Better to define yourself by what you are for rather than what you are against. This is something I have found myself saying more and more as some student groups across the UK have turned to a dangerous culture of censorship to win arguments, whether it be banning songs, newspapers or clubs or societies. Last month the University of London Union (ULU) forbid student officials from attending a Remembrance Sunday service, causing outrage among the student community. Rather than constructively confronting and overcoming issues or encouraging a new discourse, kneejerk reactions like these are counterproductive; they quash debate and, ironically, contradict the good intentions of the groups they aim to represent.
Most famously, a number of universities have banned Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’ from their campuses, and in recent weeks Essex University’s students’ union became the twentieth to ban the sale of the Sun and the Daily Star newspapers. Last week Swansea University Students’ Union Board of Trustees banned its Pole Fitness Society (PFS), claiming it to be “inextricably linked to the sex industry”. Encountering an almighty backlash and causing grave offence to members, the union u–turned on its decision and issued an apology to the society. The motive behind these and similar campaigns has been to curtail worrying and offensive cultural attitudes and perceived links to these. It is right to do so, but banning songs and the like is simply impractical, its success is limited and, quite frankly, sets a dangerous precedent.
Student unions have a proud history of welcoming forward thinkers and instigating progressive movements. A culture of censorship, however, is neither forward thinking nor progressive. Rather than advise and educate members, this culture demands that others adhere to the standards and activities that certain groups consider appropriate. It misses the wider point; making scapegoats through piecemeal tactics rather than constructively tackling issues head on.
When attitudes and actions are offensive it is important to right these wrongs, to encourage a new culture of tolerance, or be it zero tolerance. At the same time it is crucial to send out the right message; a reassurance and willingness to change things for the better, not to ban things with no real end game in sight. Defining ourselves by what we are against and sweeping controversial events or otherwise under the carpet is unproductive. Such tactics may raise awareness, but the issues will persist as will this fondness for censorship.