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  • Writer's pictureOpine

Colonialism, cancel culture, and the Conservative claptrap

The UK Government would rather wage war against wokeness than help struggling students and staff

By Olivia Mackenzie Smith

Image courtesy of Newtown Grafitti via Flickr

After a great deal of confusion and anxiety among staff and students at UK universities as of late, the government has finally stepped in and offered advice. Advice not on coronavirus precautions, however. Advice on how to maintain free speech. Yes, despite calls for specific guidance attuned to campus environments concerning Covid-19, despite the issue of implementing no-detriment policies, and despite the existence of a global pandemic, Boris Johnson’s government believes that what universities require is a “free speech champion”.

Since education is a devolved matter in Scotland, there’s every chance that Nicola Sturgeon might give this the swerve; but I believe it’s still worth addressing. This bizarre notion is part of a debate that goes beyond the realm of academics.

In case you’ve missed it, the UK government’s idea is to create a post within the Office for Students that will have the responsibility of analysing what universities say, do, and teach, as well as disciplining those it deems to be acting wrongly… (you know, for freedom’s sake). Although this notion goes against the government’s usual policy regarding universities, to leave them to their own devices, it’s not entirely surprising considering the current social climate surrounding how we debate. Summed up by the words that have been on the fingertips of all Twitter users: cancel culture.

Terms such as “cancel culture”, “wokeness”, and “political correctness gone mad” stem from the belief that people (mainly the radical left) have zero tolerance for any viewpoints other than their own. They’re ready and waiting to ostracise and publicly shame, or “cancel”, any person for saying or doing something politically incorrect. Recent examples include Gina Carano, who was dropped from the Mandalorian after antisemitic and transphobic Twitter activity, or in the world of education, Richard Dawkins, whose invitation to speak at Trinity College Dublin was rescinded due to comments about Islam.

While toxicity and anger surrounding social media debates is nothing new, I must concede that we have seen more marked attempts by the public, businesses and now educational institutions alike to respond to discrimination and prejudice. I believe that years of fighting by so-called lefty snowflakes has meant the idea of tolerating intolerance has gradually lost support, particularly following the 2020 BLM protests. I am not so naïve to think that people have suddenly woke up woke. To use the Carano incident as an example, companies like Disney will always protect their own interests, but the fact that Disney saw keeping an actor who has displayed bigoted behaviour as damaging to their brand shows a shift in how mainstream media views political and social issues.

It is a change that goes beyond responding to individuals. Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others at the hands of police, there has been an increased discussion in and outside of the UK about how oppression has been institutionalised – how it’s been ingrained into our law enforcement, government, and even education. Subsequently, many schools and universities, including our own, are beginning efforts to “decolonise” their curriculums, such as by examining history not just from a Western perspective, and acknowledging the transgressions of the figures we study. Much to the chagrin of many politicians.

Unfortunately, chances of this change expanding are being blocked by Gavin Williamson and those alike who ask the question “how much change is too much change?”. Any change at all, apparently. The Department for Education fears that “unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses is having a chilling effect”, all while ignoring evidence saying that this so-called censoring is not a widespread problem.

There appears to be a misconception among those who, like our Education Secretary, fear the annihilation of freedom of speech, in that this right means you get to say whatever you like with no consequences. While you are (legally) allowed to say what you want, if it is harmful, offensive, or simply untrue, consequences are unavoidable. This leads me on to another hard truth that some struggle to swallow: just because you’re allowed to say what you want, doesn’t mean others have to listen. Or if they do listen and take offence, they also have a right to object and even to disassociate themselves from you. It is a right that university departments and societies have too, and as such, they should be able to decide who they work with and who speaks for them in accordance with the values they wish to uphold.

So, this is my advice to the government: stop exaggerating the threat of this issue, trust students, and let teachers decide how best they can teach without entertaining idiotic or abhorrent beliefs. Since you’ve left us to battle an international pandemic on our own, it shouldn’t be hard for you to let us handle this issue in a manner we see fit.


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