The first article I wrote for HuffPost discussed a decision to ban Alt Right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at my school, after advice from the Department of Education’s Counter Extremism Unit. It’s almost a year later, and I’m woken by a series of texts - ‘They’ve done it again!’ And sure enough Simon Langton Boys has gone national over a decision to introduce ‘Unsafe Spaces’ in which sixth form students will examine “the most beautifully disturbed and disturbing ideas, all of them presented without trigger warnings.” And, in what was clearly a well thought out press release, it appears that these ‘disturbing ideas’ will include Mein Kampf.
For goodness’ sake. Seriously?
For perhaps the first time in my life I’m going to try and reclaim the centre ground. Why is it that the battle between free speech and political correctness has become exactly that – two polar extremes that both seem abhorrent. It’s like we’re stuck between joining in with the jazz hands at the next (sure to be) groundbreaking NUS conference or marching with the white supremacists as part of that poorly rebadged gang of fascists called the alt right. Quite frankly, neither jazz hands nor swastikas appeal to me.
Yes, at times, political correctness seems to have gone too far, verging on the ridiculous. But this does not give anyone, anywhere, credence to discuss Mein Kampf and the like as part of wider political debate. That great maxim of libertarianism, that ‘words are words, not actions’ is a simplistic and nonsensical justification for such absolute freedom. This isn’t about sparing your feelings, it’s not about giving you a safe space – it’s about preventing those poisonous ideas that have manifested into the vilest episodes of human history from taking any root in political thought. It’s about not giving these ideas even the barest hint of legitimacy through engaging with them as political ideas in classroom debate. The mindless hatred and codified irrationality that personifies the fascistic cannot, and should not, be beaten with discussion. It can only, and should only, be smashed, both as an idea and as a physical form. No ifs, no buts, end of discussion.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that my alma mater wants any pupil to adopt such ideas or feel they are legitimate. But the mere fact that ‘unsafe spaces’ discussing such ‘ideas’ are referred to as being an “antidote to political correctness” is deeply worrying. Nazism is not an antidote to anything. And, surely, in this way we can draw a line. Ideas that essentially legitimise and encourage hatred, racism, sexism and the like cross that line. Equally, society should be more open to reasoned debate on political issues, instead of constantly being stifled by issues of terminology.
But at least the school is doing something. Something to break out of the mind numbing monotony of the national curriculum which seems to turn you either robotic or crazy. Something that seeks to educate for the purpose of education, rather than educate for the purpose of ten letters on a piece of paper, for the EBACC, for Russel Group universities and five year plans and getting your poor bloody kids to do the same. Because our education system seems to create too many people who, though they progressed from gold stars to A*’s and can bang out flashcards for four solid hours without a break, balk at any word longer than three syllables ending with ‘ism’ and require spoon feeding. Yes, the principle behind the idea of expanding and redefining education is an excellent and vital one. But you can do that without Mein Kampf.
I sincerely hope that we can find, as a society, a way to discuss ideas without being subject to two extreme opposites which, at the moment, dominate political discourse. But if we are forced to choose between them then I know, certainly and unapologetically, which one I would pick.
After all, nobody ever died from jazz hands.