How trigger warnings went mainstream

Published by Spiked on 14/10/16


Students have been getting a fair bit of criticism of late. The calls to introduce trigger warnings – messages cautioning students about provocative material – have been widely documented and often met with derision. And rightly so.

The belief that students need shielding from emotion-inducing material assumes that vulnerability is the norm. Rather than maintaining that universities are places of education, where a young adult’s mind is constantly ‘triggered’ by new ideas and material, the use of trigger warnings insists that students be confined to their comfort zone. Where students once rebelled against the university establishment, today they seek emotional protection within it.

Of course, the rise of trigger warnings can’t be viewed in isolation. It is just one offshoot of a new form of victim politics that is plaguing higher education, and has developed in conjunction with the rise of Safe Spaces.

Trigger-warning proponents are motivated by a belief that their emotional safety is more important than studying a subject properly, and by a desire to show how ‘aware’ and right-on they are about ‘sensitive’ issues more broadly. Trigger warnings have become the means through which students both shelter themselves from ideas that upset them and display their awareness of the alleged emotional pain of others.

The campus Safe Space nonsense has become the comic relief of academia – each dust-up giving more seasoned academics an opportunity to waltz down the pub and decry how students ‘aren’t what they used to be’ and ‘need to start living in the real world’.

Everybody shared a giggle when four students demanded Columbia University trigger-warn its students about the ‘offensive material that marginalises student identities’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And we all had a right old laugh when a student at Rutgers University demanded a trigger warning be put on F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because it makes reference to ‘suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence’.

In 2013, academics at Oberlin College rallied against a group of students who were demanding Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart be given a trigger warning for ‘racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more’. When the law faculty at the University of Oxford was encouraged to introduce trigger warnings, Professor Laura Hoyano responded by mocking trigger warnings in class, warning students from farming families before starting a discussion about foot and mouth disease.

But where once enthusiasm for trigger warnings was confined to a small minority of NUS-supporting students – now some academics are beginning to endorse them. At the University of Stirling, students taking a module on Christianity were recently given a trigger warning before watching a video clip that explored the roles of female characters in video games such as Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. International law students at LSE are now given trigger warnings before studying genocide. At Goldsmiths, students studying youth culture are warned that the course deals with ‘sensitive’ issues, such as underage sex, self-harm and drug abuse. And at University College London, archaeology students are now able to leave lectures if they find the topics being discussed too ‘distressing’.

None of these trigger warnings was called for by right-on, indignant students – they were all implemented by academics. This demonstrates a worrying new trend in universities. Trigger warnings are no longer the rallying cry of fringe student groups – they’ve become mainstream. Where once it was only a few students who talked up vulnerability and insisted that students needed protection from emotional harm, now university professors are starting to think the same way.

Perhaps university professors’ endorsement of trigger warnings is down to the influence of their shrieking students. But this doesn’t excuse it. Rather than upholding intellectual rigour and academic freedom, university faculties now feel it is their job to protect students from upsetting ideas or topics.

As for those who are still critical of trigger warnings, taking the piss out of students is not enough. The infantilisation of students, and the stifling of academic life more broadly, is only getting worse. That some academics are now endorsing trigger warnings shows we can no longer just laugh the campus madness off.

Don’t let the fun sponges scrap Freshers’ Week

Published by The Huffington Post on 06/10/16


University students love to claim that they are ‘misunderstood’ creatures, but it seems we have actually misjudged their character after all.

While most of us would assume students’ nightmares are populated by overpriced shots, undercooked food and laundry, new ‘research’ suggests they are most terrified of Freshers’ Week – that seven-day period in the university calendar when even Grandma Joan will forgive you for splurging your student loan on cheap drinks and cheaper morals.

Yes, according to the general secretary of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC), new students aren’t fans of boozing, and instead ‘want to start studies in the first week’. The HMC also concluded that squares are round, the sky is pink, and Jeremy Corbyn has a tattoo of Thatcher on his chest.

Naturally, when a group of middle-aged headmasters and headmistresses claim to speak for a bunch of 20 year olds, we should be instantly sceptical. No doubt the HMC heralded the rise of Tinder as evidence for an increased interest in bushcraft.

