The Great Tragedy of Good Intentions

By David Vallance who is a second year War Studies and History student at King’s College London.


At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther, speaking out against the corruption and injustices of the Catholic Church, said in defence of his pronouncements in the Ninety Five Theses, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”. The romanticism of this courageous statement was soon lost as first Germany then all of Europe found itself torn apart by religious conflict, with Protestantism becoming a rallying call for power-hungry peasants and ambitious princes.

In 1789 the first National Assembly in France called for recognition of the universal civil rights of all men, a great step in the tradition of the left wing in Europe — yet these revolutionaries ignored women in their formulation of rights, trapped as they were by the stifling nature of their time; and by the September of 1793, the infamous Terror had begun, using indiscriminate violence to supposedly uphold an idea of anti-discrimination.

There are plenty of stories like this we can draw from history, and they all have the same sad aura about them. There is something infinitely sad about good ideas being turned to bad ends — ask the brilliant scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project in the Second World War. It is tragic to see good intentions to horribly debased and perverted so that they achieve the opposite of what they set out to do.

Our current Safe Space policy is yet another manifestation of this. The rather dramatic examples still share characteristics with the situation today. The policy states, in terms that should appear clear enough as to not brook such controversy that:

At KCLSU we’re committed to providing an inclusive and supportive space for all our student members. We believe all students should be free from intimidation or harassment resulting from prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, marital or maternity/paternity status, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, trans status, socio-economic status, or ideology or culture, or any other form of distinction.

The idea here is an not only an excellent one, but also a morally upstanding one — people should be free to express themselves without any fear of being attacked for that expression. But we seem to have lost our way.

Nearly all of you will have heard of the events surrounding the talk given by Ami Ayalon for the KCL Israel Society on the 19th of January and the involvement — however small or large it may have been — by KCL Action Palestine. I won’t rehash the accusations being flung at both groups here. This article is not about taking sides, as so many people seem to be doing at the moment, particularly with the media attention around the issue. We are having the wrong discussion entirely if we focus on the idea of taking sides, no-platforming and the like. What we should be talking about is why those ideas have arisen in the first place. Why have we decided that opinions we don’t like should not be heard? There are passionate arguments on both sides of the issue, and arguments that passionate deserve to be heard out in full, even if they prove to be flawed. The only way to address a problem properly is to go to its source, not just treat symptoms of the condition it causes.

I think it is fair to say that progressive groups, or groups seeking to change the status quo bear the onus of justification more than the existing powers — this is not an endorsement of this system, but a statement of fact. There are many historical examples to show this: Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD decriminalising Christian worship for reasons of morality and state unity; the Prophet Muhammed’s preaching of the Qur’an as a new and better guide on how to live; as above, Luther’s pronouncements about the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the Catholic Church. The list goes on and on. Anyone with an interest in political history will have seen this tradition, such as it is, codified in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. While many, myself included, do not agree with Burke, the point he made has proved to be been an enduring one.

So, we have the historical fact that all those pushing forward new ideas have the responsibility to justify their position. This should be straightforward; indeed if we take the rise of communism in Europe, it was. But today we are in a vastly different position. We now live in a postcolonial world, one which in many countries keenly and painfully feel the effects of the imperial experience manifested in corruption, extortion, poor levels of public education and other services, as well as, in many places, famine and disease brought about by brutal and prolonged periods of civil war. The former imperial powers of the Western world are surely deluding themselves by pulling a Pontius Pilate and washing their hands of responsibility for a situation which they directly shaped.

The citizens of former colonies certainly do have serious and valid issues with their erstwhile colonisers, however, the issue that faces us in relation to the idea of “safe space” is the way in which the enduring and victimising legacy of colonialism manifests itself in people. It is a curious situation we have — on the one hand, the people of former colonies have and continue to suffer thanks to the imperial legacy, but the imperial powers have long-since ceased being so. At university, no students at all and surely only a handful of faculty members will distinctly remember an imperial United Kingdom. Thus the victims seek their victimisers, but cannot truly find them. This is what then leads to a much greater issue.

