In the accusatory minds of the new PC Left, a lifetime spent fighting for LGBT and racial equality counts for nothing if one also supports the free speech rights of those who disagree.
Ask anyone to write down their top twenty racists in Britain, and very few people would put Peter Tatchell anywhere on their list. After all, the man’s life has been dedicated to overcoming prejudice and fighting for racial, sexual and LGBT equality.
While others now wear their progressivism as a virtue-signalling badge of honour, something to be ostentatiously flaunted on social media, Tatchell has put his body in harm’s way to protest what he sees as real injustices taking place against persecuted minorities. And whether you agree with Tatchell on every single one of his causes or not, one can certainly admire the way that he has lived his public life by the credo “actions and words”.
Unless, that is, you happen to be a member of the activist student PC Left, part of that spoiled and coddled generation of today’s young people whose freedoms were won by the likes of Tatchell, and whose own meagre campaigns perch precariously on the far greater and more noble endeavours of those who came before them. They have now turned on Tatchell, accusing him – hilariously – of being both racist and “transphobic” in a blatant and supremely ungrateful move to destroy his reputation and credibility.
Tatchell himself responds in the Telegraph:
Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities. In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their latest victim.
This is not quite the Star Chamber, but it is the same intolerant mentality. Student leader Fran Cowling has denounced me as racist and transphobic, even though I’ve supported every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign during my 49 years of human rights work.
Fran is the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Officer of the National Union of Students (NUS). She refused to speak at an LGBT event at Canterbury Christ Church University tonight unless I was dropped from the line-up. This is a variation of the NUS “no-platform” policy; instead of blocking me from speaking, Fran is refusing to share a platform with me.
While the Guardian explains the context:
In the emails, sent to the organisers of a talk at Canterbury Christ Church University on Monday on the topic of “re-radicalising queers”, Cowling refuses an invitation to speak unless Tatchell, who has also been invited, does not attend. In the emails she cites Tatchell’s signing of an open letter in the Observer last year in support of free speech and against the growing trend of universities to “no-platform” people, such as Germaine Greer, for holding views with which they disagree.
Cowling claims the letter supports the incitement of violence against transgender people. She also made an allegation against him of racism or of using racist language. Tatchell told the Observer that the incident was yet another example of “a witch-hunting, accusatory atmosphere” symptomatic of a decline in “open debate on some university campuses”.
Because campaigning is no longer about securing freedoms and liberties for marginalised people. It is about not just holding the “correct” opinion on any given issue, but crucially also being seen to hold the correct opinion, and orchestrating various situations whereby one’s own bien pensant opinions can be shown off to greatest effect.
It is about making oneself look good by jumping on the slightest deviation from prevailing PC orthodoxy by someone else – often a friend and erstwhile ally – and seeking to destroy them with it, hysterically declaring it to be evidence of moral turpitude, even when the target is someone as respected in the field as Peter Tatchell.
Some on the PC Left, recognising that this particular smear by the NUS may stretch credibility too far, are trying to spin Tatchell’s naturally outraged reaction as yet more evidence of racism. In an eye-rollingly titled piece called “Problematic Proximities, Or why Critiques of Gay Imperialism Matter”, Sara Ahmed tries to argue:
I do want to question here how Mr Tatchell is responding to the critique.
[..] Critiques of racism are reduced and misheard as personal attacks, which is what blocks a hearing of the critique. In the end, the situation becomes re-coded as a question of individual reputation and good will: we lose the chance to attend to the politics of the original critique.
We need to reflect on what we are talking about when we are talking about racism. Racism in speech does not simply depend on the explicit articulation of ideas of racial superiority but often works given that such associations do not need to be made explicit. So for example politicians might use a qualifier ‘this is not a war against Islam’ and then use repeatedly terms like ‘Islamic terrorists’ which work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words: the repetition of that proximity makes the association ‘essential’.
[..] It is my view that Mr Tatchell’s writings on Islam and multiculturalism repeat and reproduce many ‘problematic proximities’ between Islam and violence, and thus participate in the culture of Islamaphobia.
Ahmed is trying to advance a semi-cogent (though still wrong) argument here. She is effectively saying “Wait a minute! We may have called Peter Tatchell a racist, but it wasn’t a personal attack. Heavens, no. It was simply pointing out that some of the things that he says are problematic for us because we believe they help to reinforce negative stereotypes about religious minorities”.