The suggestion that students want to substitute a week of clubbing for a spot of Hegel is laughable. Freshers’ week has just finished at most universities, and judging by the number of photos cropping up on social media, not much time was spent in the library.

The fallacious nature of the claims made by the HMC become palpably clear when we take a quick glance at the spurious methodology that informs them. It obtained its evidence by asking 2,132 teenagers online what they were least looking forward to at university. 16 per cent pointed to Freshers’ Week.

But rather than simply acknowledge that Freshers’ hype can be a bit intimidating, the HMC decided to crudely extrapolate conclusions from the data that conform to their own views of university.

Its General Secretary pontificated that students are uneasy because Freshers’ Week ‘got out of control 10 years ago’, clearly forgetting that, despite this, students somehow survive Freshers’ every year.

Another headmaster warned that for many prospective students, ‘almost every second is mapped out. They go to university and find that is not the case.’

According to his logic, students should start studying straight away to help them regiment their lives. Not only is the assumption that students are oversized children who need help organising their lives profoundly infantilising, but also factually incorrect.

The vast majority of students look forward to turning the music up and letting their hair down. And while even sticky dance floors and funky-coloured lighting often fail to conceal the forced nature of Freshers, students still embrace it.

Of course, it would be a mistake to suggest that today’s students are bastions of the hardcore rave, and the HMC’s observations aren’t completely unwarranted. Survey after survey has revealed that today’s generation of students are the most boring since records began. We’re drinking less alcohol, smoking fewer cigarettes and taking fewer drugs than our predecessors.

And the suggestion that students should be shielded from Freshers’ is merely a natural extension of the view propagated by a number of university unions that students need protecting from anything abnormal.

Given the nation-wide endorsement of trigger warnings and safe spaces on university campuses, is it so shocking that a bunch of teachers believe students aren’t interested in strobe lighting and heavy bass? It’s not surprising the HMC thinks students need shielding.

Worryingly, the anecdotal claims made by the HMC are part of a wider trend of booze-bashing. Student Minds, a mental health charity, called on students to substitute taking scandalous pictures of nights out for tweeting photos of them being sensible at home.

Universities, too, are starting to endorse this view. At the start of this year’s Freshers’ Week at UCL, union officers demonstrated they are in dire need of a few pints by suggesting ‘mocktails are a great way to start the night’. In 2014, Lancaster University even warned students they could face a fine of £200 if caught drunk on campus.

In its ‘Alcohol Impact’ drive, the National Union of Students, called for universities to reduce the advertising of booze on campus and suggested unions ‘run one or more quality non-alcoholic events’ – an oxymoron if there ever was one.

The HMC’s unfounded attack on Freshers’ fun demonstrated that the booze-bashing brigade is slowly gaining momentum. Ultimately, it needs to be shaken, stirred and shoved out of our lives. And, after all the online polls in the world are carried out, there’s only one way to do this: Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps, please.

Three cheers for the Polish abortion-rights strike

Published by Spiked Online on 06/10/16


On Monday, 100,000 Polish women took to the streets to protest a petition, being debated by the Polish parliament, which would completely outlaw abortion, and make it a criminal offence carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

At present, only five countries – Ireland, Northern Ireland, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra – have a more restrictive approach to abortion than Poland, which currently only allows women to terminate a pregnancy in cases of rape or incest, when the woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is severely damaged. Under these new proposals, even a miscarriage would be grounds for a criminal investigation.

Polish women have refused to take this lying down. On Monday, there were strikes and demonstrations in cities across the country, with women wearing black to mourn the potential loss of what few reproductive rights they have. In a heartening demonstration of what protest can achieve, the Polish parliament buckled and today voted down the proposal 352-58.

However, the resurgence of the anti-choicers isn’t just confined to Poland. Women across Eastern Europe, notably in Hungary, face further restrictions on their reproductive rights. People in Berlin, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Belfast, Paris and London also protested on Monday – not simply to show solidarity with Polish women, but to protest the anti-choice restrictions in their own countries. After all, in our own green and pleasant land, abortion is still a criminal matter, and women have to obtain the permission of two doctors in order to undergo the procedure.

But the perilous state of reproductive rights in Poland deserves particular attention. Not least because it neatly demonstrates the anachronistic sentiments that inform the anti-choice movement more broadly.

It was only after the Second World War that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Polish government started to break. Before then, Catholic doctrine directly informed the government’s draconian approach to contraception and abortion.

It seems some Polish lawmakers want to regress into that past. Under Poland’s right-wing government, led by the Law and Justice Party, a new form of nationalism has emerged. So much so that the government now insists that Polish people didn’t kill any Jews during the Second World War.

The Polish state has also launched a clampdown on civil liberties. Commenting on the government’s decision to increase its control over state media, Jaroslaw Kurski, editor of opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, commented: ‘The party wants to create a new sort of citizen – a nationalist-patriot type – who is ready to renounce his or her civil liberties.’

Similarly, by restricting abortion access, the Polish government is insisting that women should not be free to shape their own lives – that, essentially, they have the same moral and political status as an unborn fetus. As Kinga Jurga, a 32-year-old Polish woman who attended one of the protests, told CBC News, restricting abortion ‘takes away the right of a woman to choose’. The same is true in any country where abortion is restricted in any way.

What’s more, anti-choice campaigns like ‘Stop Abortion’ – which delivered the petition to the Polish parliament – seem to forget that any attempt to turn back the clock on abortion rights will not stop abortions taking place.

Each year, 1,000 legal abortions take place in Poland, alongside 150,000 illegal, self-administered abortions. Pro-choice organisations in Poland already encourage women to fly to England to terminate pregnancies, because the cost of the trip is cheaper than having an illegal abortion in Poland. In June last year, activists even delivered abortion pills to Poland via drones.

Fortunately, according to a recent poll, only 11 per cent of Poland’s population approve of limiting abortion access further. However, there are still those in parliament who support it. And, in the fight for abortion rights more broadly, there is still a long way to go.

Nevertheless, there are two crucial things we can learn from Polish women’s victory this week. First, that the anti-choice argument is always based on the archaic view that women are incapable of exercising full moral autonomy. And second, that real victories for freedom are possible if we come together and fight for them.

Spare me the campus ayatollahs ruining my student life

Published by The Daily Mail on 04/10/16


The drunken travails of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim — a shambolic junior academic — have long become a byword for the excesses of university life.

Flirting, seduction and seeing how many pints you could fit in between lectures were once relatively harmless pastimes on campuses across Britain.

Yet today, too many universities seem determined to nanny students who are deemed too fragile to be exposed to the rough and tumble of the real world.

Consider the fact that, this week, it emerged that all new students arriving at Oxford and Cambridge are being asked to attend ‘consent classes’ aimed at preventing rape and sexual harassment at the universities.

At Oxford, the courses are compulsory as part of freshers’ week, while the student union is urging rugby players to attend anti-sexism workshops to fight ‘lad culture’.

At Cambridge, consent classes are also being held for freshers, with students of some colleges having to opt out if they don’t wish to attend.

Not everyone is happy to accept instruction in how to avoid raping somebody or becoming a rape victim, however.

At York University, a number of students on campus recently protested against their own ‘sexual consent class’ by walking out.

According to union officials, the lessons were necessary to protect students’ ‘well-being’, suggesting they had rather forgotten that the students they were attempting to instruct were actually adults.

Unfortunately, barmy student unions are all the rage these days. Take my own, University College London Union (UCLU), which claims to represent me, a 20-year-old final year undergraduate and one of the thousands belonging to the student body.

It has outlawed, under the guise of its ‘Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment’ policy, ‘offensive sexual noises’ in union bars because students supposedly aren’t able to cope with hearing a few grunts in a public space.

So far, so laughable. But the right-on political correctness of modern student unions and their campus ayatollahs has a far more sinister aspect, as we shall see.

By any measure, Isis would seem a bad bunch, what with their penchant for beheading innocent civilians and journalists. Justifying their actions isn’t easy — which is why I was so struck when an official at UCLU attempted to do just that.

