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.

We shouldn’t lock up Brits who fight ISIS – we should celebrate them

Published by Spiked on 14/09/61


We’ve all heard about the worrying number of young British citizens travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Occasionally, one or two decide to scuttle home with their tails between their legs, and are promptly put in jail.

Imprisoning those who fight alongside ISIS seems like a logical course of action. Anybody who actively helps a violent organisation to threaten our national security should be punished. What is illogical, however, is our government’s failure to distinguish between those who fight with ISIS and those who fight against ISIS.

Fortunately for the UK, not all of its citizens who fly out to Syria choose black flags and balaclavas; some brave people have decided to don the keffiyeh and fight in the ranks of the YPG – the Kurdish militia making ISIS squeal.

Like those who joined the International Brigades to fight Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War, Brits from all walks of life have joined the Kurds to fight against ISIS. Bankers, students, IT technicians and even a surfing instructor have all travelled to join the Kurdish fightback. But, despite these heroic ventures, the UK government is insisting that those who fight against ISIS should be imprisoned on their return.

This is what happened to Joe Robinson, a 23-year-old ex-soldier who travelled to Syria to fight with the Kurds after being outraged by the execution of Alan Henning in 2014 and the Tunisian beach attacks in 2015. Instead of being given a hero’s welcome on his return last year, he was arrested on suspicion of terror offences. He consequently spent 10 months on police bail and has only recently been released. This week he spoke out about his ordeal.

Detectives have launched a further investigation into whether Robinson and other British citizens fighting against ISIS are guilty of committing terror offences. But the only terror offence committed by Robinson was terrorising ISIS – something that deserves a medal, not handcuffs.

‘I went to Syria to fight against terrorism and to protect the civilians caught up in the fighting who have had to endure the most horrendous experiences and living conditions imaginable’, Robinson said when he returned. Robinson and those like him have made a courageous decision to put their lives on hold and fight for something genuinely meaningful. And yet, when 18-year-old Silhan Ozcelik was caught attempting to join the Kurdish PKK, she was described by a judge as ‘a stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman’, and sentenced to 21 months in a young offenders’ institution.

Since ISIS first appeared on the global stage, British MPs have strongly condemned it. They label it evil and fascist; one parliamentarian even described it as a ‘Satanic state’. But, by also condemning people like Robinson and Ozcelik as terrorists, the government highlights its failure to coordinate any competent plan to defeat ISIS, as well as its wariness of the Kurds.

Robinson said his treatment since he returned has ‘made [him] think twice about the morals of the government’. And rightly so. Every government official maintains the importance of neutralising ISIS – whether it be through military means or Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith’s absurd plan for roundtable discussions with ISIS leaders. But when it comes to taking action, our political leaders disappear faster than you can say ‘Daesh’.

To praise those fighting with the Kurds against ISIS would, of course, be a risky move for parliament. It would mean admitting that the UK’s response to the rise of ISIS has been insufficient. And it would mean acknowledging that the Kurds are genuine heroes, which would further complicate relations with Turkey, which is doing its utmost – often with weapons provided by the UK – to crush the Kurdish fightback.

Brits who fight with Kurds are heroes, not terrorists. And if we’re going to win the fight against ISIS, it’s high time we realised that. So free Silhan Ozcelik, free Aiden Aslin – the latest Brit to be arrested for fighting alongside the YPG – and let’s focus on the real enemy.

Why even Brexiteer MPs are scared of Brexit

Published by Spiked on 09/09/16

David Davis Warns Remaining In The EU Will Damage British Jobs

It’s been more than 75 days since the British electorate voted to leave the European Union and all we have to show for it are a few pithy remarks. ‘Brexit means Brexit’, Theresa May has assured us. ‘Let’s make this the best Brexit possible’, a few right-on Remainers enthusiastically insist.

But behind these vanilla statements, there’s been very little action. Article 50 – the formal mechanism for leaving the EU – remains under lock and key, and we’ve been shown very little evidence to suggest it will be invoked in the near future.

The failure to act on the Brexit vote certainly isn’t due to 17.4million Leave voters having a change of heart. An Ipsos MORI poll has debunked the myth of the ‘Regrexiter’, while Lord Ashcroft’s latest survey suggests that two thirds of the UK, including 30 per cent of Remainers, think post-Brexit Britain is heading in the right direction.

The people haven’t lost their Brexit fervour – it’s our Brexiteering politicians who appear to have got cold feet. It was always clear that Remainers in parliament would do their utmost to thwart our exit from the EU. Caroline Lucas, Tim Farron, David Lammy and Labour’s shadow work experience minister, Owen Smith, have all called for a second referendum in some form. But what’s striking is that even politicians who campaigned for Brexit seem nervous about leaving the EU.

This was best demonstrated in Brexit minister David Davis’s first House of Commons statement on what his new department intends to do – which, it became clear, is nothing much. Throughout his speech, Davis maintained it was crucial for the Department for Exiting the European Union to ‘build a national consensus’ about Brexit, clearly forgetting that a national consensus was achieved on 23 June.

