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University Campuses Do Not Belong to the Activist Left

10/03/2016 15:54 GMT | Updated 11/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Any critic of the student activist left will be more than familiar with what can only be described as the clear distortion of the ordinary meaning of certain words, a distortion which does not appear to be accidental. After all, if the definition of "violence" now includes walking past a statue of the 'wrong' historical figure (or perhaps paintings by white artists in Cape Town), and the French flag can be cast as a "violent symbol" rather than simply a national flag (absurd at the best of times, morally turpitudinous in the wake of the Paris attacks where hundreds of civilians in Paris were the victims of actual violence), then it becomes easy for activists to justify attempts to force their removal over the heads of clear majorities (or, in the case of the UCT paintings, burning them openly in a naked display of iconoclasm).

More concerning still, however, is how this same logic is applied to speakers at universities. In the kerfuffle surrounding the appearance of Marine Le Pen at the Oxford Union last year, the "argument" was made that she didn't even need to say anything to violate the "safe space" of activists; her very presence was enough, because she was allegedly a fascist and anti-Semitic (with no evidence produced to support this, and despite the fact that Jewish votes for the FN are on the rise). The answer to the perceived violence of the very presence of Le Pen was actual violence directed at students wanting to attend by a violent mob casting itself as a regular protest, and the besieging of the Union to the point where those fortunate enough to get in were under Police protection for more than an hour.

The upshot of this has been a similar vandalism of the concept of free speech, not least in the irony that the anti-Le Pen mob claimed that it was, in fact, free speech (quite when free speech came to encompass besieging a building and breaching its perimeter at least once is yet to be explained). More absurdly, when a friend of mine in Manchester had one of her SU campaign banners defaced with a Swastika, this was met with various smug comments telling her that the vandalism (technically a criminal act) was actually free speech, and therefore speech should be regulated (she was running on a free speech platform). Of course, no definition of free speech by its defenders includes vandalism, but that seems beside the point; if vandalism were free speech, it would need regulated, conceding the principle of regulation of speech which doesn't incite violence or defame - and allowing for further regulation of speech with which activists disagree as a result. More ironically still is that , when we consider that the candidate was a woman of colour, the very same activist left defending the vandalism would doubtless have condemned it as a racist attack, if only the target had been left wing.

But perhaps most revealing, and worrying, use of language by the activist left is probably not a distortion at all; it is how such activists employ the concept of ownership to justify their demands. It was far from uncommon to hear Rhodes Must Fall supporters claim that the statue has no place in "our university". What they forget is that Oxford University does not belong to them, but to many other groups as well: to the wider student body (a survey - one of the largest in the Cherwell newspaper's recent history - of whom suggested that they were in favour of the statue staying up by 54% to 37%); to the alumni of the University and the Colleges who continue to make Oxford one of the best-endowed universities in the world; and to the Town, of which the Colleges are undoubtedly a part.

Yet this seemed to escape RMF, and not just when we consider that the students of Oriel (who, of any student body in the university, would be able to use the language of ownership of the statue in question) were least likely to support RMF in the Cherwell survey. When the donors of Oriel did what was perfectly within their rights to do - namely, to consider refusing to donate to the College but instead spend their money elsewhere - the response by RMF was to accuse Oriel of "selling out".

Never mind that the stance of the donors (that Rhodes should stay) was far more reflective of the opinion of the general public, and current Oriel students, or that a donor whose bequest would be worth more than double the current value of Rhodes's might legitimately wonder whether that money should be left to an institution that would not defend the commemoration of his benefaction when society likely moves on to regard our society as negatively as we regard Rhodes's - according to RMF, the statue should be torn down anyway. Never mind also that the Oriel development office has had to cancel planned fundraising and redundancies are likely in the wake of the withdrawal of donations (redundancies that will likely disproportionately affect staff towards the bottom of the hierarchy). Never mind also that this money could go towards actually helping students in the College (perhaps with hardship funds; better welfare support; or more and cheaper accommodation in future); according to RMF, the importance of this fails in comparison with removing a statue.

It is difficult to see how such an attitude - prioritising the removal of a statue which offends you though the Heavens fall - represents anything more than an unreasonable sense of entitlement, as if the repeated invocation of the university allegedly being "ours" did not already betray this. But this sense of entitlement is far from unique to Oxford: how else could US students claim to be "hurt" by a Colombian student's mini-sombreros to the point of being offered counselling (thereby taking such services from people who actually need them, especially when - if the UK university situation is anything to go by - they're unacceptably stretched as it is), or could colleges like Western Washington in America be receiving demands to employ far-left activist students to place tenured faculty under investigation for "microaggressions"?

A university does not belong to any single body of students - who will likely be gone in three or four years - least of all a fringe body like RMF and other "activist" groups (whose fringe nature is exposed every time their opponents have a secret ballot behind which to hide from their self-righteous anger). Yet nothing will change until more university leaders like Lord Patten and Louise Richardson at Oxford are brave enough to stand up to activist groups and remind them that there are other stakeholders in these debates. Sadly, if the American experience is anything to go by (exemplified by the the obscene treatment of Nicholas Christakis and his wife, and the lack of an official response), it will be some time yet before this happens, if at all.