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25 May 2016

Hiding from History and Burning Books


The metal markets are stuck in a bit of a rut at the moment, marking time. Generally, the supply side is pretty easy, with high levels of stocks on the whole keeping it that way. There is the odd wrinkle - tightness in certain grades of nickel, for example, even though the overall unit availability is not constrained - and demand stubbornly refuses to be anything other than unexceptional. There is something of a feeling of marking time, whether it be caused by the UK’s upcoming referendum, the US’s focus on its November Presidential election or just a general unwillingness to commit to too much new activity in a very uncertain global economy. So on this site, we have been looking a little wider than our normal diet of metals and LME-related stories. Last week, it was the lamentable level of the campaigns in the UK referendum, and today I thought I would point readers to a disturbing report which has just been issued by the Higher Education Policy Institute. It’s called "Keeping Schtum? What Students Think of Free Speech" and it takes a look at the attitudes of the student population of the UK to the concept of free speech.

Some of the findings make curious reading (bear in mind, to be scrupulously fair, that these points are extracted from a longer report). For example, 51% of respondents think universities should sometimes or always get rid of memorials to controversial historical figures; 76% support the National Union of Students’ ‘no platform’ approach to certain speakers; 38% agree that student unions should ban the sale of certain newspapers; 27% think UKIP should be banned from speaking at universities. These ideas all seem to have one theme in common; take something out of sight or out of earshot and you can pretend to yourself it doesn’t exist, so you don’t have to worry about it. So moving statues or memorials to historical figures whose views you don’t share is, effectively, a way of modifying history so that the nasty bits - or the bits you don’t like - disappear and you don’t have to confront ideas or issues that differ from your personal view of how you would like the world to be. (Incidentally, I see from newspaper reports that the instigator of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Oxford - which is where this idea first hit in the UK - was spotted chuckling with a friend at a South African restaurant over reducing a waitress to tears about their boorish behaviour in not tipping her.  She - a working-class waitress - apparently ‘privileged’; he - an undergraduate at one of the world’s greatest universities, with a Rhodes Scholarship, ironically - seemingly ‘not privileged’. Mmm; can you work that one out?)

Banning the sale of certain newspapers? Well, we all have one or two that we prefer to the others, and those probably are the ones which most closely reflect our own views. That’s pretty unexceptional. But to make the step from there to a desire to ban one or more of the others seems again to be simply trying to cut yourself off from different opinions or views. Surely the option of just not reading would do? Or is there here also an element of not wanting other people to be able to read views which differ from your own? That’s quite disturbing; in 1930s Germany, the student bodies were complicit in burning books of which they - and by extension, the Party - did not approve. The step between those two things - banning newspapers and burning books - is actually not that long. 

And how about ‘no platforming’? What’s the point? Surely if there is a speaker with whom you disagree, you have the opportunity to heckle them, to question them, to debate with them? Is it really a better approach to refuse to allow them to speak in case what they say may frighten or disturb you? So we come to poor old UKIP. Now, I don’t usually mention my own political views, but I will here go so far as to say that I am certainly not a supporter of that party (pace Nigel Farage, lovely bloke though he is); but just banning them from speaking in your university? What about the Trots, the Maoists, the Leninists, the Marxists - they are the ones who killed upwards of fifty million of their own people in the twentieth century. UKIP march around in red trousers, harrumphing. Not really comparable.

There are two serious points I want to make here. First, the idea that students and/or their universities should be contemplating banning things because they don’t like opposing views is frightening; it would result in a stultification of intellectual development which would harm us all, in the long term. And then, on a more local level, we all employ graduates; would you rather someone who puts their fingers in their ears and refuses to hear what they don’t like, or someone who is prepared to confront different views and opinions and interact rationally with them? I know where my money goes… 

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