Irate campaigners have been hard to escape in the past few weeks. If you haven’t bumped into them, or had a leaflet or Facebook group invite, then here’s a summary: our SU Education Officer, Craig Cox, has been banned from all non-democratic NUS events, and our own Students’ Union tabled a motion of no confidence. Craig’s crime? He was caught during an NUS debate holding a banner saying, “bring back slavery” – with all the racist allusions that entails.
The voices in defence of Craig have been too quiet, and there is far more at stake than just his job. It is important to remember here that he broke no law, and the grounds for Craig’s ban are that he has been found “in serious breach” of the NUS equal opportunities policy. The argument among Nottingham’s students is that Craig has acted irresponsibly and made himself unapproachable where our university’s black population is concerned. I suspect that this has more to do with people’s perception of him than with his actual character.
Bayo Randle, Black Students Officer and one of Craig’s would-be assassins, added that Craig offended “huge numbers of the student population” and “strained community relations.” The real paradox of the anti-Cox campaign is that it is spreading the offence across campus itself, and even into the pages of the Daily Mail. The honest way to avoid offence would have been to restrict it, if it existed at all, to those who were in the room with Craig. The executioners are looking for something else entirely: an example.
So what can be said in the defence of a man I have seen to be an effective and well-liked leader? Firstly, I think people’s grounds for offence are unjustified. Craig Cox did not take up a pro-slavery position – it seems to have been a near-the-knuckle joke in the true English tradition of satire. Importantly, he did not write the sign and did not deliberately show it to the whole room (NUS accepted this in their investigation). Aside from the question of its exposure, however, humour is notoriously difficult to analyse under the light of interrogation. Bellavia Ribeiro Addy, NUS Black Students Officer, unintentionally proves the point in her debate contribution: “why would you do something like that if it wasn’t to deliberately offend a particular group?”
If Craig had argued for the return of slavery, that would not in itself make him a racist (explicit evidence would be needed to declare him so); saying something racist is very different from acting out racism in one’s life. During debates, one must prepare to be shocked or even offended; that is the nature of such polarised discussions. If we were to prosecute every instance of ‘offence’, there would be no-one left to run the prosecution. So we must be more careful when claiming that things like offence, distress or harassment are taking place – these terms have a habit of becoming ubiquitous.
It has been pointed out that slavery was not a purely black problem, but I think that is a less central point than the following, which is my second proposition: that freedom of speech should not be endangered because we fear undue consequences. What’s important here is that we must feel able to speak our minds without apprehension, especially in debating difficult or controversial issues. And, yes, even in proposing something that might be seen as ‘racist’ if it can be reasoned. Free speech necessarily involves freedom to offend.
As has been the case with some health and safety legislation, fear of breaking the rules will be far more damaging than the rules themselves. Fear of disproportionate reaction, of censure, of being banned or of calls for resignation will be a psychological limiting factor in future NUS debates. This is especially true when there might be no official warning and no second chance.
University Park needs to calm down and think for the long-term. The real legacy of the anti-Cox movement will not be in stamping out racism; it will be in silencing freedom of expression among the very people we expect to speak out for us.