In the absence of a concrete person to be blamed for atrocities, the blame is levied upon a whole people. The same thing happens in the US in relation to issues of race. The concept of white privilege is tied up with this, but to my mind, the issue of blame is destructive, whereas recognition of privilege is both positive and constructive.

I am a white man from an affluent family. I have, because of my race, my gender, and my socio-economic status, been able to do things that quite literally billions of people cannot. I recognise this fully. Chance has been very good to me. Recognition of this, in my opinion, brings humility, and humility in turn is a key virtue in being an intelligent, caring and kind person — to be “good”. The issue that makes a recognition of white privilege lose some of that great effect is that of blame. The argument goes that white privilege — either explicitly or, more often, implicitly — has been used as a tool of oppression and systematic repression of other cultures to improve white people only; thus all those who enjoy that privilege are complicit in those acts, however they may behave. Now, while social historians certainly will and do explain how hierarchical concepts of race and gender were very significant in empire-building and, to take a more specific example, in the perpetuation of slavery, the philosophical implications of holding people to account for things that they have not done is deeply troubling.

Guilt may be a powerful force to make people change their ways, but it can also incite deep seated angers, prejudices and insecurities — in short, it is dangerous. Just look to the Donald Trump in the US: so much of his campaign bases itself around the notion that white people are discriminated against due to the growth of non-white immigration. In Australia, Pauline Hanson used that same rhetoric in the 1990s. While guilt can cause positive things, it also gives rise to the worst kind of reactionary radicalism. The only way to combat it is to moderate the way certain topics are discussed. Someone who feels pressured by a weight of guilt being thrust on them will not be able to provide rational arguments for their position and will resort to insults and potentially to violence.

That is what a safe space policy should provide.

It should not force societies at King’s to cancel events because its topic angers them, as happened with a proposed debate from the KCL Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society. It should not provide for speakers to not be given a platform unless they are directly insulting certain groups of people — however contentious a figure Ami Ayalon may be, the fact he was articulating his own point of view did not warrant the reaction he received from KCL AP or the assorted hangers on at the event on the 19th of January.

Supporters of policies like Prevent might say that his ideas are poisonous and spread ill-informed bigotry and hate. To me, that statement is fundamentally both an insult to and a refutation of human intelligence. Particularly at universities, where academic standards of entry presuppose a high level of education, how can people assume that those who go to hear a contentious speaker are going to be instantly indoctrinated by anything said? I may go to the AKC (which seems also to have come under fire recently) and listen to lectures about the ways in which people have tried to prove the existence of god, but I will not come out of those lectures believing in god. The exact same thing goes for radical speakers, at whom the Prevent policy is aimed; if we indeed want to live in a social democracy in which we are guaranteed certain liberties we cannot take them for granted. I argue that we have a duty to seek out new points of view, for in doing so, whether accepting them or refuting them, we strengthen the integrity of our position and make it more inclusive and comprehensive.

What these policies have created, from very admirable principles, is a system so paradoxical and twisted that even Kafka would be confused by it: we are trying to confront problems by not confronting them. If we are not prepared to use all our energies to solve a problem, then that problem is not going to be solved. Inculcating guilt in people will achieve nothing but anger, and drive groups apart that ought to be working together to find solutions.

Not only are there practical benefits to a restructuring of safe space policies along these lines, but there is a deeper and more philosophical one. It is, of course, the issue of free speech. There is no need to explain it here; you all know exactly what it entails, and how it is not only a vital part of democratic polity, but also one of the most important tools in allowing people to express themselves and thereby give themselves validation as individuals.

We aren’t a hive mind. The beauty of humanity is that despite our competing individualities we are still able to work together, to live together, to help each other, and to love each other. Denying this with censorship is to deny an essential part of what it means to be a member of the human race.

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