by Daniel Porter – 2nd year WS and Philosophy, President of King’s College London Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society (KCL AHSS).
Has anyone else noticed that if you turn Safe Space into an acronym, you get the SS? Anyway, I digress. SS was initially implemented with the intentions of preventing hate speech, or the incitement to violence, on university campuses: a noble aim. Unfortunately, it has since been transformed into a policy to prevent offensive speech: a purely subjective construct. With the new policy crumbling under the weight of its own incoherency, we have all be given a first row ticket to the fair. The UK Government’s Prevent Programme, on the other hand, has been transformed from working to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”, to ostracising parts of the community, and creating a larger schism “between the ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’”, as Aminul Hoque, a lecturer and author on British Islamic identity at Goldsmiths, University of London, suggests. Clearly, there is a problem to be addressed with both.
As part of the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Programme (CONTEST), Prevent was designed to work explicitly in challenging extremism in the UK. I think we can all agree that this is a good idea? It does seem, however, that this strategy is missing its mark, and serving to fuel radicalisation in targeted communities. With many feeling they would be viewed by authorities as potential terrorists if they went to mosques or joined other organised Muslim groups, Prevent has left some people “lost and disenfranchised.” This grievance narrative only serves to provide a breeding ground for radicalisation, thus highlighting that Government policy has fed the very monster it aims to destroy.
The Government’s Community Cohesion Programme (2001-onwards) seemed like a good place to start. With strong support from the ground level, it established non-stigmatising ways to address issues of extremism, segregation and racial tension between, and within, communities. It is this support from the ground level that Prevent has failed to capture, presenting itself as an imposing, and indiscriminate, body of supervision within Muslim communities. This was a doomed enterprise. The focus of the effort must come from within the community itself, as it will never work if an external body comes in, and is seen to be throwing its weight around. As the first victims of extremism are those within the community, the most effective efforts will also come from the community itself. Therefore, government policy cannot be seen as another battle to be fought, but as a cooperative endeavour, working with schools and community leaders, starting with young people, and thereby generating support from the ground level.
Unless we pretend that there is no such thing as extremism, a counter policy needs to be implemented. There are risks of radicalisation that we need to deal with, so what are the alternatives, rather than to focus in on the communities where radicalisation occurs?
SS was first implemented to counter hate speech on university campuses. It is perfectly rational to oppose speech which incites violence or hatred towards an individual. However, the practice of SS policy has degraded into an opposition of the concept of offense itself. Anyone who deigns to pay intellectual attention to this should realise its inevitable incoherence and self-contradiction. Who gets to decide what is offensive? What if someone is offended by your offence, or lack thereof?
Those who doubt that this is occurring have perhaps not been paying attention. An anti-IS fighter is barred from giving a talk at his old university of UCL, based on the notion that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” The heights of incoherent relativism are truly surreal, smacking of the 15 year old who during one his school debates thinks he has had an epiphany (you can almost smell the BO). An activist for secularism (which one should note is both freedom from and of religion) and women’s rights, particularly in societies where patriarhal structures make the West pale in comparison, is barred from the University of Warwick on the grounds she could cause offence. The sheepish and somewhat shameful retreat by the SU which ensued, was a rather clear sign that in their reasons for barring her, they really had no idea what they were talking about. Again, who decides what constitutes offence? People are rather eager to state that they can define it for themselves, but are far more reluctant to nominate or accept another to do so for them. Apologies for the cliché, but who watches the watchmen?
A society’s openness is always measured by its acceptance of, and engagement with, heresy. There is a great deal of prescience in Schopenhauer’s observation that: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Freedom of speech is first of all freedom of speech for the person in the minority, or challenging the views of the mainstream. There are things which deeply offend each of us to the depths of our being, but a society where that is not possible, where your ideas and beliefs cannot be challenged, is not a society worthy of the name.
One should not confuse this endorsement of freedom of speech, with the view that one should not challenge views or ideologies. One can only combat pernicious ideologies with other ideas. Indeed, the very reason we support freedom of speech and thought is so that this can occur. A successful prevent policy should allow people to think for themselves, while engaging with the views and ideas others. It is difficult because ideas are powerful, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. This is based on positive engagement, which requires a free flow of ideas, and by extension, speech. By contrast, current SS policy is ever more an exercise in negation. When dealing with ideas, this will naturally lead to a negation of freedom of speech, as we have seen. With university a place of intellectual meditation and development, these values can never be expected to flourish if we are not allowed to think, or speak for ourselves. More distressing than a policy which merely restricts what you can, and cannot, say; current SS restricts what you can, and cannot, hear.
It seems clear, therefore, that the continued implementation of Prevent and SS in their current form is only going to fuel radicalisation, and silence those who wish to fight it, respectively. It is a double edged sword which will only serve to inflict deeper wounds if we hold on for much longer.
“With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.” – Captain Picard