The jarring news that City, University of London have voted to ban twaddle tabloids such as The Sun, Daily Mail and Express from its campus – a ban which could be extended to other media publications – is just the latest example of how the scope of narratives is becoming increasingly imperilled across universities in the UK. The Student Union (SU) tabled the ban through the motion that “opposing fascism and social divisiveness in the UK media” was important, and added: “freedom of speech should not be used as an excuse to attack the weakest and poorest members of society”. The conclusion was thus reached that, “there is no place for the Sun, Daily Mail or Express (In their current form) on City, University of London campuses or properties.”
Narrative Sanitisation = Social Justice?
Seeing another attempt to transmogrify a university into a “safe space” is not, of course, anything particularly outre. Indeed, in this year alone 30 universities have banned newspapers, 25 have banned songs, 19 have banned speakers or events. Prime Minister Theresa May even ruefully (but rightly) pointed out that safe-space culture is becoming excessive. Curtailing freedom and the accession of intolerance in universities under the banner of “equality” is now the norm.
With all of the stories that have materialised as of late regarding university censorship, the attempts to restrict certain newspapers, certain speakers, certain songs, certain items of clothing, etc., have all risen in virtue of a concerted and unparalleled foray on offensive-narratives by my fellow left-leaning students. Whether that be blackballing the platform upon which particular organisations that supposedly institutionalise divisive narratives express themselves (newspapers), or inveighing against and subsequently no-platforming certain speakers, the scope of narratives on university campuses is becoming increasingly sanitised by this newfangled ‘safe space’ culture.
The pejorative term Social-Justice-Warrior (SJW for short) has become the posterchild of the safe-space culture, and the SJW is one who typically promotes socially progressive views by means of narrative sanitisation. However, the social-justice-warrior is perverting the admirable but ill-devised goal of effectuating social progressivism, as I hope to spell out.
The mentality of those who ‘safe-spacers’ in universities who increasingly attempt to interdict divisive narratives – and largely those narratives deemed treacherously divisive to minority groups – is one drawing the conclusion that the boosting of a socially oppressed group up the social ladder must necessarily come by way of attenuating and inevitably expunging both the medium on which such divisive narratives manifest and the actual divisive narratives themselves.
However, let’s take stock of what we’re dealing with here. Is it really merely “divisive narratives” per se being prohibited? Isn’t it the case that narratives deemed divisive and achieved by means of oppression are the ones being systematically garroted? After all, there are many narratives that do divide us (without the negative undertones) which many of us – including, obviously, the Social Justice Warrior, would argue actually reifies equality – the acknowledgement and respect of categories pertaining to gender, sexual preference, etc., – ‘equality through diversity’ as they say.
Nevertheless, and this is one of the most salient points I want to throw light upon, what I have painted above doesn’t present the picture in all its knotty entirety. Let’s be clear, there is a foul and very recondite political campaign underpinning the kind of grody narrative laundering that we have seen within universities. After all, it is not the Islamists with their deeply oppressive narratives who are being gagged. Rather, all the grousing and the attempted banning have been squarely against those groups who happen to be in a position of ‘privilege’ – privilege achieved through, safe-spacers are quick argue, a corresponding disadvantage: the oppression of minority groups
What, though, shores up this kind of mentality? As some have cogently argued, there appears to be a kind of zero-sum game mentality at play. Zero-sum mentality is one that can manifest when one relates to, or is in a situation (as a game or relationship) when, a gain for one side is seen as entailing a corresponding loss for the other side.
For example, in order to gain more rights (and thus more power) for groups they deem persecuted (women, LGBT students, Muslims, etc.,) many a safe-spacer reasons that the freedom which guarantees the free expression of certain individuals, songs, organisations, etc., must be reined in. This is especially the case when such a freedom is plied by the most privileged and powerful and is established by way of oppressing a minority group. Thus, only by way of subverting the ‘ruling power’ can the lopsided power-relation be redressed.
Every time those who are “privileged” are taken down a notch on the social ladder, they see it as a win for social justice. This is quintessentially zero-sum. The rather imperious imperative: “rule or be ruled” understands zero-sum relations at a political level as blunderingly axiomatic: “Do onto others before they do onto you”, “restrain them lest they oppress you”.
The Social Justice Warrior obviously has, however, indeterminate grounds to suppose that social justice must be instated by way of some kind of zero-sum methodology. Indeed, one can be equally justified in arguing for some kind of positive-sum game mentality as the most effective way of instating equality. Briefly, this is a theory in which a given situation will result in both sides winning. In closed positive-sum “transactions”. What is more, although both parties may “win”, one side is guaranteed a significantly greater victory.
