Oriel College, Oxford, was once more in lock-down on March 9th. Outside in Oriel Square, members of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) protested for the second time against the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in South Africa, that stands in the centre of Oriel’s façade on the High Street. RMFO argues that there is a ‘violence‘ to students of African background in having to walk past the statue. Yet the campaign to remove the statue is part of a much wider student movement to transform universities into ‘safe spaces’ where all feel welcome.
Critics of safe spaces argue that the concept fundamentally conflicts with a culture of free speech in universities. They point to cases such as the Oxford University Student Union’s (OUSU’s) banning of No Offence, a new student magazine focusing on controversial (mainly right-wing) opinion, from the fresher’s fair in October. OUSU expressed concerns that the material would be offensive to a majority of students; when the editor of the magazine distributed copies outside the fresher’s fair anyway, OUSU called the police.
Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, has condemned the Rhodes protesters for similarly failing to ‘engage in free inquiry and debate’ and attempting to wipe out history. RMFO argue instead that, far from attempting to erase the past, they have brought the legacy of Rhodes into the spotlight and ‘inaugurated’ a university-wide debate surrounding iconography and other racial issues.
Yet concerns remain that modern students often appear intolerant to viewpoints other than their own. RMFO has consistently painted Oriel College as uncommitted to racial equality, ‘outrageous, dishonest, and cynical’. This comes in spite of statements by the college supporting their right to protest, and a range of proposed measures such as diversity training, a commitment to new scholarships for Africans and a series of lectures on race, equality and colonialism.
Other symptoms are evident of a growing antipathy among students towards freedom of speech. Across Britain, so-called ‘no-platforming’, whereby students attempt to prevent those with unsavoury opinions from speaking, is on the rise. In September, Warwick University’s student union banned anti-sharia activist Maryam Namazie from speaking for fears that she could ‘incite hatred’. Even veteran campaigners once thought of as liberal crusaders have sometimes unexpectedly come under fire. At Cardiff University, 3,000 people signed a petition to prevent second-wave feminist Germaine Greer from giving a lecture due to her alleged intolerance towards transgender people. (The lecture was eventually held on November 18th with a considerable police presence after the university assured Greer that her safety would be protected.) After defending Greer’s right to speak, gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was also condemned. Fran Cowling, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) representative within the National Union of Students, refused to share a platform at a planned event with Tatchell, whom she decried as racist and ‘transphobic’.
The self-righteousness of the young is not only directed towards individuals perceived as stirring up hatred, but also to larger social groups. It can be seen in a recent rise in antisemitism among Britain’s youth: a result of the Israel/Palestine conflict and a common conflation of Israel and Judaism. In February, the co-chairman of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned, complaining in his resignation letter that a ‘large proportion of both OULC and the Student Left in Oxford more generally have some kind of a problem with Jews’.
Growing intolerance among students appears to challenge the widely-disseminated idea that Britain’s younger generation is its most liberal yet. Despite an acceptance of minorities such as the LGBT community or those of different ethnicities, there are still many attacked by the new consensus. Divergence from the mainstream viewpoint is quickly vilified; there is often little willingness to debate, and little openness towards differing opinions. The integration of previously persecuted groups into the mainstream does little to change the fact that those who were once so attacked by social conservatives have become the young social conservatives of today. Intolerance is not dead yet – the targets have simply changed.