No Education Please, They're Racist
No Education Please, They're Racist
By Rachel Goldsmith
Usually, debates about free speech discuss the margins of legality. Burning crosses on the lawn. Publications which derogate an ethnic group. T-shirts with symbols that might incite violence.
And when discussing those cases, people often draw a distinction between 'hate speech' calculated to intimidate or incite, and mere offensive opinions. And they usually try to characterise whatever it is they're arguing against as the former.
The debate in the UK today is not at these margins, but far inside them. The Lecturers' Union, Natfhe, has just voted unanimously at its annual conference to "give full support" to lecturers who refuse to teach members of the British National Party.
Not because they are inciting other students, or teachers. Not because they are publishing hate speech, or hassling minorities. No, it's because they have racist opinions. Because they joined a party on that basis. One of them, in fact, is an elected councillor for the BNP.
Paul Mackney, Natfhe's general secretary, said that the reason for the ban was that students might be afraid to speak out in a seminar if they knew that later on, one of the other students 'may prefer to settle the issue through violence'.
They clearly mean well, but the ban is an ill-conceived and dangerous 'pre-emptive strike'.
As always with free speech questions, the strongest argument is one of precedent. Natfhe is empowering its members to identify students who 'might' want to settle issues through violence, and then to pre-emptively remove them from the classroom. But there are lots of groups of people which profiles of different sorts 'might' suggest are prone to settling issues violently. The BNP itself could probably suggest a profiling method, although Natfhe wouldn't like it. It's dangerous to let individual university lecturers (or high school teachers) pick and choose who they teach these bases -- as Liberty, a human rights group, said, it's not so long since trade unionists themselves were the blacklisted ones.
And it's particularly misguided because it's so counter-productive. If there's any hope at all to eradicate racists within a liberal democratic society, it's to educate racists out of their racism. What exactly does it achieve to refuse to teach a BNP member? They already know most people disagree with them. They already know most people find them and their views repulsive. This is not going to come as news to them. It might make an individual staff member feel virtuous for having 'taken a stand', but that stand just further alienates the racist from normal society. Hardly a constructive solution. Moreover, the BNP has said that the first thing it will do is mount a legal challenge on the grounds of human rights and, according to the Times, it is likely to win.
What surprises me most about this is that it was unanimous. I find it hard to believe there was no-one at the conference who didn't feel prickles. Not even an abstention? Not even one? Lecturers are generally a fractious lot, and tend to defend free speech because of its importance for academic freedom. In fact, the rival union to the Natfhe, the Association of University Teachers, is avoiding the issue on those very grounds. If the union delegates really were unanimous in their hearts, I suspect they are not terribly representative of the lecturing population of Britain. But I'm quite prepared to believe some of them suppressed their prickles. It's easy to imagine this motion becoming politically difficult to oppose in the characteristically intolerant environment of a union conference (speaking as one who has attended quite a number of union conferences). Ironically, though, that doesn't say a lot for free speech within Natfhe.