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Trevor Phillips Blames And Shames A Whole Generation For A Problem We Did Not Create

24/02/2017 17:41
Johnny Green/PA Archive

Last night I watched Channel 4 documentary Has Political Correctness Gone Mad? It was presented by Trevor Phillips, the first black president of my organisation, the National Union of Students (NUS), and someone who I have personally respected in the past.

You can imagine my disappointment to see a veteran of our movement involved in the shaming and blaming of an entire generation for a problem we did not create.

The narrative is nothing new: the so-called 'snowflakes' are incapable of tolerating dissenting opinions, and banning things we don't like has replaced football as the national past-time.

So inexhaustible is our zeal to repress the voices of those we don't like, that ChangeSU found in the last 12 months not a single speaker had been banned from speaking at a students' union. Phillips cites the NUS No Platform policy, despite the fact that the list contains only six organisations that are of a fascist or extreme racist nature.

I could focus on some of the more ludicrous of these more recent claims. That students banned poems with offensive language, feminist groups are colluding with Islamists to undermine women's rights, or that gender-neutral toilets are somehow responsible for Donald Trump.

There is an underlying myth at the heart of this narrative: that we have abandoned liberal values, and that we cannot engage with debate.

No Platform policies exist to stop those who would seek to abuse democracy in order to destroy it. Likewise, safe space policies are about acknowledging that in a deeply divided and unequal society, some people's voices are louder than others. Freedom of expression should be a universal right, which means everyone's voice should have an opportunity to be heard.

These policies, far from an affront to the liberty of the individual, are concerned with preserving, defending and extending those privileges so that they can be enjoyed equally by all.

When freedom of speech was first conceptualised, it was conceived as a radical demand. It was concerned with the rights of the powerless to speak truth to power. It does not and has never included the right of those in powerful or privileged positions to trample on the rights of others.

The idea that freedom of expression does not equate to the right to oppress or harm others is not something new. JS Mill dedicated an entire chapter to the limitations of liberty in his seminal On Liberty. John Locke defines freedom as just one of our natural rights of the individual, the others being the right to property and safety. We enjoy these rights on the agreement that as part of a civil society, we do not abuse them in order to deprive the rights of others.

These were concepts defined more clearly by that eminent Oxford don, Isaiah Berlin. In his ground-breaking Two Concepts of Liberty, he offered two contrasting definitions for what constitutes proper freedom. The liberty that we are most familiar with, the one enshrined in our legal system, is that of negative freedom. This is defined as, broadly, the sphere of freedoms that the individual is allowed to enjoy without harm or interference.

These are the ideas that form the basis for our liberal democracy. They are enshrined in our civil institutions, in our laws against libel and slander. By looking to protect and extend those rights, it is our generation that are the true champions of liberty.

This isn't about shutting down debate. Nor is it about protecting people from being offended. It is about acknowledging that hateful speech generates hateful actions. When fascist groups spin their unadulterated hate, Muslim women are made to feel unsafe to go out in the street for fear of having their hijab torn at.

To then suggest that we are responsible for causing this rise in hate is as disingenuous as it is dangerous.

There is also a commonly-held view that we cannot tolerate debate. That we would rather shout down a dissenting opinion, rather than present an alternative opinion. This is a myth.

When we launched the NUS Liber8 Campaign, it was to provide a new manifesto for our generation. That was because we understood that it's not enough to say what we are against, we have to say what we are for. When people feel like losers of a system that has seen an unprecedented rise in inequality and drop in living standards, they will look for answers. If progressive are unable to present them, than you can guarantee that those with racist or scapegoating ideas will.

However it is possible to build an alternative without pandering to discriminatory, backwards and racist ideas. As an experienced anti-racist campaigner, Trevor Phillips should know better.
Meanwhile the snowflakes will continue to build a movement for a society that enables freedom and liberty for all, not just the privileged few.

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