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?Threats 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.Campaigns 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.The 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).
Where 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.
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