The clash between the CUSU Women’s Campaign and pro-life campaigners at this year’s Freshers’ Fair raises big questions about the place of inflammatory promotion at our university.
Many students took offense with the Cambridge Students for Life’s (CSFL) stall, which featured pictures of foetuses and pro-life literature. The Women’s Campaign put up ‘trigger warnings’, cautioning students of the stall’s potentially emotionally affecting material. They handed out pro-choice pamphlets, posted flyers accusing the CSFL of misogyny and launched one of their signature placard campaigns. This is all reasonable and well within their remit to protect the welfare of students and promote reproductive rights. What is not reasonable, however, is that, despite the dominance guaranteed by their size, funding and support, they still felt the need to harass CSFL representatives, as is alleged, stealing their leaflets, preventing students from visiting their stall and attempting to have them removed from the fair. A number of articles have since been published in the student press arguing that CFSL should never have been allowed a stall or even society status in the first place.
The Women’s Campaign defended their actions, citing student welfare and the low popularity of the pro-life view, arguing that there is limited scope for debate on abortion. It’s easy to see how pro-life material could cause distress for students who may have recently had abortions (and at least one such student has since spoken out). It is also true that only 7% of Britons support an abortion ban, though 28% support reducing the time limit and 44% believe life begins at conception. In my view, however, the emotive and unpopular nature of the CSFL’s position makes it even more important that it be allowed to be heard and engaged with as much as possible.
Calls for censorship of potentially offensive or triggering expression have become common in Cambridge over recent years. Whenever anyone controversial is to speak at the Union (Le Pen, Assange, Strauss-Kahn etc.), crowds gather to protest, not against the speaker, but against the fact they were invited. In the case of Assange, the Women’s Campaign was revealed to have secretly plotted to block his invitation. Last year, the Campaign boycotted and called for the cancellation of an abortion debate held by CSFL and the Cambridge Medical Society, claiming debate and discussion are equivalent to violence. They have also coordinated a campaign that successfully banned copies of The Sun from several college bars, denying students access to Britain’s highest circulation newspaper. Beyond Cambridge, the Oxford USU has already censored pro-lifers in its fresher’s fair, while the NUS enforces a no-platform list including Muslim civil rights organisations, feminists and George Galloway. The NUS has also attempted to censor student newspapers and has used threats to strong-arm members into cancelling speakers.
Removing extreme expression from the public eye may shield a few people from being offended, but deprives everyone else of the opportunity to listen to those voices which it is most crucial we listen to: those most outrageous, unconventional and dangerous. It is dialogue with these views that allows us to challenge our assumptions, refine and better understand our own position and uncover the reasons people reach different conclusions to our own.
More importantly, outrageous speakers stimulate important conversations. CSFL’s controversial appearance has instigated dialogue about abortion, feminism and free speech across Cambridge for days after they packed up their stall. Without them, the Women’s Campaign would not have achieved such relevance and attention for their pro-choice message and the reproductive rights campaign they took this opportunity to announce. Similarly, the platform given to those controversial Union speakers not only informed attendees about important political issues, but gave the protesters outside the building international coverage for their message, which they never would have otherwise received.
Thus, those that silence these offensive voices, despite their noble intentions, are actually impoverishing the intellectual landscape of our community. They are fatally misjudging what it means to protect. Extremists exist whether we talk to them or not. If we segregate ourselves from them, they will operate unseen and with the badge of martyrs. If we let them speak, and respond with measurement and reason, we have the chance to prove that their arguments are based on nothing more than a blinkered world-view. To reveal them for the idiots they are is the most powerful way to damage their message.