sense of claiming that almost any form of robust protest, because it has the possibility of leading the speaker to decide not to speak, is the equivalent of no platforming.

That tactic has been used much by supporters of Germaine Greer, who has used the claim of being no platformed to obtain significantly wider platforms for her views on other media - and then STILL got to speak on the platform from which she claimed originally to have been excluded. In thise world view, robust protest against Trump would be considered "no platforming".

Second, it seems to me that the original defence of free speech had much to do with individual speech vs state censorship. Today, speech takes place in a series of competing arenas, on social media, on the BBC, as well as in more formal/academic spaces.

In the former, it is questionable as to whether we are talking speech or (virtual) space: and campaigns by particular pressure groups, sheltering behind the figleaf of "free speech", are frequently used to silence other groups, with the result that it is unclear whose free speech is being prioritised. Though i am much taken by the proposition of Prof Catharine McKinnon, who has written at length about how, on an uneven playing field, free speech merely entrenches privilege.

As for balance! That appears to be a device to ensure that all debate progresses through a series of manichean opposites, no matter the weight of opinion on one or other side.

So...a good piece....but capable of inspiring lots of further debate, rather than being an end to it. :)

By Julian Roach
on

I remember a dignified representative of the Birmingham Sikh community, one of the leaders of an angry protest that led to the closure of a play written by a young Sikh woman, saying "Freedom of speech is not freedom to give offence." For all his dignity, of course, he was quite wrong. That is exactly what it is. Freedom to say only what offends nobody is no freedom at all.

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