This would at least have the makings of a cogent argument – that we all have good and bad within us, that we all have our own prejudices which we should seek to recognise and overcome, and that any of us might say something which might be construed as “racist”, but with no malice whatsoever.
But if this is what the NUS and Fran Cowling actually believe, why refuse to take the stage with Tatchell? If indeed their intention was not to launch a “personal attack”, why on earth refuse to admit all the good which Peter Tatchell has done for their causes, and why refuse to share a stage with him now?
The answer, of course, is that this was fully meant to be a personal attack. Vicious personal attacks conducted through social media and the press are the chief modus operandi for today’s youthful practitioners of Identity Politics, and if their self-advancement involves a.few instances of friendly fire – even the destruction of someone like Peter Tatchell – so be it.
Some people tell me that I am being too hard on the students involved; that they are well-intentioned young people simply trying to navigate difficult issues as best they can. Well I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. Obviously we are only talking about a minority of students here – the ones drawn to take an active role in student governance, social affairs and campus life. But these students are behaving in an utterly reprehensible way, completely without justification and to be opposed by lovers of liberty at all costs.
This is an attempted power grab, plain and simple. Just like it was at Mizzou, and Yale, and Oxford, and countless more universities every year. This is an attempted coup by an utterly coddled and spoiled generation of students who know almost nothing of hardship, deprivation or prejudice compared to their predecessors even just a few decades ago.
These tinpot student dictators arrive on campus at the age of eighteen to find most of the really hard battles already won for them – ironically, by genuinely brave radicals like Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell. But these students must find some outlet for their youthful “idealism”, and so they latch on to the growing Politics of Identity, assimilating its intricacies and genuinely persuading themselves of its core message – that what matters is not the content of one’s character, but rather one’s arbitrary lived experience as a member of a defined and segregated subgroup.
And so rather than simply accepting that they have it rather good, even compared to their parents and grandparents, these student snowflakes go on the march. They find ever-smaller slights or “microaggressions” and protest them ever-more loudly and hysterically in an attempt to assert power over university administrations – many of which meekly submit without so much as putting up a fight.
Throw in the fact that their social hierarchy is based on a purist adherence to the Politics of Identity – with members gaining social currency for flaunting their own tolerant nature or identifying and persecuting anyone whose behaviour happens to violate one of the many invisible lines restricting our speech and behaviour – and you have a potent and deadly combination.
Viewed in this context, it is obvious that NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling is attempting to gain a vast amount of social currency and standing from her peers by trying to take down Peter Tatchell, an A-lister in activist circles. By refusing to share a stage with him, Cowling is effectively declaring to the world that she is morally superior to Tatchell, he having failed the latest racism and transphobia tests. Thus, she can bank all of Tatchell’s personal accomplishments for herself, add the fact that unlike him she is not a “transphobe”, and Win the Game.
And that’s the rotten core of today’s student identity politics movement. A constant, bitchy, backbiting game of snakes and ladders, with one insufferable petty tyrant rising to the top of the Moral Virtue Pyramid only to be brought down by their jealous rivals, either for no reason at all, or for having unknowingly violated one of the many red lines that they themselves helped to draw across our political discourse.
I can’t say any better than Brendan O’Neill on this occasion, so I will give him the last word:
This Veruca Salt-style revolt against late 20th-century liberators, this sullen, thankless turn by radical young women, gay people and black people against those who devoted their lives to fighting for women, gay people and black people, reveals how poisonous the politics of identity has become.
Where late 20th-century warriors for civil rights basically argued for the right of people to be free and equal regardless of their gender, sexuality or race — that is, they wanted identity demoted — today’s identitarians prefer to obsess over people’s natural characteristics and sexual habits. They instinctively loathe King’s claim that character is more important than colour. They hate Greer’s insistence that women are as capable as men (and that a man can’t become a woman at the click of his fingers). They have disappeared so far up the fundament of identity politics that they bristle at any argument that smacks of universalism, which emphasises the sameness and the shared capacity for autonomy of all human beings.
They seem hellbent on reversing the social gains of the late 20th century, preferring to shove people back into the biological, racial boxes from which mankind spent so long trying to escape. It is they, not Tatchell, who are racialist (if not racist), and a threat to what most of us consider to be the decent civilisational value of treating people as people rather than as colours or genders.
Amen to that. And shame – yet more ignominious shame – on the NUS.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty