Why the Oxford SU Motion on “Hateful Material” Would Have Caused More Harm Than Good

‘Protecting’ students from having to study ‘hateful material’ would impact their ability to challenge and combat those opinions.

This article was originally published on Medium.

On the 3rd of May, the Oxford Blue newspaper published an article on how Oxford University rejected a motion put forward by the student council. The motion was entitled ‘Protection of Transgender, Non-binary, Disabled, Working class, and Women Students From Hatred in University contexts’. This motion proposed that the Student Union be given the authority to prevent material they deem “hateful” from being included in mandatory teaching. It also sought to have trigger warnings included on reading lists, lectures, tutorials, and examinations that contain any content that they consider “prejudiced”.

Had this motion passed, would it have protected marginalised people from having to read or listen to hateful content that causes them harm? Or is the assumption that marginalised people are unable to engage with hateful views that concerns their group harmful in and of itself?

There were two articles that were given of such “prejudiced content”, from the Medical Law and Ethics module. The first was an article entitled ‘Why we should select the best children’. It puts forward the idea that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) could be used by those undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) to select out any genetic traits they consider “undesirable”. From serious medical conditions to least desired eye colour, the article asserted that embryos that are most likely to have the “best life possible” based on genetic information available should be the ones chosen for implantation.

The second article was alleged to be advocating for the murder of disabled children after birth. While the title was not cited, a tweet by Francesca Minerva confirmed it was an article she co-authored with Alberto Giubilini entitled, ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’

Rather than arguing for the killing of disabled children, it seemed to be making the case that all the reasons given to justify abortion should also justify “post-birth abortion.”, whereby unwanted infants would be euthanised. It seems the SU lacked the full context that the article originally intended, causing them to draw the conclusion that this article was inherently ableist. While it’s certainly contentious, the article did not appear to meet that definition as it was speaking of ANY unwanted newborn who would otherwise be stuck in the care system. The authors consider both fetuses and newborns to have less moral status than “actual persons” regardless of if they’re disabled or not.

Given that Universities have traditionally been a place to discuss and debate such contentious issues, what exactly is the SU aiming to achieve by effectively censoring the above articles? Removing them from the course will not remove the views they contain from the rest of society or change the current law on hate speech. Surely if they feel the law is deficient and they want it to improve, that’s all the more reason to study prejudiced content in order to be able to refute it effectively. It also reduces student exposure to differing opinions and perspectives, meaning that when they leave university they’ll be less likely to be able to handle prejudiced views, let alone counter them, when they encounter them in everyday life. Conversely, simply removing these articles from the mandatory reading list will only mean that students will fall behind those who still have access to them, be it academically, or at least in terms of the understanding that other ethical perspectives exist. Given that the student council’s contention with at least one of the articles is based off of a misunderstanding of the context in which it was written, this could mean that if it was no longer mandatory, some students might choose to avoid reading it based on that misunderstanding. This is concerning in and of itself, because this motion could have caused other content to be removed from mandatory reading lists in other subjects due to assumed bigotry, and the students who choose to avoid said content might never learn of the actual ideas it’s trying to convey.

While these articles do hold controversial views, the idea they should either be taken off the mandatory reading list or even removed from the course entirely is, in my view, short-sighted. Firstly, the content is very relevant to a course that studies law and ethics in regards to medicine. I personally do not condone the idea of being able to arbitrarily pick and choose genetic traits based on a very subjective idea of what’s considered to be the “best” quality of life. Neither do I condone post-natal abortions, except perhaps when there’s no hope of any quality of life whatsoever. But I do believe that everyone with a desire to work in the medical field, in law, or even to explore ethical issues with the intention of finding out where they themselves stand morally, would benefit from reading such views. It is a good way of exploring the issue of quality of life overall. Certainly, anyone who works in the medical field is likely to encounter this issue on a regular basis, especially now when we have a global pandemic, with only a limited number of ventilators for the many that need them. Doctors in various parts of the world are having to make life or death decisions regarding the allocation of ventilators; quality of life is one of the factors taken into account. Without the practice of exploring ethical issues from opposing viewpoints, however controversial, these same doctors would not be adequately prepared for making these decisions. This could lead to them taking longer to do so, meaning there is a delay in patients receiving the treatment they need, or they may not be able to cope with the magnitude of such decisions at all and remain indecisive. Both scenarios would inevitably lead to more deaths.

The SU disability campaign’s reasoning behind this motion was that some students* may be “adversely affected” if articles the SU consider to be hateful are allowed to remain part of the compulsory reading list.

In their statement to the Oxford Blue, The SU claimed that the response to the motion by the university was “unsatisfactory.” But Jonathan Herring, who teaches the “Medical Law and Ethics” module exampled in the motion, made the point that this motion could have the unintended consequence of censoring any writings on disability rights that contain summaries of ableist views. He feels that this time would be better spent addressing the silence on disability issues on other courses. Richard Dawkins, who is in agreement with Jonathan Herring, stated that other subjects such as History could also suffer greatly had this motion been approved.

I don’t deny that reading the exampled writings could be upsetting to some students, but I do challenge the notion that all disabled students will necessarily be adversely affected by the content in the aforementioned articles. Some may even agree with certain aspects of those articles, such as those who have a hereditary condition that they would not wish to pass on to any future children because of the suffering they themselves have endured.

I never got the chance to go to university as it coincided with the tuition fees increase and I was going through a difficult time in my life. But this is just one example of a culture within many universities in this country that seeks to push a very warped conception of “intersectional feminism” on to students, that with hindsight, I am relieved to have avoided. Far from being supportive and inclusive of all different minorities from different backgrounds, it instead exudes a form of bigotry of the lowest expectations. To clarify, there are groups of people who are of the “woke” metropolitan middle class variety, who try to bring in policies on behalf of marginalised people. The apparent intention is to improve the rights and material conditions of the marginalised, but in the process, they are infantilised. The woke middle classes hold minorities to a lower standard than everyone else by assuming they’re too fragile to handle viewpoints that differ from their own. Far from improving the rights of minorities, the woke middle classes actually set them back. They seek to shield minorities from anything the woke middle classes deem to be an issue, whether or not the majority of the marginalized group concerned would agree it’s an issue for them or not. If minorities are not exposed to counter viewpoints or have someone play devil’s advocate, they won’t have the ammunition to counter those viewpoints outside of the university. They certainly won’t have the experience or the vocabulary to be able to maintain the rights they do have, let alone fight for the ones they don’t.

I think part of the problem is that universities are dominated by those with middle class backgrounds, so the few working class voices in universities will inevitably be drowned out. Given that these students mostly come from a sheltered middle class upbringing, the sudden shift from childhood to becoming an adult, along with learning of some of the difficult challenges that marginalised people face, must come as a shock to them. They may even feel guilt over their privilege as well as any past behaviour and attitudes that upon reflection, they may realise was prejudiced or otherwise harmful. If they continue to relate to those challenges from their sheltered but guilt-ridden perspective, they may assume that the shock and outrage they feel will be greatly magnified for the oppressed people concerned. However, many marginalised people are so used to seeing whatever ‘offensive’ material the previously sheltered students are getting outraged over, that the most they’ll do is roll their eyes and carry on. They have lived with worse than whatever material these “woke” students consider outrageous. But if they dare try to point that out, the “woke” middle classes will turn their outrage on the very people they claim to fight for. The guilt felt by these woke middle classes turns to anger, and their privilege turns to arrogance, causing them to lash out in some extremely irrational and often abusive ways. When it comes to those they choose to target, it doesn’t matter how reasonable they are, or even if they’re open to changing their minds. They’ll still scream “bigot” and proclaim that they’re “self-hating”, or even that they’re the same as the very fascists that would have them killed if given the chance.

On social media, this can take the form of dog pilling, abusive messages, having accounts banned, doxing, and even getting people fired from jobs due to pressure from these ‘woke’ groups. In real life, those who have any social standing, for example, being a writer, a Youtuber, or a journalist, who expresses views they don’t like, they’ll try to cancel any public events. Failing that, they’ll show up to those events to scream at them in person. It doesn’t seem to matter if the person they want to cancel intended any bigotry or harm towards any marginalised groups, or if they’re even there to talk about whatever view they consider to be unforgivable. The outrage has set in, and there is no compromise.

All this has done is to prevent the left from actually being able to address any issues of equality, let alone be able to liberate anyone from any kind of oppression. It keeps the left divided, and in the eyes of a working class person, it appears completely out of touch with not only the concerns of your average working class or otherwise marginalised person but often with reality itself. As a result, if marginalised people try to raise the actual serious systematic issues that do affect them, it falls on deaf ears as people assume they have the same mindset as the woke middle classes that scream and dog-pile. Even if they are taken seriously and a movement starts to build, it gets torn apart as they cannot maintain the level of ideological purity that the middle class woke clique espouses. This is why we must allow for open discussions and a diversity of opinions without censorship or the policing of other people’s morality. Obviously there are places where lines need to be drawn, such as allowing a voice for those who do intend hatred and advocate physical violence towards vulnerable groups, meaning, of course, actual fascists. No platforming used to only be reserved for those fascists, and with good reason. When we prevent open discourse from happening we prevent change from happening. The civil rights movement was able to achieve as much as it did because it brought different people together in support of a common cause, If the left in this country is to get anywhere, it must do the same.

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