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Tom Slater

Nadhim Zahawi and the sad state of student radicals

When did university radicals become such a sorry sight?

Nadhim Zahawi and the sad state of student radicals
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When did student radicals become so pathetic? There’s a lot of talk – often rightly so – of how sinister woke student activism can be today. Think balaclava-clad blokes protesting against Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex over her alleged ‘transphobia’ – that is, her heretical belief in biological sex. Or students at Essex University condemning gender-critical academic Jo Phoenix and proclaiming in a flyer ‘SHUT THE F**K UP TERF’ next to an image of a gun. But much of the censorious agitation that goes on on campuses today is often just embarrassing – the wail of entitled, overgrown infants afraid of hurty words.

Events at the University of Warwick on Friday are a case in point. As the Daily Telegraph reports, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, appearing at a Conservative student event, was met with protests. A few dozen activists showed up chanting ‘Zahawi is a transphobe’ and brandishing trans flags and placards. Reportedly, they banged on the doors of the lecture hall, chanted and blasted music in an attempt to disrupt Zahawi’s speech. He was then escorted off campus by security, while the protesters chanted ‘Tory scum’ in plummy tones that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Tory association dinner.

Ahead of the event, the Warwick Pride student society published an open letter, accusing Zahawi of ‘inciting hatred’ and saying he ‘plays a significant role in institutionalised transphobia’. The evidence for this was that he has used ‘the common transphobic dog whistle 'adult human female'’, which he offered as his definition of ‘woman’ last month. Yes, you read that right: referring to women as adult human females is now considered a bigoted, transphobic slur. Given this is also the dictionary definition of ‘woman’, perhaps the offices of the OED will be the next target of these privileged little irks’ ire.

Protest is part and parcel of university life. Indeed, it’s a key part of free speech. There is sometimes a tendency in the wake of these little campus skirmishes to overegg the pudding, treating any aggro outside an event as a ‘what have we become!?’ moment that demands action. Students protesting against Tory ministers is hardly anything new. What is new – or newer at least – is how shrill, babyish and (again) pathetic such protests are. Student activists only took matters into their own hands after the campus authorities refused to ban him. Warwick Pride had claimed that Zahawi’s mere presence ‘violates (students’ union) bylaws on equality and diversity’.

These students aren’t engaging in free speech, they’re trying to shut down free speech – and they’re doing so for the most embarrassing of reasons. Student radicals used to think they could change the world, now they complain to their students’ union about speakers who upset them. They used to be out-there and daring, now they bristle at words in the dictionary. The absurd scenes at Warwick remind us that a culture of censorship isn’t just bad for those who are censored – it also infantilises those demanding the censorship. If you refuse to engage with ideas that offend you, you become brittle, fearful, childish – as those screeching protesters at Warwick make painfully clear.