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Thought police on beat in a college campus near you

A student union leader's bizarre attack on gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for supporting free speech makes writer Fionola Meredith despair about this current generation of preachy, moralistic puritans

Published 17/02/2016

Peter Tatchell, the political and gay rights campaigner
Peter Tatchell, the political and gay rights campaigner
Fran Cowling

Just who does Fran Cowling think she is? For those as yet unacquainted with the absurd posturing of this sanctimonious young upstart, Ms Cowling is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) officer for the National Union of Students.

This week it emerged that she refused to share a platform at Canterbury Christ Church University with Peter Tatchell, saying that she wouldn't take part in the debate unless Tatchell was dropped from the panel.

Cowling called him a bigot and said that he supported violence against transgender people. Oh, and she claimed he was racist too, just for good measure.

Yes, that's right, we're talking about Peter Tatchell. The gay rights activist who has spent almost half-a-century rooting out prejudice in the name of truth, freedom and justice, often at great risk to his personal safety and physical health.

What had this courageous, principled man done to incur Ms Cowling's righteous wrath? Well, his crime was to sign an open letter in a national newspaper standing up for free speech as "one of the most precious of human rights".

This followed the disgraceful attempt to exclude Germaine Greer from an event at Cardiff University. A bunch of young women at this particular nursery of enlightenment decided that the veteran feminist was in fact a vile misogynist due to her belief that post-operative transgender men weren't actually women and that her very presence on campus would pose some kind of violent threat to students' mental wellbeing.

The letter that Tatchell signed pointed out "you do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic", and called on universities to stand up to attempts at such bullying, and to affirm their support for "the basic principles of democratic political exchange".

In the delusional world of Ms Cowling and her chums, this translated as supporting the rights of feminists to be "openly transphobic" and to "incite violence" against transgender people (God knows where she got the racist slur from, since she has provided no evidence).

Yes, simply holding a different point of view, or even supporting someone else's right to hold a point of view you yourself oppose - after all, Tatchell has been involved in many campaigns against transphobia and, indeed, racism over the years - is now considered an act of violence.

This is also the world where even clapping your enthusiastic support for somebody counts as traumatic. Last year at a women's conference organised by - guess who? - the National Union of Students - union representatives tweeted that "some delegates are requesting that we move to jazz hands rather than clapping, as it's triggering anxiety. Please be mindful!"

Apparently, silently waving your hands in front of your face like a lunatic was considered "a nice way to show solidarity". Clunk. You hear that sound? That's satire breaking.

So, if Tatchell was surprised at Cowling's petulant hissy fit, he was naive. Speaking out for freedom of expression and for the rights of those with whom you disagree to be allowed to have their say is exactly the kind of move guaranteed to get you knocked off the platform. All in the name of progress and enlightenment, of course.

To be honest, I'm amazed that Ms Cowling didn't add Tatchell's rethink on our very own "gay cake" case to her trumped-up charge sheet of thought crimes.

What a missed opportunity: championing religious fundamentalists' right to freedom of conscience over the right to order an iced cake in support of gay marriage? I would have thought that would make you forever untouchable, permanently no-platformed.

Tatchell's reversal on the Ashers business is a measure of the man.

Far from marking him out as a bigot and a backstabber, as the petty liberal fascists like to think, it reinforces his standing as a true freedom fighter. Someone prepared to turn against the tribe in support of something far more important: the right to think, act, speak and choose for ourselves, free from political or state coercion. Whatever our beliefs, whatever our sexuality or sexual orientation, this is vital. Without it, we're lost.

Shutting down debate and actively censoring speech in the sanctimonious name of protecting the vulnerable and marginalised, has become commonplace in our universities: it is the orthodoxy of the times, and the fact that its (lack of) logic is now beyond parody doesn't seem to matter.

I knew we were headed in a bad direction when Queen's Students' Union decided to join many other unions across the UK and Ireland in banning a rubbish song by some gormless R&B bloke best known for being publicly twerked by Miley Cyrus.

Robin Thicke was his name, not that it matters, and the song, Blurred Lines, was the biggest hit of 2013. Because it included the lines "you know you want it", it was deemed that the song was "rapey" and promoted "a very worrying attitude towards sex and consent".

I wonder if anybody ever did any follow-up research on this. Did preventing the student body hearing Thicke's sleazy song on union premises have a measurable effect on sexual assaults on campus?

No, thought not.

All that was achieved was that a few pious student leaders got to feel very good about themselves for performing an unwarranted act of censorship.

It might only have been a stupid song, but that's a very dangerous precedent to set. Indeed, it was the banning of Blurred Lines, along with other more seriously chilling moves, such as the attempt to cancel a conference discussing the cultural impact of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which led to Spiked magazine placing Queen's on its 'red' list of universities with the most severe restrictions on free speech.

It was one of 63 universities graded red, indicating it has "banned and actively censored ideas on campus". Ulster University was classified 'amber', meaning it has "chilled free speech through intervention".

What's happening in our education system, in our culture as a whole, that we are raising up this new generation of preachy, moralistic puritans - of the secular, rather than the religious variety, but every bit as blinkered - who are so determined to stamp out and silence any views that diverge from their own?

I know I'm not the only one who fears that we have a particular problem with this mindset in Northern Ireland, where old-fashioned sectarianism seems to be transmuting itself into a new form of highly intolerant, highly immature identity politics.

If you're not with us you're against us, right? Maybe it's something in the water.

Belfast Telegraph

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