Davis’s remarks showed that, when it comes to big decisions, our politicians wither into the semantics of technocracy and pragmatism. The Brexit vote represented a radical moment in our country’s political history, yet our once pro-Brexit politicians are concerned with anesthetising the effect of this radical statement.

It’s understandable, of course, that our parliamentarians have become unsettled. While the majority of the electorate voted for Brexit, around 75 per cent of MPs voted to Remain. The referendum showed how severe is the disconnect between the demos and its ‘representatives’. Now, our politicians – whether they voted Remain or Leave – don’t just fear Brexit itself, but what Brexit means: that the people are willing to shout down the establishment.

The referendum result has shell-shocked our leaders. This was apparent in the hollow nature of Davis’s speech. Davis said there will be ‘no attempt to delay, frustrate or thwart the will of the people’ and Brexit simply ‘means Britain leaving the European Union.’ And yet Davis himself is guilty of delaying, frustrating and thwarting the will of the people. His insistence that we need to ‘take the time needed to get it right’ stands in direct contradiction to the will of the people. 17.4 million people didn’t vote for Davis to ‘hold roundtables with stakeholders in a series of sectors’. We didn’t vote for endless discussion about the effect Brexit may have on every area of our lives.

To the frustration of many, we simply don’t know what will happen once we leave the EU. Davis maintains we need to ‘minimise any uncertainty’, but the whole concept of Brexit is founded on uncertainty: it is the ultimate rejection of convention. The risk-averse nature of our Brexit-bungling politicians blinds them to realising that a successful Brexit simply requires them to stop dawdling and get on with it.

Ultimately, Davis demonstrated his failure to understand the Brexit vote in his claim that ‘we want a steadfast and successful European Union after we depart’. This simply isn’t true. People didn’t vote to leave the EU because they think it’s a good thing. It doesn’t take a career in politics to recognise the vile manner in which the EU treated Spain, Greece and Italy. Rather, a huge number of British voters realised that the EU is predicated on interests that directly contradict our own.

We voted to leave the EU because it is unsalvageable. Because its disregard for the demos is ingrained within its being. Our Brexiteers in parliament do not understand this. On 23 June, 17.4million people rejected our relationship with Brussels with one defiant shout. Our politicians, regardless of whether they voted Remain or Leave, have shown they only heard an echo of this. And the only way to solve this is to make even more of a racket.

Burkini wars: the rise of Francophobia

Published by Spiked Online on 2/9/16


It seems the burkini is this summer’s must-have. Sales are booming. Various fashion houses are in the process of designing their own lines. M&S’s new burkini stocks sold out in a matter of weeks.

The popularity of the full-body swimsuit is most likely a kneejerk response to the burkiniphobia that is spreading across Europe, and is most acute in France.

The burkini has been banned on around 30 French beaches. Those who don the swimsuit face a hefty fine. While the ban has been suspended in Villeneuve-Loubet, Cannes and Nice, the anti-burkini brigade still has momentum.

Many in the UK have criticised the ban. Right-on mayor of London Sadiq Khan condemned the French bans (seeming to forget that he recently banned adverts featuring women in swimwear from the Tube). And some pro-burkini demonstrators even organised a beach party outside the French embassy in London.

There’s no doubt that banning the burkini is illiberal. The idea that women should be punished for wearing an item of clothing pertinent to their faith is an affront to religious freedom – a freedom that, given its experience of the Wars of Religion, the Inquisition and the Second World War, France should hold dear.

With its regressive ban, France appears to be drifting away from its founding Enlightenment values. And yet, French politicians are still keen to pay lip service to them. French prime minister Manuel Valls tried to justify the burkini ban by suggesting the naked bust of Delacroix’s Marianne, a national symbol of the Republic, better represents France than the burka. ‘She isn’t wearing a veil because she’s free’, he said. For Valls, liberté clearly doesn’t apply to Muslim women.

These sentiments seem narrowminded when compared with those of 300 years ago. As Pierre Bayle, the French philosopher, commented in 1704: ‘If the number of religions prejudices the state, it proceeds not from their bearing with one another but, on the contrary, from endeavouring to crush each and destroy the other by means of persecution. All mischief arises not from toleration, but from the want of it.’

Voltaire echoed this in his 1763 Treatise on Tolerance: ‘I say that we should regard all men as our brothers.’ Crucially for Voltaire, tolerance didn’t mean nonjudgementalism: ‘I will also tell them that they are grievously wrong. It seems to me that I would at least astonish the proud, dogmatic Muslim imam.’ This is a far cry from the comments made by the mayor of Béziers last month: ‘It’s time to explain to these people that France isn’t a 10th-century Arab kingdom.’ (He’s clearly forgotten that telling women what to wear was all the rage back then.)

But while it’s easy to criticise the burkini ban, lauding our supposedly enlightened attitude to Islam over the backward French, doing so undermines any attempt to understand what caused the ban in the first place. The ban didn’t appear from nowhere. Rather, it is the externalisation of France’s internal moral and political crisis.

