Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter
On 21 November 2017, it was reported that The Langton Grammar School for Boys in Kent will be creating an ‘unsafe space’ forum for its sixth form students. The teacher responsible, James Soderholm, argued that this is a ‘much-needed forum for debate’. It is described as ‘an antidote to the poison of political correctness’, designed to examine ‘the most beautifully disturbed and disturbing ideas, all of them presented without trigger warnings’. ‘Beautiful’ ideas such as those articulated in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, one of the assigned readings. It is clear from the terms, framing and rationale used that the project is an attempt for the school to participate in the wider right-wing and libertarian ‘free speech’ backlash against the alleged dominance of ‘political correctness’ (PC), ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘no platforming’ on university campuses, where undoubtedly, many of these sixth formers will go upon graduation.
Examples of this backlash include campaigns by Spiked! and its ‘Free Speech Now!’, ‘Free Speech University Rankings’ and ‘Down with Campus Censorship’ campaigns. In the US, there is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and their Campus Rights initiative, as well as Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist. In the UK, the focus of such campaigns has included the National Union of Students (NUS) no-platform policy which has targeted, amongst others, Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos, as well as Rhodes Must Fall protests.
According to the Headteacher Matthew Baxter, the course is intended to promote ‘free speech’ and prepare students ‘for the debates which are currently prominent in many universities’, noting that the forum will not study Mein Kampf, but examine it as part of a ‘wider debate’. This raises three questions: 1. Why would debate be the preferred context to examine this text and what is the reason for not studying it, particularly in an educational setting and in preparation for university?; 2. If you want to tackle dangerous ideas in an educational setting, why not use one of the many academic studies of Mein Kampf or Nazism to provide critical analysis and context, instead of the original and a teacher/debate facilitator, whose knowledge of the issue may be limited?; and, 3.Debate what? What to do with Jews? Was Hitler right or wrong? Was Hitler responsible for the Holocaust?
Herein lies the first fallacy of the free speech argument: debate is more neutral and effective than study. This is premised on the notion that debate is the airing of the range of ‘diverse’ ideas, expressed in an equal setting, as opposed to falsely polarised and limited ideological positions in a process where power, rhetoric and argumentation stand in for knowledge, analysis and evidence. Linked to this is the fallacy that education occurs through the simple airing of ‘diverse’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘dangerous’ ideas that go against the status quo, and that through exposure to and the debating of such ideas, students are taken out of their comfort zone, have their beliefs and assumptions challenged, and develop towards a greater intellectual autonomy and truth, as opposed to a dialectic of teaching and learning that proceeds through the systematic, informed and critical study of and engagement with texts, issues and subject matter.
It also seems clear that part of the faculty at The Langton Grammar School for Boys has a broader, darker agenda, one that is connected to campaigns and controversies beyond education in the wider political context. This was made clear in 2016, when the school was forced to cancel a lecture by one of its former (expelled) students, former Breitbart editor, anti-feminist and anti-Muslim ‘free speech’ campaigner, Trump supporter and alt-right fallen hero Milo Yiannopoulos. In addition to this, the first text to be examined, prior to Mein Kampf, is James Danmore’s Google memo, in which the former Google employee attempted to counter the company’s diversity training and policy by claiming that women are innately less capable than men as reason for a lack of gender equality in IT. Yiannopoulos and Danmore are not only heroes of the anti-PC free speech right for their arguments as much as their being censored (through firing, protests, no-platforming, etc.), but also raise the link between this debate and racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The selection of Mein Kampf is particularly telling as it notoriously right-wing, racist and returning to the context issue, is sacred to the hate groups, white nationalists and fascists, many of whom use the anti-PC free speech discourse as part of their repertoire, resurgent throughout the West at this historical juncture.
This brings us to the second fallacy: This is about debate and free speech, if not also democracy and truth. Yet, in recent years, these arguments have primarily been raised by so-called libertarians in defence of racism and fascism, which are set up as the test, if not the exemplar or embodiment of the principle. Spiked!, for example, has claimed that ‘Hate Speech is Free Speech’ and that ‘hate speech must be free speech’. Editor Brendan O’Neill has argued censoring Nazis would ‘set a lethal precedent’ and that ‘Free speech for Nazis means free speech for you’. After years of irrelevance, Spiked!’s profile recently rose, not through their own work, but because of the normalisation of their ideas through the resurgence of the far right, to the point where they have now become key consultants for the government on issues related to free speech. So much for their self-defined radicalism and taboo-breaking ideas …
For such groups, evoking hate speech is often less of a test of free speech, than an opportunity to platform, offend and defend. The targets in the current context are ‘diversity’, ‘identity politics’, groups that would seek ‘safe spaces’ from discrimination and harassment, and wider anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQI activists (or ‘Social Justice Warriors’) who criticise and challenge white privilege, patriarchy and heteronormativity, as well as outright racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. This ideological bent is telling in the case of The Langton Grammar School for Boys as, in addition to the texts mentioned, their lectures will tackle topics such as: ‘not all cultures are created equal’ and ‘Women versus feminism’. According to a student ‘LGBT was mentioned in the PowerPoint, followed by a string of letters and numbers [LGBTQQIP2SAA], none of which were intended to give representation, but instead to mock’. Anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQI activists and their politics are not only mocked, but within the anti-PC free speech discourse, represented and dismissed as ‘easily offended’, ‘oversensitive’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘cry bullies’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘fascist’ and against ‘freedom’ if they disagree. Therefore, this forum does not give an opportunity for debate, but a legitimate platform to express vile ideas, with a ready-made defence and rationalisation.
