Stop mourning the supposed loss of free speech

Students in Trinity are fragile when their sense of self-righteousness is challenged

Last week the Phil cancelled their debate “This House Believes Middle Eastern Women Need Western Feminism”, largely due to backlash resulting from a piece in Trinity News. TCDSU Ethnic Minorities Officer Navika Mehta expressed the hurt and anger students had felt in seeing a debate title such as this. Students in the comments expressed their distaste for the motion and their personal experiences navigating the (largely white) world of debating in Trinity.

The Phil were right to cancel the debate and appear to have taken on board criticism from students. What is depressing is the sentiment which appears to be held by many in the student body that free speech is under some ongoing, vicious attack by those intent on its eradication. The sentiment that if only we could all have debates on such issues, we would all emerge enlightened after a hearty filling of discourse.

As Comment Editor of this newspaper, multiple people and counting have chosen to submit articles – I did not request any – in which they argue the Phil are weak for cancelling the debate, that censorship has won out once again on Irish campuses, and that we need to hear both sides. Few other issues has garner this much voluntary submission, which worries me. My sense is that in order to make such an argument, you must in some way believe that Middle Eastern women do need Western feminism, which is in fact the argument one piece submitted explicitly makes.

It is not free speech that is under threat, it is the fragile souls of the student body. What is apparent is a deep issue students on this campus have with any challenge to their own sense of righteousness. It is, at best, truly naive to believe that if we had a debate in the GMB, a space traditionally white and male dominated, that such a debate would be fruitful. It is, at worst, frankly quite harmful and borderline racist to continue to believe that we need to have such debates so that both sides may learn from one another. It is not fun, as the Ethnic Minorities Officer and other students have outlined, to have your own experiences of your identity talked about in an abstract way by young undergraduates at what is a social event followed by Tesco wine.

The real snowflakes are the many people on campus who can’t handle the idea that there are entirely different worldviews to their own that do not hold middle-class white people at the centre. If it makes you uncomfortable that we are not having a debate that you probably wouldn’t have gone to anyway because it was about feminism, then please take some time for reflection.

Before you critique Trinity News for not publishing articles that argue for the need for free speech, and therefore shutting down free speech, be reminded of the fact that the newspaper is not a neutral platform, though many diverse opinions exist within it, nor does it pretend to be. Neither are universities or debate chambers, though they may pretend to be. A decision to publish an article, invite a speaker, or have a debate are made by people of privilege within those institutions. Their settings are not neutral, magical places where discourse springs back and forth until a higher plane of understanding is reached.

Ask yourself what threatens you so much about not having a debate which students of that background have said is unrepresentative of them and makes them feel further isolated from College life.

Different individuals have different powers and privileges to make calls on who we hear, and what and when we hear things. That’s not a new idea. It’s not always going to be people like you making those decisions. If that scares you then perhaps you are not such a champion of free speech after all.

People are not fragile for being “offended” by such a debate. It’s not so much fragility as rage. It’s not appropriate for a debating society to frame how we are talking about race on campus in such condescending terms, and people are entitled to criticise the debating society for doing so.

Most people are, by now, able to clarify what they are saying about race by countenancing it in terms of their own privilege. Acknowledging your own privilege, and then proceeding to ignore what people not as privileged as you have argued, does not make you “woke”. It makes you ignorant. Being aware of your own privilege is not enough, you need to recognise its consequences.

The decline of free speech has long been bemoaned by those who want to claim they are in some way excluded from public discourse. More worryingly it seems to remain a general sentiment on campus. Why do people want to feel excluded so badly? It is almost as if students on campus need to feel discriminated against in order to feel comfortable about making racist arguments.

The fuss about the cancellation is a signal of entrenched problems in Trinity. Many people who are perfectly happy to get behind the many other causes on campus take issue when their self-righteousness is threatened in this way. Other voices on campus will get louder and it’s time to get used to it.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is the current Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister Sociology and Political Science student, and a former Deputy Comment Editor.