From the Courier to TIME, the story of the plucky bagpiper who struck up ‘Scotland the Brave’ in order to drown out a homophobic and anti-Muslim preacher on Market Street has been told and retold across the world. And how we, loyal students of the University of St Andrews, have whooped and applauded and shared the YouTube clip on our Facebook pages.
‘Look at us here in this corner of Scotland! Even our bagpipers do not stand for bigotry poured forth on our streets!’
As easy a bandwagon as this has been to jump on, and as outdated or narrow-minded as this speaker’s opinion may be to us, we should be ashamed of ourselves for our triumphalism and that it took a boy with a musical instrument to first challenge him. As students of a university, we exist principally to inquire, explore, debate and to rid the world of bilious ideas through persuasion, not censorship. In order to achieve these objectives, the right to freedom of speech that extends to everyone- be they academic or not- is absolutely essential.
It can be especially easy for students, who are overwhelmingly rational, intelligent and liberal in at least their socio-cultural attitudes, to dismiss controversial speakers who propagate the conservative, the traditionalist and the parochial. Richard Dawkins has proposed his fair share of unorthodox and provocative viewpoints in the past, and yet he was welcomed with open arms when he arrived in St Andrews last week. Few, if any, tears were shed at the silencing of a ranting homophobe and Islamophobe.
This discrepancy in approach may seem resoundingly reasonable at first, but it actually exemplifies two possible dangerous prejudices amongst many students. Firstly, that if an opinion does not immediately conform to the modern liberal consensus (or at least an aspect thereof), then there is absolutely nothing to gain from listening to it. Secondly, that we students live in a higher, discrete realm above those who would fall captive to such tabloid intolerance. Even in the unlikely circumstances that there is not a single member of our university corpus with sympathies for the message of this preacher in question, there is a good chance that after graduation we will manage, speak for and lead people who are susceptible to such proclivities. Therefore, it is imperative that we learn the thought processes and emotional triggers which result in such unwarranted fear and suspicion, if only to then allow us to more effectively quash them.
We have all seen how those with unpopular or controversial positions respond to ‘intellectual’ liberals ignoring their concerns or advocating their censorship: they only shout louder, except this time with the added claim that there is an establishment conspiracy to silence them lest an unwanted truth be revealed. Why would we possibly prefer this escalation of tension- in this case manifested through our celebration of the bagpiper- over the far more courageous and proactive course of action of confronting the source of the tension itself?
These fundamental values of the sovereignty of freedom of expression and a preference for facing up to opposing perspectives rather than suppressing them are all the more paramount within the cadre of university events and societies. Admittedly, universities have their hands somewhat tied by laws passed in both Westminster and Brussels, but it is not unknown for students themselves to further restrict the parameters of discussion. Hearing how some people have spoken about the St Andrews Students For Life, who (like it or not) espouse an opinion with a logical and ethical base, I would not be completely surprised if the appalling scenes from Oxford last year, when a debate including pro-life speakers was inhibited by protesters, were replicated outside our own Parliament Hall. In staying out of the NUS, St Andrews has avoided the obligation to uphold the ‘No Platform For Hate’ policy that has resulted in some very dubious decisions to bar perfectly reasonable individuals from having the opportunity to speak at a seat of learning. Furthermore, we achieved a ‘green’ ranking in the first ever assessment of freedom of speech within UK universities, placing us in the top tier and amongst a minority of institutions. This is a prestigious spot which we as a body of intelligent and intellectually robust people must always strive to keep.
You may not like the tirades of an ultra-conservative street preacher nor may you agree with the more considered pro-life outlook of some fellow students. However, it is a basic display of intellectual calibre and maturity to accept that opinions that grate against your own exist, and that the way to deal with them is not by arrogantly shutting them out as if they are background noise better suited to the less-educated but by treating them as positions to be challenged and properly deconstructed. Hang up your bagpipes and derision, for in debate we have the only weapon we need.
I preface this piece with a disclaimer: I am by no means saying that controversial opinions should be silenced – it is controversial opinions that have ultimately driven great periods of social change, and do a lot of good both for society as a whole and the individuals within it. My argument is primarily with the opinions that could be considered outdated, archaic, and downright ignorant. Giving a platform to these views in the public eye is dangerous.
When I heard about the new Pro-Life society being formed at St Andrews, I was absolutely aghast. How could such a progressive, forward thinking, and enlightened place such as this allow this to occur? Why wasn’t anyone protesting? Why are we giving an opinion that is based on regressing the ability of women to decide what happens to their own body a public platform? And of all things, why would we let this group be established and potentially spread their message to the wider community?
My key issue with the situation was not that these people had these opinions – I disagree with them, but I disagree with a lot of people, so that’s nothing new, – but rather the fact that by giving them such a large platform we are enabling them to be heard on a wider scale. From my perspective, this standpoint on reproductive rights is not just controversial, but potentially dangerous. Pro-life arguments are nothing new, and the debate still rages on across the medical sector both here and abroad, but that doesn’t make the arguments any more valid.
As the recent US debacle regarding Planned Parenthood has shown, the importance of reproductive rights to men, women, and those who identify as neither, is vital. By giving people the choice to decide what happens to their own bodies, we allow them to take the option that will be most beneficial to them in the long run. In some cases, having the option to terminate a pregnancy is a lifeline, and for some it can literally be the difference between life and death. Broadcasting a message that says this is morally wrong to a large number of people is, in my mind, ignorant of the wider world, and ultimately harmful to the mindset of any individual making this decision.
The difference between this situation and others of a similar nature is clear in the context. Saying that you think the moon is pink and that people with hands are evil are both ‘controversial’ opinions – they are unpopular, and likely to be argued with, however neither can cause the same negative effect upon wider society. Like the climate change debate, which is currently having an overwhelmingly negative effect on both the environment and the development of renewable energy sources, the real-world impact of the ‘pro-life’ rhetoric is disastrous. Cutting access to abortion or banning it outright don’t decrease the number that occur, it just means that the ones that do occur are done unsafely and illegally, threatening the life of the mother and likely leaving her traumatised.
Other controversial opinions of a similar nature would be shouted down without second thought. The same conservative pundits who consider Planned Parenthood immoral have been espousing dangerous rhetoric for years, telling vulnerable youths that being gay will send them to hell, or that behaving outside of prescribed gender norms is sinful. If someone set up a society at the university predominantly focused on telling people that being gay is wrong, it would understandably be shut down immediately. Likewise if we had a ‘Get Women Back In The Kitchen’ society, it likely wouldn’t get the number of members required to affiliate with the union. So why has this new society slipped through the cracks?
The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate is an important one to have, and pro-life arguments shouldn’t necessarily be ignored, but rather put into the right context. A discussion in the pub, a formal debate, a Q&A with a religious elder, whatever floats your boat, but not in the form of an official club that is associated with the university, at least not without a cohesive opposition that is also allowed to flourish.