Yes, when the university’s Kurdish Society decided to invite former student Macer Gifford, a Briton who heroically chose to fight with the Kurds against Isis, a student union officer insisted he be ‘no platformed’ — banned from speaking.

According to the union official, the fight against Isis ‘is a very contentious topic’ and ‘far too complex [for students] to understand in black and white’. He went on to maintain that ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’.

Now, ethical relativism — that right or wrong depends on an individual’s point of view — is not always without merit.

But I found myself instinctively appalled by the decision. In some situations, morality is a matter of black and white.

And the failure of a student union official to condemn Isis, an intrinsically evil organisation, pointed to something deeply amiss with the current state of universities.

Not only was the official’s reluctance to denounce Isis worrying, but his insistence that an external speaker with differing views be silenced demonstrated how universities are no longer the tolerant, open-minded institutions they were.

Simply, student leaders have lost the plot. Rather than treating students as young adults, our union officers treat us like oversized children. From their assumption that students are too vulnerable to be exposed to certain ideas, to the imposition of what they deem ‘acceptable’ moral values, their influence means that the university experience is now a far cry from the rigorous, mind-expanding education that one might expect.

From the very beginning of my time as a student at UCL, it was clear that the union had decided it knew what was best for us.

Its mission, regardless of its claims to be tolerant and inclusive, soon appeared to be nothing less than the moral policing of students’ personal lives.

Thus on Mondays, university cafés were banned from serving meat on the grounds that a chicken sandwich was both unhealthy and bad for the environment, because rearing animals demands more resources than growing an equivalent amount of crops.

The arrogant assumption that a student union was entitled to impose a vegetarian lifestyle on me and my fellow students shows just how little value these people attach to personal choice.

This disregard was seen again in UCLU’s call to ban smoking in outdoor spaces on campus. Within the resolution’s guidelines, the union laments the dangers of active and passive smoking.

Smoking is bad? Who knew?

While it would certainly be inappropriate if the union started handing out packs of Marlboros, its officials need to respect the fact that students — adults — are capable of making rational decisions. Smokers know it would be healthier to go on a juice cleanse and a jog rather than to light up again, but whether they act on that should be their prerogative.

This assumption that students need mollycoddling in every aspect of their lives is directly harming education. For this attitude is not just confined to the student union, but is seeping into UCL’s faculties.

UCL’s archaeology department now warns students that historical events ‘may be disturbing, even traumatising’ and permits its students to ‘step outside’ class if they find dealing with the past too difficult — a move akin to allowing medical students to bunk off because they’re afraid of the sight of blood.

Outside of the classroom, the university is doing its utmost to stamp out all sources of fun on campus. Now alcohol, that staple of student life, has come under threat from union officials. Contained within its ‘responsible drinking’ guide, UCLU warns that ‘drinking doesn’t have to be a way of life’.

Although it’s certainly true that you don’t need alcohol to have a good time, the suggestion that students require constant reminding to ‘alternate [booze] with some water’ makes a joke of the notion that we are capable of living independent lives.

And while the union claims that ‘mocktails [non-alcoholic cocktails] are a great way to start the night’, its risk-averse approach to alcohol signals, once again, its desire to infantilise students.

This is reflected, too, in the union’s ban-happy approach to anything that might be considered offensive. It outlawed the playing of pop star Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines because, with lyrics such as ‘I know you want it’, the song supposedly promotes rape and is ‘dangerous’.

It has also prohibited the distribution of The Sun newspaper because, with its frequent photos of scantily clad women — though no longer Page Three — it is deemed inherently ‘misogynistic’.

This flurry of blacklisting is driven by the belief that students need a bunch of jumped-up, right-on, soya-consuming activists to shield them from the horrors of the world.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that UCLU exhibits a shameless disregard towards free speech.

Despite the fact that the union maintains ‘freedom of expression is a fundamental human right’, it does not tolerate views that clash with its own. Within its resolution ‘to campaign for freedom of speech’, it also agrees to ‘continue to advocate “No platform for fascists” ’.

Thus the union took it upon itself to ban the UCL Nietzsche Club because some of the German philosopher’s ideas were adopted by the far-Right decades after his death.

The fundamental assumption underlying all this activity — that students are feeble creatures who cannot cope with any material they may not like — is absurd. Universities, by nature, are supposed to be places where ideas are challenged.

Indeed, by silencing certain ideas, the union risks leaving problematic beliefs dangerously unchallenged.

The dire state of freedom of speech on campus is further demonstrated by the union’s insistence that students should shut their mouths not just because of what they are saying, but because of who they are.

For instance, UCLU issued a letter of support to Goldsmith University’s BME (black or minority ethnic) network, which maintained that white people shouldn’t be allowed to attend their meetings because discussion couldn’t take place with ‘oppressors’ in the room.

So, under the guise of anti-racism, the union decrees that students shouldn’t be able to say something because of the colour of their skin — a divisive assumption uncomfortably close to what anti-racists have fought against in the past.

Such is the danger of the union’s obsession with so-called identity politics, which focuses largely on an individual’s race, class and gender.

Fortunately, however, the clique behind the student union doesn’t represent the student body. This isn’t surprising, given that only 12 per cent of students bothered to vote in UCLU’s elections. Some posts only had one candidate.

The schism between UCLU and its students was revealed in the uproar that arose after the union issued a statement praising the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel, an outside organisation which lobbies corporations, artists and academic institutions to sever ties with the Jewish state — without consulting the student body.

However, while this outcry was a refreshing reminder that the union doesn’t rule unquestioned, it wasn’t enough to cower its illiberal tendencies.

Sadly, what I’ve experienced in London merely reflects the rise of censorship and moral policing that has become endemic on university campuses across the UK.

More than a fifth of student unions in the UK uphold ‘safe spaces’, where students are only allowed to profess a prescribed point of view at certain events — often protecting the student union’s orthodox perspective from being criticised.

Forty per cent of unions also have ‘no-platforming’ policies in place against potentially offensive speakers. If this creeping intolerance is going to be combated, students cannot rely on their unions to help out.

Rather, the onus is on students to turn universities back into places of rigorous education. This means refusing to roll over meekly when unions nanny students, and instead demanding to be treated like rational adults.

And when unions attempt to silence speakers, students must refuse to accept the decision.

It’s imperative that we protest against intolerance.

As for sexual consent courses, Warwick University student George Lawlor was bullied online and branded a ‘rapist’ and ‘misogynist’ by activists last year after he dared to question consent workshops, and argued that most men ‘don’t have to be taught to not be a rapist’.

But now, other students, as we’ve seen at York, are showing what they think of such classes by walking out. So perhaps the fightback has finally begun.

Tube chat? Pipe down.

Published by The Huffington Post on 03/10/16


Something terrible is happening to the Tube. Where once it was a place of solitude for the fatigued, if a bit sweaty, commuter, a sadistic group of right-on luvvies is attempting to turn it into a guitar-playing, poncho-wearing, dreadlock-sporting commune.

Yes, interspersed among us are a new tribe of conversationalists aimlessly wandering around Tube carriages with ‘Tube chat?’ badges. The idea is simple: taking inspiration from the ‘Baby on Board’ memorabilia, these insufferable trainsquatters want commuters to start, dare I say it, talking to one another.

Except the idea isn’t ‘simple’. The Tube isn’t some pop-up quinoa shop in Dalston where customers can freely rave about matcha tea and armpit hair with strangers. Rather, the Tube was designed to be a place of calm; a place where commuters can hit ‘Snooze’ for a few minutes everyday. If you’re not offering your seat to someone, pipe down.

Even Transport for London recognises this. It purposefully designs trains that rattle incessantly because it, too, recognises that the anti-social roaring of carriages prevents any meaningful conversation from taking place. This is 2016. Of course TfL could design quiet trains if it wanted to. Right guys?

The obnoxious virtue-signallers who designed the ‘Tube chat?’ badges aren’t the first to infringe upon our right to silence. They follow in the footsteps of another movement that encouraged people to walk around sporting badges with the campaign’s name, ‘I Talk To Strangers’ – a statement traditionally associated with a brief spell in Broadmoor.

