I was very disappointed to hear that students in Andrew Melville Hall had flags in their own, private rooms taken down because they were considered too ‘offensive’. Now, a situation like this nearly always emerges as the result of a misunderstanding (and, lo and behold, this one did) but I was still nevertheless disheartened by the news: this story demonstrates that there is still a crippling uncertainty about what to do when ‘offence’ is created on university campuses, with our right as students to express ourselves freely inevitably suffering as a result.
The root of this uncertainty is, of course, completely understandable. No-one enjoys the act of being offended and, when you can, it is polite and thoughtful to try and avoid causing someone offence. One can then appreciate why the University (or any other authority, for that matter) would want to step in and prevent offence being caused wherever possible; it could lead to a more harmonious community, give protection to those that feel as if they ought to be defended, and stop people being rude and cruel. Ah, what a utopia.
However, it is incumbent upon both staff and students to realise that causing offence isn’t a heinous, unthinkable crime that needs to be eradicated from university life. On the contrary, even if it offends someone, having (and using) the ability to express oneself unmolested is a fundamental part of higher education that should not be hindered in any way, shape, or form – no ifs, no buts.
I don’t think that anyone would seriously contend the idea that LGBT+ pride flags should not be interferred with; many would undoubtedly argue that the trauma these communities have suffered is incredibly recent, if not ongoing, and so forcibly removing the symbols of their movement for being too ‘offensive’ is obviously inappropriate and wrong. However, it is important to realise that this extends to flags and symbols of any kind: to think otherwise is to interfere with the ability of the individual student to exercise their freedom, express themselves clearly, and gain the most from their time at university.
Consider the consequences of actually have a policy of taking all ‘offensive’ symbols down. The most obvious problem (one that has been quite neatly demonstrated in what has happened in Andrew Melville) is that nobody really knows where to draw the line. In modern times the word ‘offence’ has become so pliable that the word has essentially lost all meaning, and it is now possible for almost anything to become ‘offensive’ in some manner. It is incredibly easy to imagine, for example, someone of Palestinian heritage taking extreme offence to the flying of the Israeli flag – should all Stars of David then be taken down from private student rooms? Is that not, in and of itself, another incredibly offensive act? Well, the short answer is that of course it is, and so we end up with the rather bizarre situation where, in order to avoid causing anyone undue offence in Andrew Melville, the staff thought that restricting freedom of expression was a viable and acceptable solution. This is a situation that we cannot accept in a university environment.
Now, I know that the staff in Andrew Melville were not engaged in some great attempt at Orwellian statecraft, but trying to completely remove offence from a university environment (and, thus, the right to speak and act freely) ultimately amounts to censorship. This should be fought at every turn, even if you personally find some things repulsive. When faced with something with which you disagree, your first response should not be to prevent that view from being expressed; you should be trying to think of ways to explain why they’re wrong and you’re right.
And is this not essential to the student experience? I shudder to think how much my own education would have suffered had I not been allowed to explore new ideas, passionately devote myself to them,and promptly dump them when others made me realise how wrong I was. Quite frankly, much of my higher education would have been a colossal waste had I not been able to decorate my first-year room with the Hammer and Sickle, the Cross of St George, assorted pieces of World War One propaganda, and pro-Brexit paraphernalia; the discussions that ensued from other students horrified to see them above my bed was probably the equivalent of a few dozen credits.
But, ultimately, we should remember that some of the most interesting and groundbreaking ideas in human history were simultaneously those that were considered the most offensive. Those that fought against slavery, campaigned for the vote, and demanded that extra series of Family Guy often did not represent mainstream opinion. Nevertheless, they fought for the ideas they were expressing, and now the world is a much better place. (Thank you, Seth MacFarlane.) Universities should strive to be the laboratories in which ideas that will challenge the mind and change the world are cultivated, not the place in which they are stamped out and repressed.
Therefore there should be no uncertainty on behalf of university staff or students as to what to do when confronted with things that they find ‘offensive’. No-one at a university (especially one that ranks so highly) should shy away from something because they are worried that it might cause ‘offence’. So fight to raise your flag – it’s your right as a student.