“Muslims are self-censoring, I have evidence of this in my research”
Professor Alison Scott-Baumann utters the sentence calmly but it’s clear that she is deeply concerned at the status of freedom of speech on UK campuses. And if you’ve been following the stories in the media, there’s a strong chance you believe that the problems stem from the students themselves. The ‘snowflake generation’ who scream ‘safe space’ the moment they’re challenged…
Well, according to Alison’s work this is a gross misrepresentation.
“I think it [free speech] is under threat, but not for the reasons that people such as the former Higher Education minister Jo Johnson and his successor Sam Gyimah have said. What’s actually happening is that the government is making it necessary to suppress free speech. It’s not the universities that are doing it themselves. They’re doing it because the government instructs them to do so.
“There are essentially two things to look at: you have the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, which means that some people can speak freely and some can’t. So if you’re a person of colour or you wear clothes that make it look like you might be Muslim, then you are regarded as possibly needing to be prevented from being radicalised and this means ‘protecting’ you from discussion of complex international situations. What this means now is that Muslims and people of colour are self-censoring. And I have extensive evidence of that in my research. The other aspect is the Charity Commission, which acts as an attack dog on behalf of Prevent. They are showing great interest in Palestine Societies and Islamic Societies.” The Charity Commission is responsible for student unions’ activities, because SUs are now full charities and are instructed to avoid controversy and activities that can be understood as political. Research I am doing with Simon Perfect, also of SOAS, shows that, while SUs around the country are often satisfied with Charity Commission support, there is also serious concern that politically active student unions and their student societies are unable to show active interest in the world around them. This undermines a core task of universities, which is to protect free speech and encourage discussion of controversial issues.”
So why is this perspective not being shared? There have been plenty of articles dedicated to a celebrity speaker being ‘no platformed’, but hardly a mention of this. Why do you think that is?
“The media – with the government’s collusion – has created this fake moral crisis that all students are snowflakes who melt the moment anyone starts debating something difficult or controversial. This is completely untrue and there is little real evidence that it is happening to a great scale. But it’s a brilliant image and one that is very difficult to get rid of from the public discourse. And the powerful idea of it is being used to say students are overusing ‘safe space’.”
What is ‘safe space’?
“The idea of a ‘safe space’ is that students can’t bear to talk about big issues like identity politics or anything to do with gender. But there is no evidence for this whatsoever. There is evidence, however, for the fact that students are enthusiastic, and I think rightly so, about common courtesy and not causing offence gratuitously.
“So, for example, at SOAS we have a policy that trans-phobic comments and behaviour are completely unacceptable. I think that’s reasonable. We’re all different and we shouldn’t be called out on it. Students should be able to carry on being unusual. They’re at university. This is where you form your adult identity. The actual term ’safe space’ is funnily enough most commonly found in documentation created by universities to deal with the censorship which the Government is imposing.
“There is an example I can give you from SOAS. A student group decided they wanted to show The Passion of the Christ. The Mel Gibson film, it’s very violent, it’s like 5 hours of torture. So what then happened was that the SU let it be known that this was a very violent film and that they were creating a space that was safe in the sense that the preconceptions about what will take place in this film showing are known. If you come, and you pretend that you didn’t know what the film was about, then you’re wrong and you can’t necessarily expect us to be sympathetic. Now that’s a really quite sophisticated use of safe space.
“And when you think about it, the hypocrisy of accusing students of being snowflakes and overusing safe spaces is utterly astounding. Every adult I know in their own home creates their own safe space. They only watch what they want to watch, they only entertain who they want to entertain and they only talk about the things they are interested in. So why students should be accused of this rather than the whole human race is baffling. In fact students have to mix much more on campus than they will later in life, and this prepares them well for their lives post-university.”
So what are the success stories surrounding free speech the media aren’t talking about?
“Recently the Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party group, conducted an enquiry about free speech on campus. They made good use of our research on the Charity Commission and they asked the Charity Commission to be less restrictive of free speech. This is a success story, that the JCHR agrees with our research.
“SOAS takes free speech really seriously, we’re one of the few campuses that really practices what it preaches. So the extreme example of that is Mark Regev, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain. He was invited to campus by Jewish students. He was able to talk, to take questions. And at the same time, students who were pro-Palestinian were able to protest. That’s not ideal, what would have been brilliant would have been if he was prepared to talk to students and they’d been able to have a dialogue with him too. That wasn’t possible because that would take a lot of preparation and a change of attitude but at least on this campus, he was able to talk, they were able to protest. That is, in a limited but very powerful way, a victory for free speech.”
Alison Scott-Baumann is Professor of Society and Belief in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS University of London.
- Re/presenting Islam on campus research project
- ‘No platform’ isn’t the real danger to freedom of speech on campus – Alison writes for The Guardian