On Thursday, a remarkable event occurred in student politics: university students and high-profile allies protested openly against the NUS, and in favour of free speech. The protestors called on the NUS to facilitate open debate instead of censoring speech. Evidently not everyone agreed on how to achieve this goal - with some signs stating that we should "reform, not scrap, no-platform policies", a concession which I and many others would be unwilling to make - but, as Peter Tatchell himself said during a speech at the protest, it's fine to disagree, and actually have a debate on issues and how to best achieve goals.
By contrast, the continued expansion of no-platform policies to include feminists such as Julie Bindel, and efforts by student unions to no-platform pioneers of feminism such as Germaine Greer over her views on transgender issues, even when she isn't scheduled to discuss them, betrays an increasingly self-righteousness by the student far-left. Not only is disagreement on the "wrong" issues immoral, but it negates your right to talk about anything. The quest for ideological purity has recently devoured ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie - who identifies as a Marxist and a feminist - with Feminist and LGBT Societies at Goldsmiths passing motions of solidarity with the Islamic Society members trying to intimidate her during her talk there, and even Peter Tatchell himself, who was no-platformed by an NUS LGBT Officer for his opposition to expanding no-platform.
A post on a website supporting the Green Party (of which Tatchell is a member) justified such a no-platforming because Tatchell has had the nerve to criticise homophobia in Islamism, and Jamaican Dancehall music (a topic also recently explored by Reggie Yates in Extreme UK) while being white. Never mind that universities have, for instance, hosted Islamist speakers who do call for the execution of LGBT people - what matters isn't the substance of the criticism, but the person making it.
Perhaps the worst recent example of both of these positions has been the recent NUS LGBT Conference; although the motions would have been submitted some time before both the protest and the no-platforming of Tatchell, one motion in particular stands out as exhibiting both the sanctimony of efforts to both justify and deny the censorious nature of no-platform at the same time and as identifying the very worst of far-left identity politics - and how the movement is eating itself.
The motion itself - Motion 408, entitled "Defending Safe(r) spaces and No Platforming" - somehow managed to combine the two. The motion appeared to have been written in response to Spiked's second year of Free Speech University Rankings - which showed a number of universities being downgraded (including a sadly well-deserved downgrade of my current university, Exeter, from Green to Amber) - mainly led by Student Unions rather than Universities themselves. While I'm sure criticisms could be made of Spiked's methodologies (not least because it's a recent project), there is no attempt at constructive criticism whatsoever - the rankings are simply described as "vile" (I personally would say that mobs throwing chairs at an event in KCL, or besieging the Oxford Union with the support of the SU are closer to such a description but, as I said, people can disagree).
The substantive justification for no-platforming, however, is more of what we've come to expect. We're told, for instance, that no-platforming - when SUs put a blanket ban on certain speakers or groups regardless of who invites them - "isn't censorship", an argument as disingenuous as that made by Bill Donohue when he debated Christopher Hitchens; upon listing several acts of media self-censorship induced by mass boycotts from the Catholic League, Donohue stated that this wasn't coercion since the government wasn't involved (at 7:40-8:20). Such narrow definitions of censorship are common among groups seeking to restrict others' expression, but simply don't stand up; nobody, for instance, would entertain the idea that other rights, such as to equal treatment, ended where government involvement also so ended.
We are then told that it is to protect minority groups, a misanthropic statement that presupposes that something as simple as the knowledge of the presence of a speaker anywhere on campus (or in the city in the case of Marine Le Pen) is enough to "trigger" certain groups of people. The idea that people can simply choose not to attend an event - or, if they're feeling braver, go and actually challenge a speaker and ensure that critical voices are heard - is evidently lost on the Conference majority, who paternalistically speak in the name of all LGBT students and regulate what they are allowed to see or hear (with such regulation, oddly enough, continuing not to reach to Islamists and their apologists such as CAGE, whose leaders continue not to condemn stoning and are backed by homophobic preacher Haitham al Haddad).
After condemning the idea of ending no-platform, the motion inexplicably decides to blame gay men for alleged undercurrents of misogyny and transphobia in LGBT+ Societies on campus and push for the abolition of gay men's reps in LGBT+ Societies. This isn't the first time that the LGBT Conference has used its alleged national voice to condemn part of the very group that it supposedly speaks for. Last year, we were treated to the surreal spectacle of the Conference condemning white gay men for allegedly "appropriating black women" with such condemnation justified on the grounds of how "privileged" said people were; this year, the same arguments are used to resolve to campaign for the outright abolition of gay men's representatives. What the NUS don't realise when they sweepingly declare gay men (whether narrowing it to white men or not) as "privileged" is just how privileged they themselves are in being able to make such a statement. I would invite the proponents of both motions to go to Russia and then get back to me on "white gay privilege", or go to parts of the world where homosexuality is still persecuted, and tell the gay men facing eviction, imprisonment, or - in some cases - death purely on account of their sexuality that they, too, are privileged.
Meanwhile, as gay men were being condemned as too privileged and campaigns initiated to remove their representation in universities, no motions this year condemned the homophobia of, say, throwing gay men off buildings in ISIS territory; Russia's anti-"gay propaganda" laws; or the Ugandan government's anti-gay policies. For an organisation which spends so much time grandstanding on foreign policy motions (complete with the obscene snap vote unanimously condemning the bombing of ISIS in Syria, an idea so unpopular in Exeter that it failed without a vote), it's interesting that the NUS's LGBT Conference would rather attack part of its own community than such regimes. Yet this is where we now stand with far-left identity politics: LGBT Conferences condemning white gay men is commendable (such that it was repeated in Women's Conference last year), but condemning a group that throws gay people off buildings is considered "racist" by members of the NEC, most notably current Presidential candidate Maalia Bouattia.
The sheer sanctimony of it all was, however, matched only by its predictability; it's what many have more or less come to expect from the NUS, and gives little hope to those who would think that the voices of Tatchell, Namazie, and the NUS's fellow students for whom they allegedly speak will convince them to alter, let alone repeal, their no-platform policies. Yet surely there must finally come a breaking point where the NUS becomes so self-discrediting that its claim that it represents the "definitive national voice of students" put to bed once and for all by ordinary students. Protesting against its no-platform policies is a good start, but it cannot be the end of the battle - not least when a considerable proportion of LGBT students have yet again been told that they are "too privileged" to matter to the NUS, by their own LGBT Conference no less.
I am grateful to Elrica Degirman and Anna Lukina for reading this piece in draft