A bureaucrat’s tool
Imogen Wilson’s predicament is a timely reminder that ‘safe spaces’ policies are anti-democratic and a gift to the right, argues Paul Demarty
We wonder sometimes if April Fool’s Day is losing some of its charm, primarily because the world we live in is increasingly beyond satire.
So it was with Google’s disastrous mic-drop prank in mind that we first learned of the misfortune of one Imogen Wilson, a sabbatical officer at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, who found herself the subject of a widely reported complaint at an EUSA general meeting last week. She had violated the student union’s ‘safe spaces’ policy! So far as we can tell, somebody had got up to denounce her over access issues, during the course of which she raised her arms in frustration and shook her head. This, apparently, is against the rules.
Were we being punked? It seems not; for one, the meeting itself was on March 31, and live reports of the complaint were being smeared over Twitter for the benefit of those for whom an EUSA meeting is both a matter of importance and not so important to actually attend. (We wonder sometimes if it is possible for a gerbil to fart without somebody providing 140-character descriptions of the smell.) Since then, of course, the story has run and run - spreading out from the Huffington Post to the Daily Mail and the rest of the press, eager for yet another example of lefty madness.
Edinburgh’s ‘safe spaces’ policy is a little on the comprehensive side, and compliance can only be assured by “refraining from hand gestures which denote disagreement or in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made. Disagreements should only be evident through the normal course of debate” (my emphasis).1
We assume that there is a dictionary in the university library, but evidently it was not consulted so as to inform students on the use of the word ‘normal’. Surely most people, when they have normal debates, communicate as a matter of course using the full spectrum of means available to the human body, including hand gestures and other body language. If you are speaking, meanwhile, you are probably keeping an eye on those you are addressing, and keeping track of visual cues to see how your contribution is going down. This is how humans work - and, indeed, a good clutch of other higher primates. EUSA’s safe spaces policy is mad in part because it is a snub to hundreds of millennia of evolution.
The logical conclusion is to hold all future EUSA meetings in a pitch-black room, with contributions pre-written and fed into a speech synthesiser, to be read out in an affectless robotic monotone. This would, admittedly, present other difficulties - for instance, in the darkness, how would we identify hecklers so as to shop them into whatever committee it is that arbitrates on ‘safe spaces’ violations? What if the low lights are exploited for mischievous ends? Nevertheless, given the bizarre level of imagination people bring to these policies in the first place, we are confident solutions could be found.
An analogy may be drawn - bear with me now - with the Taliban. Having come to power, the Afghan Islamist movement proceeded directly to enforce a very strict form of ‘modest’ dress on women. But it was somehow never enough. By the end of its reign, the prohibitions extended to hard-soled shoes; the clip-clop of a woman walking down the street was deemed enough to pose an unacceptable risk of impure thoughts to nearby men. Thus, the taboo on head-shaking and hand-waving seems to be a generalisation of the taboo on heckling, when the frustrations bottled up in silence inevitably spilled into physical gestures.
Heckling, as we have discussed previously, has a fine and noble history as a form of resistance by the masses to their soi-disant betters, going back in some ways to Homer. The word itself refers originally to a particular group of Dundee flax workers notorious for their radicalism in the early 19th century: one would read the paper to the others, and the others would scream blue murder at the injustice of it all.
In whose interest?
On the face of it, then, this prohibition of even silent ‘heckles’ is merely the triumph of the bureaucracy - the fact that it happens to have rebounded on one particular junior member of the bureaucracy in this case changes very little. In general, governing debates with complicated rules sets up a property relation over the content of the rules; debates are won by those with the time and inclination to learn all the bylaws, and - with the general overbroad vagueness characteristic of ‘safe spaces’ policies added in - to use one’s personal confidence, connections and charisma to make a complaint stick. In short, heckling (and shaking one’s head) is a tool primarily of the oppressed; suppressing the same serves primarily the interests of the middle class.
One would think this was the height of obviousness; yet ‘safe spaces’ policies are not a rightwing, but a leftwing hobby horse. There is a petition going around, started before this whole farrago by one Charlie Peters (who seems, at a glance, to be on the sympathising periphery of the Spiked crowd), to “reinstate free speech at Edinburgh”; it now has more than 1,000 signatories, but we would be surprised if the majority were particularly leftwing. (The third most recent comment, as I write, opens: “liberalist/socialist policies and practices aim to restrict all views and opinions that differ from their agenda.”)
How did we get here? Mr Peters has a few ideas. His foes are
in many ways the ‘bastard children’ of their equally illiberal predecessors in the 1980s and 90s, who no-platformed racists and Zionists and later sought to silence religious fundamentalists and even rap artists. Those students of the last century who argued that speech needs to be policed and that offensive ideas are a form of violence are now grown up (well, kind of) and they have influenced, and in some cases are teaching, the new generation.2
There is a link there, in that the most vociferous proponents of ‘no platform’ tactics are those who have come to believe that the royal road to socialism is merely getting people excited about something, rather than intellectually tooled up to do anything about it. The buzz of political activity, no matter how low-level, is sufficient to engender consciousness. The refutation of this nostrum consists entirely in that the same arguments employed for no-platforming undesirables are now employed not in pursuit of r-r-revolutionary ends, but merely to the purpose of setting up the student union, or the trade union, or whatever, as some kind of collective social worker.
Perhaps now is the time to raise the main item on the agenda at the EUSA meeting - the adoption of a boycott, divestment and sanctions policy towards Israel. Wilson opposed it, on the grounds that it was ‘anti-Semitic’, but it passed anyway. We bring it up only to make the point that all these tricks - the bureaucratic regulation of public speech, the blurring of the line between thought and action, the appeal to sentiment over reason - are exercised most effectively by campus Zionists, who are well schooled in presenting any symbolic nod towards the plight of the Palestinians as a threat to Jewish students’ safety. Of course, on this occasion the boot was on the other foot and Wilson is concerned that the motion got through - as well she might be, seeing as her very own ‘safe spaces’ policy does not specifically outlaw pogroms, and therefore anything could happen.
The defect in Peters’ understanding - and that of Spiked, with whom he is completely in accord on this point - is that there is no grand historic battle between illiberal forces policing people’s behaviour and the defenders of liberty as such. For capitalist ideology is based on a lie, that - left to their own devices - individuals will construct a just order merely by free economic interaction. Such a thing is not possible. Either a paternalistic state bureaucracy will make up the difference, or a bevy of private bureaucracies (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) will do the same. Liberalism is not opposed to, but produces, illiberalism.
There is a way out of this bind: the self-organisation of the exploited - today the proletariat - in pursuit of political change and in concrete material solidarity (unions, mutuals and what have you). The drift of the left towards bureaucratic thinking tracks the material decline of these forces: from possessing an understanding, however inadequate, that we ourselves must organise to make change happen, we have fallen ever more into appeals to some power over us - a Bonaparte, whether an individual or a state apparatus - to protect us from the enemy. The result is the ‘slave morality’ Nietzsche imputed unjustly to the socialists of the 19th century, which is, alas, all too appropriate a diagnosis today.
Politics is not a safe activity, nor will it ever be. Assuming, unrealistically, that the political field is occupied entirely by honest ‘good actors’, it will still be the case that disputes will be hot-blooded and inflame the deeply held convictions of the participants. There will, in short, be heckling. Good. Nonsense should be tolerated silently not a second longer than necessary; doublethink should not be protected from interruption. And people should be free to shake their heads.