8 March 2020 Middlesbrough, UK

As the fallout from Amber Rudd's last minute cancellation from speaking at an event Oxford University rages, The Southernist takes a view on the incident whilst examining free speech and cancel culture

Source: http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2018/05/psychologists-there-no-alternative-free-speech

"Badly judged & rude" was Amber Rudd's verdict on Friday morning.

"They should stop hiding and start engaging. #FreeSpeech" ended her tweet, chastising the decision to "no platform" her shortly before she was scheduled to speak at event organised by what was then known as The UNWomen Oxford UK Society.
This had followed The Daily Mail's typical succinctly headlined online splash from the night before, "Amber Rudd's Oxford University talk about women in politics is CANCELLED after storm of complaints from students over her links to the Windrush scandal."

Queue a wealth of indignant social media posts, from commentators across the political spectrum, at the very notion of de-platforming a former female politician address an audience as part of International Women's Day. 

Using a modern-day phrase that betrayed his position as the honourable member for the 17th century,  Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted, "Free speech is the bedrock of a democracy and Oxford University ought to lead the way rather than being snowflake central."

Also reacting in horror was The Free Speech Union, the "non-partisan, mass-membership organisation" which you can join from as little as £24.95.

Citing Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson's previous final warning in The Times to universities on the subject - the organisation headed by headed by former Non-Executive Member of the Board for the Office of Students, Toby Young - criticised Oxford University for not following their own policies.

"What's the point of putting these policies in place if universities aren't going to observe them?" they questioned?

"This is the second major 'no-platforming' incident at Oxford in five days" one of several tweets on the matter continued, referencing a decision earlier in the week to cancel Oxford University Professor, Selina Todd's speaking engagement at the Oxford International Women's Festival.

"If student activists are allowed to no-platform speakers who's views they disagree with at Oxford, that will send a terrible message to the rest of the university sector."

So far, so fair one might think.

Free speech should be free speech after all.

But is everything as it seems in this particular instance?

Oxford University Student, Felicity Graham (left) and former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd
Oxford University Student, Felicity Graham (left) and former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd 

Confusion on who or what caused the cancellation

It's only when you start delving into the conflicting statements from the parties involved that you start to wonder what an earth is going on here.

Quoted in The Mail's article on the cancellation, the then President of the UNWomen UK Oxford Society, Felicity Graham said;

"I was adamant we weren't going to cancel because I think she was a great feminist to be platforming and because she had worked on UN campaigns, it seemed right."

Yet, despite that determination to press ahead, in her next breath the Classics student who visited Number 10 Downing Street in July 2016, was quick in othering a fellow society as she looked to apportion blame for the cancellation.

"It was the Oxford African and Caribbean Society - who hold a lot of power - who really applied the pressure and forced us to cancel."

The Oxford ACS would later release a statement via social media refuting this allegation.

"The ACS would like to clarify its involvement or lack thereof in the cancellation of UNWomen's event involving Amber Rudd.

"On Monday the ACS was approached by Ms Graham, the UNWomen Oxford President, and was accused of boycotting the event.

"...although we share the disappointment expressed by some of our members, we did not in any way intend to boycott the event since we, as a cultural society, ultimately have no right to demand the event not to go ahead."

This stance was backed up by what remained of the organising committee, as they released a statement alongside a name change to the United Women Oxford Student Society, after the UNWomen UK withdrew permission for the group to use their name due to the ensuing controversy.

"We would like to emphasise that this event was not cancelled due to pressure from the Oxford African and Caribbean Society, but because a majority of the society's committee felt it could not stand by the invitation and remarks of our, now former, President."

Further discussing the decision to cancel the speaking engagement, the statement reads;

"We acknowledge that Amber Rudd has access to many other platforms to express her opinions and we believed that our space was not the right place to do so.

"We acknowledge that is was disrespectful to Amber Rudd to cancel the event so soon before it was due to start, however, under the circumstances we felt this was the best course of action in ensuring we put the welfare of our BAME students first."

Yet rather than protect the welfare of Oxford's BAME students this last minute decision, alongside Graham's ill-judged remarks, has done more to throw that cross section of the University's population under the bus than protect them.

For whatever your stance on whether Amber Rudd should have been invited to speak, the universal truth is that reneging on that original decision so late in the day was never going to do anyone at the university any favours.

A convenient cancellation?

Now this is the part where things get all a bit conspiracy theory.

And I should state, I'm not normally one who wishes to entertain this kind of thinking.

But bare with me here, because if you believe, like I do, that this last minute decision - from what is supposed to be some of the brightest and best young minds in the country - appears so unfathomable, it's only natural to question the decision more.

And one of the natural questions that would occur given the comments above is; who would stand to benefit from this very decision?

If, at this point, you're continuing on the same train of thought as me then you're probably reached the same station; could it be the very people who making the most noise about protecting their side of political free speech?

It is worth reiterating at this stage, this theory still remains very conspiracy theory-esk, and that there is nothing I have found to prove that there has been any deliberate attempt by anyone to deceive and mislead the public.

However, why should that stop us from voicing our thoughts and honestly held opinions - after all, this is what Toby Young wants!

Plus there is enough circumstance about circumstances to give cause to further question the balance of evidence that has been presented thus far.

This is because, for one, we have a University with close links to the Conservative party - a significant number of Boris Johnson's cabinet went to Oxford, including Johnson himself - inviting a former Conservative MP for a speaking engagement, only to then turn her away at the last moment.

Given the criticism the very same university received earlier in the week regarding Selina Todd's de-platforming, for the faculty to allow the same thing to occur again in such a short space of time seems more than bizarre.

