The open university and its enemies
“no one, it seems, should be allowed to speak in any public organisation unless SJP deems them worthy. “
An open university is a university where societies and individuals are free to organise whatever events and have whatever discussions they wish. The concept of the open university has many enemies.
Many writers and political commentators cannot speak at universities for security reasons. In America, figures like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have round-the-clock security protection. They and many like them have been threatened out of making public appearances: students cannot see them speak, they cannot argue with them.
When Oxford University invites an Israeli political figure to speak at one of its debates, it cannot name the figure until the day of the event for fear of an attack. People must leave their bags outside for security reasons. People were to leave their bags outside at the Society for International Affairs (SOFIA) would-be event, when they invited the Israeli Ambassador to speak at Trinity.
Force and words
“This is one more example of a now constantly recurring phenomenon: a society invites a speaker, there is outrage, and a group with its own political agenda manages to shut it down.”
Sometimes, older people say that the pen is mightier than the sword. This is manifestly untrue: in a pitched-battle, force will always beat reason. But words do have special power if people listen to them. Words allow the weaker or less powerful side in an argument to sometimes win. They also facilitate compromise: when debating, we are forced to consider the other side’s point of view in a way that we otherwise never do.
All of this is difficult and sometimes stressful. For someone who is arguing, it means thinking hard and opening yourself to the chance of being proven wrong. It is for this reason that extremists try to suppress words with violence, and that in authoritarian societies it is the university and its academics, the place of people of words, that come under special scrutiny. It is because of this that violent extremists unceasingly chase those who use words, who try to open minds.
However, violent extremists are not the open university’s biggest enemies. Force comes from many directions and in many forms. On Monday evening, as 40 activists from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) closed it down, Trinity was not an open university. They blocked the entrance to the lecture theatre where SOFIA were going to host the Israeli Ambassador. They chanted about terrorism and forcibly prevented students from entering.
They even, farcically, blocked the entrance to an adjacent lecture theatre, refusing to move in order to let out students who were trying to leave their lecture. Trinity and the Gardaí should have taken greater steps in advance to prevent this from happening — they should have known that a small group of determined people would try to close discussion. But they did not, and the so-called protesters got their way.
This is one more example of a now constantly recurring phenomenon: a society invites a speaker, there is outrage, and a group with its own political agenda manages to shut it down. It happened to the Iranian activist Maryam Namazie, who has been banned from some universities and shouted down by extremists when appearing at others. It happened when Berkeley Republicans attempted to invite Milo Yiannopolous, and the university was forced to cancel it because of the violent protests of anarchists.
It happened on Monday night at Trinity, when SJP forced a country’s ambassador out of their campus, their members took to Facebook to argue that his state is a fascist apartheid colony, and abused members of the society that invited him.
Closing discussion down
“SJP want to expunge Israeli perspectives just like how many of them deny the legitimacy Israel; they want to condense a millennia-old conflict into a single perspective and intimidate everyone else into sharing it.”
As always happens after such things, the side that closed discussion down has attempted after the fact to quibble about the small details of the event, to mire the discussion of it and elide the difference between the activists and SOFIA and everyone else. This cannot be tolerated. SJP dispute the allegation that they placed a table in front of the venue. Whether they did or not is irrelevant, since their aim was still to prevent people from getting in; Sinn Féin Republican Youth congratulated its members in a Facebook comment on a post by TCD SJP, saying “the boycott was enforced”.
They say they formed a “human chain”, but whatever they call it, the result was a human blockade that forcibly prevented the members of SOFIA from getting into the Thomas Davis Theatre, defined as force and illegal under Irish law. They call it a protest, but the aim was to silence dissent, not to register it. They claim it was the Junior Dean, and not them, that cancelled the event, but he did so because forcibly removing the so-called protesters would put student safety at risk, and because Gardaí advised that some of the protesters were known to them, were not Trinity students, and engaging with them would meaning risking violence.
The so-called protesters were intimidating. They shouted “Shame!” at SOFIA members; they shouted at one member when she started crying. They abused SOFIA’s secretary when he returned after the event had been cancelled to retrieve his laptop. For several minutes, they refused to let students out of a lecture in an adjacent lecture theatre. The so-called protesters were not only Trinity students, but came from many different universities. They were trying to shut down the event, not to protest it.