Herein lies the third fallacy, what we term the ‘sticks and stones’ or ‘misreading Mill’: Racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are only ‘ideas’ that, at worse, are offensive. The threat here is measured by subjective taste, perspective and sensitivity, and not linked to power or tethered to structures. Therefore, if the person airing the views (who obviously belongs to none of these target groups) is not offended, it has no harmful implications. This only works (as an internal logic) if you think: 1. That the target does not exist or matter; 2. That insult, intimidation or harassment do not constitute harm; and/or 3. That ideas, thought or speech and action have no relation to one another.
In this ideological context, people, including students at The Langton Grammar School for Boys, who speak out against such plans, behaviour and ideas, are commonly ignored for being ‘oversensitive’, opposed to free speech and unable to defend their ideas or debate. This use of free speech to justify the presentation of such ideas and dismiss debate and criticism is a popular tactic that flattens out or merely denies power. The construction of anti-racism, feminism and LGBTQI activism as dominant and as threatening free speech is also a denial of the existence of white, patriarchal and heteronormative power and privilege that is then re-asserted as if a counter to power as opposed to the status quo (without any structural analysis).
We can see this in the white nationalist victim narrative presented by Trump and most of the Brexit campaign. It is also a tactic, like the post-racial, that denies the potential implications of speech and ideas based on the false assumption (or construction) that all people and ideas are on the same level playing field of equality and vulnerability. While, at the same time, claiming that white heterosexual men have lost rights (including the right to be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic), power, privilege and their nations as a result. The issue of inequality and vulnerability is something highlighted by critics of this forum. According to one student: ‘I think female and minority students are going to face more issues. I think there will be a rise in sexism, which I would say is already an issue at the school – especially with it being an all-boys school except sixth form’. In terms of harms, in addition to having a disproportionate impact on students who are Jewish or belong to one of the many other groups targeted by Nazis, the selection of Mein Kampf also debunks the major fallacy or myth of free speech, that there is no link between ideas, thought or speech and action.
Taking us back into the current context and political landscape that this forum takes place in, there has been a rise in hate crimes and hate incidents, as well as far-right activity, in Britain. According to the Home Office, the number of hate crimes reported to the police rose by a record 29% to 80,393 incidents in the 12 months to March 2017. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), there was a 49% increase in the month following the EU referendum in June 2016. The NPCC, Institute of Race Relations (IRR), European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), and Amnesty International have all made links between the rhetoric of the Brexit campaign and the rise in hate crime and incidents. Police and Tell Mama have also noted a rise in anti-Muslim hate incidents following terror attacks, which the Muslim Council of Britain and ECRI link to media reporting. A week after Darren Osborne drove a van into the crowd leaving the Muslim Welfare Centre, killing Makram Ali and injuring others, a Muslim man was attacked and his home spray-painted with the statement ‘We need a final solution #Manchester’, which reproduced the language of a tweet by media commentator Katie Hopkins following the Manchester Arena attack.
Therefore, it is irresponsible if not dangerous to use Mein Kampf as merely fodder for debate, particularly in this fraught political context in a place where they have both an educational and safeguarding responsibility for the students. One wonders if the Prevent duty, so often used to target Muslims, will be evoked in this case that raises the spectre of racist right-wing extremism, particularly so soon after Finsbury Park and the National Action terror plot, or is this an example of a double standard? One also wonders whether this breaches the school’s own Race Equality Policy, which states ‘We are committed to: actively tackling racial discrimination, and promoting equal opportunities and good race relations’. Beyond that, if the aim of the school and other libertarian ‘free speech’ campaigns and campaigners is to challenge taboos and power, it is striking that their examples are always drawn from and assert privileged positions and ideologies, as if defending the powerful was the brave and dangerous thing to do. All this posturing is merely deployed in order to protect and reaffirm one’s own power and privilege, attack those who do not have it, and in this case, use students under their care and authority, some of whom may belong to groups targeted by these ideas, texts and debates, to fight what is quite simply a cowardly battle against justice.
Aurelien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. Aaron Winter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at University of East London. Their previous co-authored work includes: ‘Charlie Hebdo, Republican Secularism and Islamophobia’ in After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, Racism and Free Speech (Zed, 2017), ‘Articulations of Islamophobia: From the Extreme to the Mainstream?’ in Ethnic and Racial Studies Review (V. 40, #13, 2017) and ‘Normalized Hate’ in Jacobin (23 Aug. 2017).