hree years ago I came to university an enthusiastic, young politico; top of my class in anything Marx related. I dreamt of university as a place of endless debate and discussion. Like many naïve radicals, I pictured myself in a suave polo neck leading a cohort of students to a bright and better world. Cigarette in one hand, a trusty Sartre paperback in the other. It would be 1968 Paris all over again.
My romantic enthusiasm was dashed on Jägerbombs within a month. How wrong I was.
University: a place where Dr Marten wearing kids, prone to hyperventilation, huddle around MacBooks, pontificating about the need for ‘liberation’.
Vegan fingers point out anything that ideologically offends and then attempt to censor it for the sake of a creating a ‘safe space’ – whether Native American head dresses, pop songs, or Hindu bindis.
But more often than not, free speech comes under fire. Charlie Hebdo, Armed Forces recruiters, Kurdish freedom fighters, renowned feminists like Julie Bindel, Maryam Namazie and Germaine Greer, or LGBT activists like Peter Tachell, all get axed for various ideological impurities.
Working as a news editor for my student paper, I’ve had a front row seat to this mayhem.
After writing about such issues for a year, I’ve come to the conclusion that playground politics have arrived at British universities. If you stand out in the school playground, if your views differ from the norm, you’ll be ostracised. Popular bullies will make it their job to tell you, you are a bad person. There’s no difference at university.
A few weeks ago it was my student union’s elections. I interviewed a candidate who had run solely on a free speech agenda. A BME working-class girl, she was a strong libertarian and Eurosceptic. She didn’t believe structural racism existed and didn’t have much time for feminism. She was plucky and unorthodox. But half way through our talk she almost broke down out of exasperation.
Her character had been relentlessly criticised online and even on the way to meet me a student had yelled abuse at her. Rumours had spread that she was secretly ‘fascist’ and ‘pro-rape’. Two of her election banners had been torn down and had been defaced with a swastika.
Put simply, she didn’t fit the mould of ‘enlightened’ student politics and she was being punished for it. This is what the ‘safe space’ mentality is all about. It’s about validating yourself socially and never straying far from the herd.
In political terms, she and I disagreed on practically everything, but that was just the point. I’m a Lefty, but I realised I had more in common with her than I did with any student union activist. We both held the importance of open debate above anything else.
Recently I read that many of those 1968 Parisian students, whom I had once idealised, were in fact spoilt, middle-class Maoists. They hadn’t intended to debate and reason with the mind. They had wanted to cleanse it. The essence of the current student culture and its ‘safe space’ argument is still the same.