‘The simple statement of ‘I Talk to Strangers’ makes you approachable without asking anything of the people around you,’ the campaign’s coordinator said, clearly forgetting that having a grinning nutter obsequiously saunter up and ask for your views on Corbyn’s re-election is the complete opposite of ‘approachable’.

It’s clear these people represent a generation disconnected from the stoic Englishman who spent his days glancing out the window, using his voice every hour or so to mutter at his crossword. ‘Silence is a true friend who never betrays,’ Confucius, the famous Londoner, once pronounced. The ‘Tube chat?’ brigade, unlike Confucius, have betrayed us.

The first batch of badges was handed out at – you guessed it – Old Street station. Representing the geographical manifestation of the silent Tube-traveller’s nightmare, not even an oversized pair of vintage glasses can shield you from Old Street’s countless pseudo-opinionated preachers.

Clearly we need a solution to the threat posed by the ‘Tube Chat?’ badges. And, unfortunately, demolishing Old Street station will only give its inhabitants something else to talk about.

I therefore propose that we allow these Tube infiltrators to keep wearing their badges. After all, they are a neat identifier for the kind of people who need to be muzzled.

So if you see someone getting onto your carriage with a ‘Tube chat?’ badge, neutralise their potential to break the silence by quickly smacking them in the voice box. Just don’t expect a round of applause from your fellow commuters. For after all is not said and done, the Tube is ultimately a place of silence.

Students, refuse to think racially

Published by Spiked on 22/09/16


When it comes to student politics, race is all the rage. Last week, NUS president Malia Bouattia said university can even be ‘psychologically destructive’ for black students. From course curricula to banter at the union bar, universities have allegedly become infected with ‘campus racism’ – a relative term that allows NUS officials to defend BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) groups while labelling the University of Birmingham a ‘Zionist outpost’.

Campus racism is supposedly so endemic that universities now hold race workshops, forcing fresh-faced students to come to terms with their innate prejudices. The University of Oxford held a ‘Race 101 (Or How Not To Be Racist)’ class for freshers last year.

So when a fresher starts university, it is assumed he or she has a penchant for racism. Where the first weeks of university were once seen as an opportunity to go bonkers with a bunch of strangers, this new racialised climate has made freshers’ week a nervous affair. The Oxford Union last year passed a motion condemning itself as ‘institutionally racist’. You’re racist, your university is racist – everyone is racist.

Students are now encouraged to see everything through the prism of race – leading, most recently, to a panic about so-called cultural appropriation. At the University of East Anglia and the University of Birmingham, students have been banned from wearing sombreros because apparently the hats are disrespectful to Mexicans; party-goers at Birmingham have also been chastised for wearing Native American costumes. At Cambridge, a Lion King-themed dinner was shut down after the students’ union’s African Society complained the menu was culturally insensitive. Universities used to be places where young people could expose themselves to foreign ideas and cultures; now it’s considered virtually a crime to deviate from one’s own heritage.

Now, even certain relics of history can be deemed racist and dangerous. Last year at Oxford, a group of students demanded a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a long-dead British colonialist, be torn down à la Palmyra due to the distressing impact they claimed it was having on black students. This was a campaign that actually celebrated the alleged vulnerability of black students. Its nastiness became evident when, during a visit to his home in South Africa, a leader of the campaign made a waitress cry what he called ‘typical white tears’ after he refused to tip her – ‘even if she’s working class, she is linked to whiteness’, he said.

Even the intrinsic value of education is under threat from this new racialism. The NUS’s ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign insists that universities operate ‘under a colonial legacy, perpetuating “Whiteness” both structurally and in the confines of knowledge reproduced’. The campaign is founded on the notion that black students are innately ‘under-stimulated by the content of their [white] curricula’. In short, people are only able to relate to topics relevant to their identity. This notion flies in the face of what anti-racists have always argued – that all people are capable of participating in society as equals. Where black-rights campaigners once struggled for the right to be treated the same as everyone else, now a small clique of identity-politics-driven students is fighting for the right to be different and vulnerable.

