For decades, debates around culture on campus have tended to be about a particular issue, event or concern.
The positioning of views about a particular issue, event or concern on a continuum from banned, to discouraged, to tolerated, to championed, to required on campus has tended to be a source of conflict.
I’m counting all sorts of things here – from equality and diversity issues, to climate change, animal and human rights, and geopolitical tensions – where there’s a sense that there’s a significant difference between the positioning on campus in comparison to the wider public, or at least the public as imagined by sections of the press.
So in many ways, what we’ve seen over the past week in reaction to activism on campus in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks on Israel is nothing new.
What is new is that generally culturally, and specifically in terms of regulation in England, we are in the process of having two heavy sandbags put on two ends of a see-saw.
There’s a real push on preventing and processing allegations of harassment. There is an acceptance that people can be harassed in the context of their university education, and that they deserve protection from that harassment by others from their university. And there has, this week, been clear evidence of a rise in both antisemitic and islamophobic attacks and harassment.
On the other hand, there’s also a really heavy sandbag on freedom of speech. And what ministers, regulators and influencers have been in the process of doing for a number of years is defining very clearly the idea that freedom of speech, even though it might make people feel uncomfortable, must be championed and is incredibly important. And even where those views are views that are held by a minority, they must not be chilled, or clamped down on.
But there is another important difference this time.
I think it is absolutely right for Jewish groups to reflect more broadly on the way in which different parts of British culture are responding to recent events – which does feel different to the way in which Britain responded to the attacks on Ukraine by Russia.
In the sector, where there was unflinching side taking and displays of Ukrainian solidarity – almost all of which conflated the country with its government and its people – there are now welfare-focussed messages which cautiously offer support for “anyone” impacted by the “conflict”.
This time, replacing the simplicity, there are complicated debates and “what about” questions. This apparent inconsistency is worth understanding. It should not be difficult for us to understand why that would contribute to Jews in Britain feeling discriminated against, and feeling unsafe.
But we operate in the world as it is. Unlike in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, there are significant volumes of people both in the country and on campus that have “picked” the Palestinian “side” in the Middle East conflict – and while outright support for Hamas and its attacks last week is almost certainly rare, there is a considerable body of support for what we might describe as the Palestinian cause, which may well grow as the conflict escalates.
And as in other issues where division is stoked and political “wedges” created, there are considerable differences by age, and by association, by students v “the public”:
Some manifestations of student activism, particularly on the left, have long engaged in sympathy for and advocacy of the Palestinian cause on some campuses.
Some of that activism has crossed into antisemitism. The difficulty has often been defining what counts as antisemitic speech – because there’s a complex and often technical debate involving both the content and context of that activism. The different positions of the Labour Party in recent years underline the complex relationship between content and context.
For some, this is about-flag waving. For some it is about where that flag waving might manifest. The chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a point of particular contention. Some see it as antisemitic – an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world. Others reject that view – arguing that it is a legitimate political expression of a Palestinian desire for a homeland. Usually the phone-in concludes that the context matters – and even Suella Braverman’s letter to Police Chiefs asks that they “consider” whether its use in certain contexts may amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence.
Nevertheless, given the government’s position, activism in the context of current events invites a heightened level of media scrutiny. Journalists routinely search for instances that can be framed as support for controversial groups or ideologies – and in the context of the Middle East, while sometimes they find clear antisemitism or the glorification of Hamas, often they include activism that falls within legal boundaries but can be packaged up into the slipstream of the context.
And so universities and their SUs are stuck in an impossible situation, with rules-based legal and regulatory considerations around both harassment and freedom of speech that make it hard to meet people’s different expectations when the context that called for the rules over a different issue changes.
The context changes
When, on Christmas Day 2009, it emerged that the man popularly referred to as the “Underwear Bomber” had been president of UCL’s Islamic society, there were endless stories and op-eds about the need for universities and SUs to risk assess, monitor and clamp down on students and societies.
Once that story had passed, in the decade or so since, I’ve watched as libertarian culture warriors have built an alternative case – alleging that cultures of safetyism and risk assessment surrounding student activism or external speakers somehow are an anathema to free speech.
But this is the sort of week that reminds us of why there has long been pressure on universities and SUs to deploy technical rather than popular judgements on what is permissible – using both rules and positive influence, rather than just whoever shouts loudest.
Every single libertarian argument – the idea that SUs and universities either restricting types of speech or promoting certain views – frames those bodies as authoritarian.
This week also reminds us that society now places an expectation on bodies like universities and SUs to act as such and use their authority, albeit reasonably and with care, in order to afford protection to others.
There are some that reason that neither universities nor SUs should be in the business of regulating speech – and that doing so robs their students of the ability to engage in conflict resolution themselves. Many reasonably argue that a permeable student body in a mass higher education system is in any case less capable of being regulated than it was.
But there is now, for better or worse, an expectation that universities and their SUs will take reasonable steps to prevent others from harm.
What I find unforgivable is the idea that neither universities nor SUs need help in weighing up these sorts of judgements. And that instead, when a judgement is made that someone doesn’t like, that they’ve somehow “failed” in their duty to promote or secure freedom-to or freedom-from.
I also find objectionable the oft-repeated notion that “officials” in universities and SUs are using “rules” to craftily clamp down on views they dislike. The relentless allegations of bad faith on the part of universities and SUs in handling disputes have been exhausting.
But what I find even more unforgivable is the heavy expectations on universities and their SUs to protect both freedom-from and freedom-to coupled with a lack of back up for those that might attempt to cause those with strong beliefs to understand their impact on others when manifesting those beliefs.
Pretty much a decade of “emotional harm isn’t real” messaging licences behaviour which removes an expectation that people will think about other people when saying or doing things. I think that has been damaging, on all sides of every conflict.
And I also object to the idea that having a focus on good campus relations where there are deep divisions is either tree-hugging, or worse represents a “chilling” of free speech.
Neither a university nor an SU’s objective can or should always be peace, or dialogue, or requiring people to examine or engage in another “side”. And a focus on good campus relations may not be for this week, next week or even next month – everything is too raw.
But that kind of focus – which has learning and community at its heart, as well as acknowledging students’ sense of injustice and interconnectedness with conflict – does need to return.