We will lament the day we capitulated to thin-skinned students who daren’t expose themselves to other views. Lots of things will not conform to your certainty; welcome to this plucky new world, furnished with a healthy political discourse. This is a university, a home of ideas and debate that we must relish in. We cannot leave free speech feeling homesick. So, what to make of this dynamic? What to do when a controversial speaker steps up to the lectern? Become a ready duellist against your foes because, in the real world, no-platforming just won’t cut it. Amber Rudd came to St Andrews to speak — and we listened.
Yes, to be factually correct I should say tiller, but the pun. Rudd spoke fantastically at an event hosted by the St Andrews Women for Women International Society; those attending keen to hear from our, not without controversy, former Home Secretary. Our MP, Wendy Chamberlain, described the event as “a lively, broad debate”. Rudd is a figure from whom we can learn a great deal due to her extensive career and experience. Rudd’s handling of the Windrush scandal was a failure of leadership, with a leaked memo in The Guardian revealing the setting of quotas on deportation, something she had earlier denied. She apologised for the treatment of the Windrush generation and resigned for inadvertently misleading the Home Affairs Select Committee. Before then she also faced criticism for her plan to force companies to disclose foreign workers and for the unlawful detention and deportation of asylum seekers. Despite this, she still has a strong history of defending rights, such as in her campaign against female genital mutilation.
She became another example of the problematic cancel culture that pervades UK universities, when her invitation to speak at the UN Women Oxford society was rescinded a mere half-hour before the event. When a tarnished politician comes to speak, it should be an opportunity to challenge them and to explore the issues at hand. Simply put, Amber Rudd is a centrist pro-remain politician who certainly made errors but is most definitely not one of the fascists that the National Union of Students were facing when no-platforming was introduced. Rudd has told students to “stop hiding” and is right. When someone displays a willingness to come to an event, they open themselves to cross examination. So why do we not make the most of it? No platforming fails as it locates villainy in the speaker. Disdain should not be levied at them, but instead policy. Modes of thought can be eviscerated through logic, so let them speak and take them down. If you fail on that front, consider that your own views might be the ones at fault.
“Free speech … until”, is a failure of free speech. Absolutism is not acceptable even if you agree with the dominant mode of thought. Rejig where everyone is standing and you would be furious. The notion that to allow someone to speak is to amplify them is simply nonsense, it’s a levelling. There is a distinct difference between acknowledgment and endorsement. Protest the individual, not their right to speak, otherwise the platform you protest upon is duplicitous.
Ideas are meaningless alone, and never exist in a monologic world. The idea lives and develops when it encounters others. Living contact is necessary for concepts to be meaningful, it is a complicated world after all. Take out the opposing view and your point is rendered meaningless. You would never take the defence out of a trial, what would that mean for the prosecution?
We all make mistakes, mind you I have not wrongly deported at least eighty-three people, but these still remain learning opportunities. If you are right your point will stand. Pure bigotry would never win an argument, a bit of manipulation is necessary on the side, expose that and the prejudice becomes clear.
Fortunately, Rudd’s views are within the permissible opinions of St Andreans. No one was agitated when she came. Maybe this is because there are more Tories at St Andrews than a Mumford and Sons concert. However, I would argue that this is salvation for our university politics, an acceptance of views outside our own and a seized opportunity. She came to St Andrews, despite our relative insignificance and shoddy transport links, if anything this is a victory.