The emergence of Front National has been met with little effective opposition. And with Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to lurch further to the right in his return to parliamentary politics, true tolerance is sorely lacking in contemporary French politics. The spate of terrorist attacks and the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean has left people fearful, and uncertain of what it means to be French.

People are genuinely scared, to the extent that they feel full-bodied garments are a threat to their public safety and way of life. But this won’t be solved by demonising them; rather, we ought to appreciate their concerns and seek to allay them through open-minded discussion. If there’s one tool that can counteract jihadism, and people’s resulting fears for their safety, it’s tolerance. France needs open debate about religion and migration, and a genuine attempt to grapple with what it means to be French today.

France is not a hotbed of Islamophobia. In fact, the burkini debate has revealed a certain anti-French sentiment among Western European observers. Belgium banned the burka outright in 2011. Some German swimming pools recently banned the burkini. In both Norway and Switzerland, support for a ban is growing. Yet these countries have escaped criticism.

Ultimately, the burkini ban represents a twofold crisis of values in Europe: firstly, on the part of the French, whose confusion over their founding republican values has led them towards intolerance; and secondly, there is the vacuous nature of Western values more broadly, which has led many blindly to label France as a hateful, anti-Muslim place, without looking more closely at the crisis it is facing, let alone putting forward ideas for how liberal, republican values might be meaningfully upheld today.

Reversing the burkini ban would certainly be a step towards rebuilding the Enlightenment values of toleration and cosmopolitanism. But if we really want to combat prejudice, we’re going to have to discuss the gritty subjects: immigration, the nation state, borders, religion. If women want to shield their bodies, that’s their prerogative. But we need to generate a serious discussion about what it means to be French, and European. An absence of values is far more insidious than a piece of cloth.


Stop telling kids it will be okay if they flunk their GCSEs. They should own up to their failure

Published by The Telegraph on 25/08/16


Ah GCSE results’ day. For many young people, today is the first time they’ve been exposed to the possibility of success and, of course, failure.

While some will be celebrating today, a number of pupils will be disappointed with their results. But rather than facing up to the repercussions of doing badly, many of these students will have been deluged with titbits of meaningless sympathy: “It’s good that you tried!”, “It’s not the end of the world!”, “There’s no such thing as a failure!”.

Of course, getting crap results in your GCSE exams isn’t the end of the world, and a disappointing outcome shouldn’t dissuade others from attempting to do well. But the suggestion that failure is illusory – a nasty ghost confined to tales of dragons and magic – is wrong.

Failure is real. Even when it’s the result of poorly crafted exams taken by fresh-faced 16-year-olds.

Unfortunately, our aversion to labelling school exam results as a “failure” has become widespread. We’re even told failing might be a good thing. As Jeremy Clarkson tweeted on A Level results’ day: “If your A level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”

It would be inaccurate to suggest you have to do well in your GCSEs to succeed in life. But for most people, embracing failure as a positive doesn’t always end well. Just look at Jeremy Clarkson.

Of course GCSEs aren’t perfect, and it’s completely reasonable to criticise their methods of testing, particularly when the arts are crudely treated as something quantifiable. But failing flawed examinations doesn’t automatically translate to an act of careless genius – a disappointing result should still be seen for what it is. After all, writing an English Language exam in the style of E. E. Cummings isn’t necessarily going to bag you a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Worryingly, this tendency to embrace failure has become normalised within our education system. Now, pupils have the opportunity to repeatedly retake exams they did poorly in. And while this does reduce the possibility of eventual failure, it ultimately degrades the meaning of success.

Indeed our fear of failure became most apparent in our vitriolic reaction to Michael Gove’s proposed changes to GCSEs back in 2013. Instead of possibly considering the benefits of 16-year-olds studying Shakespeare, we were all too quick to dismiss his alterations as “too difficult”.

Crucially, this blasé attitude to failure is not the fault of students. And while a proportion of pupils do suffer from dismal teaching methods, excusing failure on these grounds forgets that our inclination to embrace poor results isn’t founded on an educational premise, but a cultural one.

Engrained within our society, there is a continuing tendency to regard stretching the minds of young people as some kind of cultural crime. We are reminded to do our utmost to avoid making children stressed. At times, education is even viewed as the cause of mental health issues, where an admittance of failure is equated with having permanently affected a child’s mental well-being.

Apparently the number of GCSE students calling ChildLine about stress has risen by 20 per cent this year. And this association of education with vulnerability and exemption from failure extends beyond childhood onto university campuses, where students are pushed to embrace “safe spaces” – insular areas where students refuse to hear opinions that might render their own as incorrect.

In the grand scheme of things, failing a few GCSEs really isn’t the end if the world. But instead of helping young people to learn to manage the experience of failure, society evades the issue. It is crucial that we stop this. For, after all the exams are sat and passed, none of us can really understand the true meaning of success unless we have looked failure in the eye and felt its accompanying pain.