Worst of all, this ugly climate is affecting students’ social interactions. The rise of microaggressions – the idea that casual comments about a minority student’s appearance or background can make them feel uncomfortable – has frozen campus interactions. When a fresher walks into their hall of residence and asks their new flatmate where he or she is from, that is now considered potentially racist. Last year Goldsmiths’ students’ union banned white people from anti-racist meetings, because proper discussion couldn’t take place with ‘oppressors’ in the room.

While much of this might sound comical, the return of racialism in the academy is anything but funny – it has serious repercussions for freedom of speech and even human engagement. It makes new students feel uncomfortable from the moment they start university. And it harms education. This is not anti-racism – it’s anti-universalism.

Locking a child up just makes extremist ideas more dangerous. We should defeat them through debate

Published by The Telegraph on 19/09/16


In an attempt to surpass the absurdity of its Prevent strategy, which pre-emptively removes people with “extremist”  ideas from the debate stage, the government is now sponsoring a “Prevent for Kids” programme. Yes, figures released last week have shown that children aged nine and under are being referred to Channel, an offshoot of Prevent, to be deradicalised.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that between January and June of this year, 2,311 under-18s were reported to Channel, including 352 children aged nine and under.

The use of the referral scheme is predicated on the assumption that children are exposed to radical ideas online that need to be neutralised. And since Prevent maintains that ideas contrary to “British values” must be weeded out, its use has been extended to the school playground. The government’s supposed “British values” clearly don’t include important principles like “tolerance” and “playtime’”

Ultimately, however, the treatment of children as potential terrorists represents a crisis in teaching. Of course, nine-year-old kids are impressionable and often like to spout whatever nonsense they’ve been watching on their screens the night before. But the suggestion that teachers should report Little Johnnie to Prevent for making a crack about 9/11 is absurd. Whether singing “Ring a ring o’ Roses” in the 1840s or ’10 German bombers in the air’ in the 1940s, kids have always had penchant for talking nonsense. The only thing that has changed is our approach to dealing with it.

The role of the teacher is to educate, not to quarantine a child because they expressed an inane idea. Ever since the time of the Academy, the fundamental basis of education has been discussion. The willingness of teachers to shy away from confronting a child about an ‘extremist’ ideology clearly demonstrates that teachers are too scared to engage in debate with their school kids.

These are children, not terrorists. And children sometimes talk rubbish and make mistakes. But education isn’t about turning these into a child’s defining feature, but instead working towards a solution and moving on. Nine-year-olds hardly have the most developed sensitivity towards geopolitical phenomena. And while it might be a bit daunting if a pupil starts ranting about how the ISIS Institution for Academic Excellence has better school dinners than Bradford Primary, teachers shouldn’t shy away from engaging with a child.

Of course, it would be inaccurate to solely blame teachers for the use of Prevent’s creation of a kindergarten. Indeed we need to appreciate its position within the wider context of the government’s anti-extremism policy.

The referrals of kids to an anti-extremism organisation demonstrates how “extreme” ideas have become medicalised, with only trained experts entrusted with their remedy. This was further revealed in the Home Office’s decision to compare the “Prevent: Back to School” programme with “safeguarding mechanisms” for other risks such as child sexual exploitation’. But while the term “child sexual exploitation” is as in vogue as alleged extremism these days, their equation completely misunderstands the nature of radical ideas.

An unpleasant idea, whether expressed by a blazer-wearing schoolboy or Islamist preacher like Anjem Choudary, is not the same as a violent action. While certain ideologies may be disagreeable, we should not assume they will have a debilitating effect on their audience. Of course, ideas only become dangerous when they are subject to an intolerant inquisition à la Prevent that persecutes any ideology foreign to the status quo. Not only does it set a dangerous precedent for censoring ideas, but allowing opinions to remain pedagogically unchallenged only intensifies them.

Rather than vilifying nine-year-olds for expressing a load of tosh, they should be challenged and educated by their teachers. If we’re really serious about education and extremism, it’s time to start treating nine-year-olds like nine-year-olds and tell them when they’re wrong.