To quote French philosopher George Canguilhem, "to err is human, to persist in error is diabolical."

Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson

But to add further interest to intrigue, this secondary event follows what could be considered acts of foreshadowing around the debate on free speech, including an intervention from the current Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, on the matter of universities de-platforming speakers.

Writing in The Times [paywall] in early February, Williamson expressed, "Academic freedom and free speech on university campuses are rightly matters of high public interest.

"Universities have a central role in society - not just as educators of our young people but as generators of new ideas and challengers of conventional wisdom."

The editorial continued,

"Despite the "snowflake" stereotype, recent polling by the Policy Exchange think thank shows a large number of students want an environment in which they're free to hear a diversity of views. Yet one only needs to look at the worsening situation on US campuses to see the importance of taking action.

Williamson went on to claim that previously issued guidance aimed at protecting free speech at university had "yet to put a stop to concerns" going on to quote the parties recent manifesto commitment to "strengthen academic freedom and free speech" and promising that "if universities don't take action, the government will."

Could it be that what occurred here is an all to convenient cancellation?

"Clearly the Oxford Brat's are not suitable for higher education"

If those initial thoughts have you suddenly distrusting the narrative being pushed by our right wing dominated press, the fact that this story has dropped at the perfect time for it to be debated across the weekend papers, shifting focus away from other prominent headlines, is only going to draw you further into conspiracy thinking.

With the government going through a somewhat sticky wicket in the press of late; be it news of disgruntled flood victims, high profile resignations or the bullying allegations continuing to dog Home Secretary, Priti Patel - not to mention the ongoing Coronavirus crisis - it's fair to say the party have been on the defensive a lot of late.

But here, finally is a ball prompt for playing forward to, squarely in the Conservative Party's sweet spot of attacking the left and the 'woke culture' that many of its supporters deride. And it's certainly one that the party and its supporters have missed, resoundingly hitting that cherry for six.

This included the new Deputy Editor for Conservative Home, Charlotte Gill penning "Free speech is in crisis, just ask Rudd" in which she states;

"The whole debacle serves as an enormous wake-up call about how extreme the free speech crisis has become at universities - and indeed, the west. So much so that former Home Secretary is now treated as if she were Abu Hamza or Tommy Robinson.

"The Left has historically called the free speech crisis concocted; they seem to think Tories are making it up, so that we can be offensive as possible. Every Guardian piece on the issue suggests we want regulations to disappear so that we can normalise hate speech.

"This is a smear, obviously. The reality is that censorship has been used to shut down the most inoffensive of comments and ideas. Moderate voices are increasingly being removed from discussions at the whim of left-wing ideologues."

"Line" comes the call from amidst the Conservative Home readers dobbing their left-bashing bingo card.
Gill then goes on to conclude that the problem lies with students themselves;

"Herein lies the problem; non-violent protest is the main way in which students get their way. They cancel speakers, or ignore them, or create petitions, and the rest. Students technically haven't broken any rules with these methods, so they're very difficult to deal with.

"It seems to me that the change will come from more serious reforms to universities. For one, we need to vet students better - to work out who will truly appreciate the experience. Clearly the Oxford brats are not suitable for higher education."

The freedom to challenge

Gill refrains from elaborating who she is specifically referring to as "brats" within her piece.

But one particular Oxford University Student that might feel that veiled accusation is directed at them is Nadia Awad, who set out her reasons in the university's online publication Cherwell for being strongly opposed to Rudd speaking at the event.

"Amber Rudd's time as a Conservative MP was characterised by her consistently deleterious actions towards vulnerable communities, chief amongst which was her role in the Windrush scandal.

"Rudd's handling of the crisis could, at best, be described as grossly inept, at worst, malicious and bigoted."

Going on to discuss the UNWomen Oxford Student Society's initial rejection of her concerns because they were "not platforming her for her political views" Awad highlights how "the society's privilege in being able to pick and chose which aspects of her career to discuss and praise" is a problematic aspect for her.

"This ability to cherry-pick her impacts is not afforded to the marginalised communities who bore the brunt of the policies they choose to overlook.

"Black students shouldn't pay £5 to attend and perform the emotional and intellectual labour of debating someone who allowed for the deportation of members of our own communities, especially when the first half of the event will be applauding her policies."

Oxford University
Oxford University

And in reflecting on Awad's article - which truly deserve your full attention - it's clear it contains aspects that we should all reflect on when we consider our positions on this matter.

That is because the gift of freedom of speech is not a one way street.

If we are to continue to progress as a society, the freedom to challenge views is as important as being able to freely impart them.

And in my mind, that is what this particular speaking engagement lacked.

It lacked the recognition that in her previous role of Home Secretary, Rudd oversaw and was chiefly responsible for decisions and actions that unfairly and adversely affected countless numbers of people just trying to live their lives like you and I.

It lacked the acknowledgement that there were a significant number of fellow students that still felt hurt and aggrieved by those actions and objected to Rudd being able to present her record in public office within a vacuum.

Indeed, the platform being presented lacked a rigours structure to allow freedom of challenge alongside freedom of speech.

And this leads to what I see as the most concerning aspect from a significant portion of those speaking out against so called 'cancel culture' in support of free speech.

For whilst I would agree the need to hear from voices that we disagree with is important for personal and societal growth, the underlying message from those speaking out on this topic with vested interests and the power to influence policy is all to chillingly obvious.

You must listen to our view, but don't dare question us.

Here at The Southernist, we are lovers of free speech and therefore eager to hear your views on this matter, so why not leave us your comments below? 


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