One could argue that this greater victory would be cached by the most oppressed in a society without also stripping away putative privilege of those heretofore most advantaged in a society. Even if we are not convinced by some kind of a closed positive sum mentality, one could instead argue for an open-ended positive-sum game. This is based on a voluntary agreement to interact (contract, joint venture, constitution) on rules that apply equally to both sides, and an agreement that whatever results from the interaction, both sides will accept no matter how diverse the end result – civil society is a sterling example. Each individual achievement is deemed a success for the community, rather than being at the cost of others. Celebrating the diversity of races, ethnicities, cultures or sexual orientations ultimately celebrates our humanity, rather than poses a threat to normative society. Compromise is a way forward merging varying opinions rather than coming by way of a loss to certain groups. Indeed, unlike the prostrating we see in zero-sum, both civil-society and democracy are essentially drawn out of the rather recherché but wonderful accomplishment of a positive-sum mentality among a critical mass of citizens.
More Misgivings and Foreboding
It’s not only the zero-sum game mentality which is questionable, but there’s also an obvious timorousness in the arguments being doled out by Social Justice Warriors which is also suspect, a timorousness so wobbly in its veracity that it deems it necessary to shut down their opponents to effectuate its goals. No longer is “victory” achieved through mooting and debating, but it’s instead thought necessary to cork the mouths of one’s foes.
The salient question here is: where is the line drawn? Let’s not forget that right now we are in a position in which right-wing tabloids are being banned because they objectify women, vilify immigrants, etc; anti-Islamist speakers are being no-platformed for supposedly galling the sensitivities of certain numbers of Muslims in universities; the wrong sort of feminists are also being no-platformed, and even sombrero hats are being vetoed. Where are the limits to this hysteria? It seems that any member of a persecuted group (or some middle-class white undergraduate SJW warrior chiding on their behalf) can now cry foul and swiftly usher in gagging orders on the grounds that universities should be ‘safe-spaces’.
One wonders what ramifications this normalised manner of contriving a “victory” for social-justice will have when safe-spacers go out there into the larger world – a world teething with nettling narratives that offend their sensibilities. I, for one, worry that universities are becoming such a heterogeneous environment that students – let alone safe-spacers – will be equipped with the wrong provisions when they barge into the bigger, meaner world with all of its “triggers”.
Some points of consideration:
The Social Justice Warrior surely has grounds to contemplate, even chafe inwardly, whether their zero sum mentality will bag the objectives that he/she/ze itches for. Venture a chew-over of the positive sum game and they may well find themselves incrementing social equality without that having to be at the forfeiture of another’s social position.
Fine, by all means gall and gripe over the fact that strange sorts are willing to purchase those verminous papers – but remonstrate by meting out counter-arguments. Replace bad ideas with good ideas. Fine, by all means take umbrage with those “wrong” sorts of feminists with their ‘savage’ ideas – but actually proffer the counter-argument, like adults, and do so in such a way that your fellow trigger-prone students understand why such speakers are supposedly ‘awry’ and ‘malevolent’ and why a social progressive must throw down the gauntlet.
However, the Social Justice Warrior has no grounds to retract the scope of narratives in university. They have no grounds to pull us into their quasi-creche In the supposed pursuit of social progressivism. What is more, they have neither proved it necessary nor sufficient to strangle the field of narratives for the very sake of social progressivism. As I have argued before, how on earth can students possibly challenge narratives out there in larger society that they deem “triggering” if they have come to learn that such narratives can only be defeated through wrapping oneself in cotton wool and sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears? How can students, particularly those who are passionate about promoting or directing social, political economic, or environmental change, possibly create a fairer society if they are not fully cogent of those things antithetical to it? Indeed, is not crucial that we progressives keep the scope of narratives far-flung for the very sake of having provisions to ensure social progressivism engenders?
Furthermore, Social Justice Warrior must ask themselves whether they have set a bit of a slippery slope in terms of their unabashed gagging order dole out. As my fellow writer Jack Ravenhill rightly pointed out to me, what if students take it upon themselves to buy such newspapers off campus and bring it onto campus? How long will it be until SUs confiscate them? How about filtering the websites of The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express? The worrying thing is that I surely doubt that if pushed the SJW will be able to resolvedly set any clear-cut margin of censorship.
You can only put a cork in your opponent’s mouth for so long before they transpose (or mutate) into some kind of cloying behemoth. One can be sure that the surge of Trumpism and the alt-right is a consequence – to whatever extent – of avoiding, muzzling or poorly debating those proffering the kind of rhetoric they’ve normalised. If we want to thump for LGBT rights, more rights for women, racial equality, etc., then we students have to make sure that student unions stave off their narrative sanitisation within universities – no ifs and/or buts.
Students need to take up the gauntlet by debating the safe-spacer thumping Social Justice Warriors within universities. We’ve got to get the them to retrench their ungrounded dogmatism in moot zero-sum methodology for the very sake of augmenting human rights within those minority groups most oppressed. We’ve come a long way, we really have, and largely by dint of the old-fashioned form of debate (and the occasional remonstrance), especially in universities. Sanitising narratives is poorly equipping students. Social Justice Warriors mean well, of course, but they have little chance of enfeebling those who stand in the way of equality if they are creating a university culture that is churning out piddled and intellectually stunted students. Enough is enough.
Benjamin David founded Conatus News in 2016. He currently works as an editor for Parliamentary Review.