Being nice to one another is great, but as an institutional policy, is it a form of oppression?

The vernacular is infused with new terms such as “twitchunt”, “social justice warrior”, and “language police” which one could be tempted to conclude were indicative of a new puritanism or, using the more hackneyed phrase, “political correctness” permeating our culture. Such traits were highlighted on our campuses by the recent Free Speech Rankings launched by the online magazine Spiked. Whatever the methodology, they revealed a somewhat zealous propensity, primarily on the part of students’ unions (SUs), to protect fellow students from offence. Examples include SUs cancelling an appearance by George Galloway because of his controversial views on rape; banning various tabloid newspapers from SU shops; banning a Nietzsche club, which the particular SU regarded as a fascist organisation; banning the song “Blurred Lines”, while encouraging instead feminist parodies that promote consent; and banning “offensive” clothing. Some university policies prohibited “unpleasant comments” and “unwanted criticism”.

When they were still amenable to my influences, I strove to inculcate in my children an awareness of the sensitivities of others, as well as an awareness of the effects of their conduct on those others. That and being nice to one another I believed were basic requirements of a civil society. While I continue to believe that they are noble principles to be applied at the micro level of interpersonal relationships, they can have a stultifying effect when enshrined in broad macro policies governing our institutions. One could even say that as broad policies, they reside very uncomfortably with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, rights which are guaranteed to all citizens. One cannot help feeling at low moments that there is a sense, albeit unconscious, in which free speech is permitted, as long as it is the right kind of free speech.

It is salutary to note that there is a legal, rather than a moral, duty on colleges and universities to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for their members, students and employees, and for visiting speakers. Further, institutions have a legal duty to act in a manner compatible with the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes taking positive steps to secure those rights for students and relevant others. The objective is to guarantee rights that are practical and effective and not merely theoretical or illusory. Of most relevance in a democratic society is the right to freedom of expression (Article 10), which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas, without unjustified interference by the state (university). Article 10 does not only apply to ideas and opinions that are favourably received, but also to those that offend, shock and disturb. They are the demands of pluralism and tolerance, without which there would be no democracy or, it is arguable, any advance in human understanding and wisdom. That is tacitly acknowledged in the right within the law of university staff in the course of their academic activities to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.

The rights are not a licence for an anarchic, free-for-all culture on our campuses. They do not, for example, permit anyone to incite to violence or hatred of individuals or groups. They do however require us to re-evaluate what the principles of mutual respect and tolerance really mean in a university or college environment.

Geraldine Swanton
Senior Associate Solicitor
Education Team
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
DD: 0800 763 1455
F: 0800 763 1001
International DD: +44 870 763 1385

From → General Interest

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