They have since cited concerns about the format, but the format, as SOFIA chair Grace Conway pointed out, would have been the same as all SOFIA events with Ambassadors: a 15-20-minute speech, followed by a long (usually 45 minute) Q&A session; if more of them had been Trinity students, maybe the activists would have known that.
Smoke and mirrors must be pushed aside: these so-called protestors found out that some people were going to be speaking to the Israeli Ambassador, and set out to prevent it. They tried to close Trinity down. They tried to ensure that the only voice that would be heard was their loud cry of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”. Sometimes people call this kind of thing no-platforming, and argue that no private organisation has any kind of speech duty. None of this is the point here: SOFIA, a private organisation, had already decided to invite him and allow their members to have this discussion, and then SJP, a group of people who have nothing to do with SOFIA, shut them down.
This is a refusal of the right of SOFIA’s members to make such decision for themselves: no one, it seems, should be allowed to speak in any public organisation unless SJP deems them worthy. It is not an attempt to force out views they disapprove of: it is an attempt to shut down all views but their own. SJP want to expunge Israeli perspectives just like how many of them deny the legitimacy Israel; they want to condense a millennia-old conflict into a single perspective and intimidate everyone else into sharing it.
“Any constructive solutions, any proper perspective on this conflict, would be the result of exposure to all sides, which is exactly what SJP are trying to forcibly prevent.”
They are authoritarian. The involvement of Sinn Féin is no coincidence. They are willing, to different degrees, to use force to oppose openness. They are also just wrong. They argue that Israelis should be shut down wherever they appear, because to do otherwise would legitimate a fascist apartheid regime.
Of course, no one has ever said such things when SOFIA hosted the Turkish or UAE Ambassadors — it is only Israelis that these people are concerned with censoring – but imagine that were not the case for a moment. Forget for a moment that inviting an Ambassador for a discussion and agreeing with them are two different things. How do you know it is an apartheid state? Have you spoken to the people involved, tried to understand where they were coming from? The conflict has been going on since David and Goliath.
Every expansion of Israeli territorial control since 1948 has followed one of several wars in which Arab nations tried — there are records of this — to annihilate the Israeli state and people. Yasser Arafat — now considered a moderate — denied in all negotiations that the first and second temples, the ancient Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, ever existed, claimed they were a Jewish conspiracy.
SJP’s chanting glossed over how the bizarre and oppressive solution of a single Palestinian state would harm millions of Jews; they do not seem to care. It implied a refusal of Israel’s right to exist. They deny the legitimacy of a country created after a war of independence against Britain, that was and is the sanctuary for millions after genocide and oppression.
Israel commits human rights abuses virtually every day. The point is, however, that the history and politics of the situation are awfully complicated, that one single perspective is never enough, and that Palestine from the river to the sea is a useless and destructive idea.
It is the height of ignorance for anyone to think they know enough about it that they can silence someone. SJP want to make the black-and-white, but to view almost any situation in such terms requires ignorance. Any constructive solutions, any proper perspective on this conflict, would be the result of exposure to all sides, which is exactly what SJP are trying to forcibly prevent.
SJP are willing to end Trinity’s openness to promote their own agenda as gospel. We should not let them. Shutting down Israelis at Trinity is one thing, but the stakes are higher than that: they are the survival of the open university.
These are ends-justifies-the-means people, but being in an open university means acknowledging that the process is often more important than the outcome, because it is only in a place where we can challenge and be challenged that we can grow. It means thinking for yourself instead of letting others tell you what to think. It means opening your eyes and seeing a world of technicolour.
SOFIA have said they will invite Ze’ev Boker again, and when they do, we should ask him tough questions, and listen to what he says. The open university requires constant defence; we cannot let these people drag us back into the hateful and narrow-minded alternative.
Latest posts by Rory O'Sullivan (see all)
- The great divide in our students’ union - 2017-04-18
- The open university and its enemies - 2017-02-23
- TCDSU passes motion of solidarity with non-academic staff balloting for a strike - 2017-02-14