Isabel Hardman

Who defines what is so traumatic that someone shouldn’t speak to students?

Who defines what is so traumatic that someone shouldn't speak to students?
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That students are becoming rather hardline about speakers they disagree with visiting their campuses is now well described. Brendan O'Neill first explained the 'Stepford Student' phenomenon in the Spectator, and in today's Times David Aaronovitch described his own encounter with a student leader who believes speakers who may upset students should be banned from campuses.

What was particularly interesting about Aaronovitch's Newsnight discussion last week was that Toke Dahler, his opponent, seemed quite concerned that students shouldn't suffer 'trauma' as a result of a speaker being on their premises.

Aside from all the arguments about the importance of a clash of ideas, especially when some of those ideas are foolish and not persuasive, the concept of 'trauma' is interesting. It is an unfair caricature to suggest that all these students who want to stop certain speakers coming to their campuses are censorious twits who are upset just by the possibility that someone might disagree with them (though the way some people conduct themselves on Twitter shows us that this arrogance about our own ideas does indeed exist). Many of them, Dahler included, seem sincere and well meaning and just worried that people whose ideas are controversial may upset students on their campus. It's not difficult to understand why a transgender student might feel upset by Germaine Greer's assertion that transgender women are not really women. But the question is whether that trauma means those ideas shouldn't be broadcast at all, or indeed that the speaker shouldn’t visit the campus.

Here's another example of trauma. A friend of mine witnessed another friend suffer a series of heart attacks when she was younger. It was an extremely traumatic experience for her, and for years meant that any discussion or depiction of cardiac arrests left her in serious distress. It meant she couldn't carry on watching the episode of Desperate Housewives where one of the characters has a heart attack because it reminded her of the terrible event. Her whole experience might, had it involved another sort of trauma, been protected today in some universities by a 'trigger warning', so that she could avoid being distressed altogether. Would Dahler think it best to help my friend out by either introducing ’trigger warnings’ or banning a play, for instance, that involves a lead character having a heart attack on stage? I suspect not, but the reason for posing this example is merely to ask what trauma really is.

Now, those who didn’t want Germaine Greer on their campus (even though she wasn’t there to talk about her thoughts on transgender women, but we’ve been over this enough times) would argue that the difference between the trauma that she causes and the trauma that my friend experienced is that Greer was saying that transgender women aren’t women and that a truly comparative experience for my friend would be one where she attended a talk given by a speaker who thinks that heart attacks are fun figments of our imagination. But then again, those who shut down a debate between two men about ‘abortion culture’ at Oxford University argued that they wanted to avoid ‘unnecessary distress, particularly for any residents who may have had an abortion’. So it’s not just that questioning someone’s identity causes 'trauma' to the extent that an event shouldn't go ahead, but also talking about something that may have happened to students.

Dahler and his like-minded students also extend the harm principle far beyond the usual reason for banning a speaker, which is that they have been calling for violence against a group. Instead, they argue that the mere presence of a speaker, even if they aren’t speaking about the particularly controversial view that they hold, could make others feel ‘unsafe’. Student groups now worry that someone’s totally non-violent views could encourage others to discriminate against minority or disadvantaged groups in some way. So Greer saying she believes transgender women are not women could contribute to an environment where transgender people struggle to gain acceptance in society.

But what about other minority groups? What if a student society invited Richard Dawkins to speak on their campus? He believes - and argues with persuasive elegance - that God does not exist and that belief in a god is a delusion. We might discount anyone who claims that such an argument ‘traumatises’ them because they do believe in a god, but is it as easy to discount the argument that Dawkins encourages people to discriminate against religious people? Some might argue that they deserve to be discriminated against because they are idiots for believing such foolish things. Dawkins himself complained a few years ago that it was odd that the New Statesman employed Mehdi Hasan because he is a Muslim who believes certain supernatural events happened.

Those who then argue that there's no problem with Dawkins saying such a thing and speaking in these 'safe spaces' that students want to set up on campuses will always say 'I think it's fine for Dawkins to say that because...' The 'because' is either followed with something along the lines of 'he's right' or 'it's perfectly possible to make a persuasive counter argument'. The first ‘because’ sees someone setting themselves up as judge of what is right and acceptable simply on the basis of what they agree with (this is why, despite polling evidence to the contrary, student groups argue that there is a ‘consensus’ on abortion and that therefore it doesn’t need a debate). The second 'because' shows the power of debate. Like the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl, even views we strongly dislike can produce better arguments against them. Greer has encouraged many supporters of trans people to write eloquently about why she is wrong, thus furthering the cause of trans rights.

What is said of Dawkins can be said of Germaine Greer. Both say things that could be repeated by those who (often already) dislike transgender people or Muslims. But both are only presenting arguments that can be picked apart, not a weapon that students cannot put up any defence against.

So is the trauma that Dahler fears really that these speakers will not necessarily affirm all students on campus? And if you think Germaine Greer is foolishly wrong, why should you want her good opinion? Does the importance of affirmation extend to those religious groups who meet on campus who hold conservative views? Or will they also be asked to vacate the safe space because of the views that some of their members and speakers hold on abortion, for instance? What if those religious groups who hold conservative views are themselves victims of discrimination? Who decides? Who defines the trauma?

The logical mess that we end up in when we try to define trauma and whose views are capable of causing it leads us to two conclusions. Either students shouldn’t have any groups or speakers that have views on anything in their spaces. If they regard the lecture theatres in their colleges as being as intimate as their homes into which they don’t want to invite ‘threatening’ speakers (and they must be very conscientious students indeed to believe a lecture theatre resembles home), then they would logically end up just hosting ecumenical events where people light candles and recite platitudes about affirming their joint humanity along with friendly recycling drives. Or else those student groups must accept that a worse trauma than someone who has unpleasant thoughts is the trauma wrought by people forgetting how to argue with one another.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.

Topics in this articleSocietyculturefreedom of speech