Long Read: The SU Motion failed us

Comment University/Local Issues

Image Description: Books on a shelf about eugenics.

Warning: this article refers to content which may be considered disturbing, including incitement to hatred, physical violence, racism, ableism, eugenics, and Nazis. It also discusses trigger warnings, triggering content, prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes.

The most frustrating thing in the debate about the SU motion, and in the broader societal discourse it represents, is that so many people refuse to acknowledge that it is a matter of where to draw the line. Both sides agree that sometimes free speech should be curbed to prevent harm. That’s why incitement to hatred is illegal. And both sides agree that free speech should not be curbed by people being mildly irritated. Calling someone “stupid” is not very nice, but we should not ban the word.

The point is that there are two key qualities which are incompatible, and hence we must draw a line. Legally, in the UK, the line between freedom of expression and preventing harm has been represented by “hate speech”. Where we put the line depends on the context: the legal context is one of effectively banning speech by illegalising it. The debate about the SU motion? Also, at its core, about free speech and preventing harm. But we can have a slightly lower bar than the UK’s legal bar because we are not banning speech. We are just making it non-mandatory and giving it trigger warnings.

But it would be helpful if people like Dawkins could recognise that the SU is sometimes right. Moreover, if the SU could recognise that Dawkins is sometimes right. Let me illustrate. Imagine a 20-minute long video portraying in graphic detail the physical violence involved in a war—including gruesome shots of people being shot. I think Dawkins and everyone on the ‘side’ of free speech shouting about ‘snowflakes’ would agree that this should not be mandatory. They would probably agree that before being shown it, we would expect a warning of what is to come. If you are not convinced by this example, just make the content more and more graphic—at some point, you will agree. There are some things people should not be forced to see, even for the sake of education. But—obviously—not everything. Some things must be mandatory.

So, the simple question is this: where do we draw the line? How do we define which content counts, and which does not? It is worth really emphasising this: the definitions matter. Not only do they matter, but they are vital when discussing and resolving this debate. Because the real disagreement is about where we should locate the definition. The reason why there is so much debate and concern echoed by moral philosophers and commentators on Twitter alike is because they worry about the definition setting too low a bar—especially when it is imprecise. So, if we really do want to introduce TWs and non-mandatory content, it is worth getting this right.

There are some things people should not be forced to see, even for the sake of education. But—obviously—not everything. Some things must be mandatory.”

And that is why the SU motion failed us—because their motion was devoid of definitions, sloppy, and unclear. It is also why the debate around it is always so slippery and inconclusive. For where did they draw the line and thus what did the motion achieve? Those who are in favour of the general sentiment, or align themselves with the SU/liberally, interpret it as drawing the line where they feel it should be. No wonder, then, that they support it. Those shouting about free speech and snowflakes are also imagining up a line. Moreover, they are imagining it being so low as to genuinely threaten free speech. No wonder, then, that they are so vocally against it.

But no one’s ever going to resolve the debate when we are at crossroads like this. We need to look not at where the SU might have drawn the line, or what they might have intended. Rather, we should look at what the SU did, and where they drew the line. I think we should interpret the SU’s intentions charitably. Maybe they did have a clear line in mind—maybe they intended to draw a line which is well-motivated. But that is not what is on paper. That is not what the motion does.

Let us first consider the intention to make certain content non-mandatory. What definition did they use to define whether content should be mandatory rather than non-mandatory? Well, officially, the appendix defines this as content which would legally be considered criminal hate speech. That’s assuming that concept is applied to trans, non-binary, disabled, working-class, and women* groups, as well as those already protected. But in the Council Notes section 2, it suggests setting guidelines on non-mandatory content based on what is prejudicial towards these same groups.

So, which is it? Prejudicial content, or criminal hate speech? And it matters because they are completely different. When Boris Johnson wrote the disgusting phrase “regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”, he was unequivocally being prejudicial. But it was not criminal hate speech. The SU draws two very different lines, and it is unclear why. This is sloppy, and as I will explore, it has extremely problematic consequences.

One worry is that this falsely equates prejudicial content with criminal hate speech. As I say, these are not the same. That is why they are dealt with separately in the law. The CPS notes that “a hate crime can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.” Sure, these things might be done on the grounds of prejudice—then it would be a hate crime. But prejudicial content itself is not a hate crime.

And that is why the SU motion failed us—because their motion was devoid of definitions, sloppy, and unclear. It is also why the debate around it is always so slippery and inconclusive. For where did they draw the line and thus what did the motion achieve?”

It’s clear that the SU doesn’t really mean to make use of the ‘criminal hate speech’ criterion because the *one* example it gives as the sort of content that ought to be non-mandatory wouldn’t itself be considered criminal hate speech. Yes, the article entitled “Why We Should Pick the Best Children” is prejudiced. But it does not constitute verbal abuse, intimidation, threatening, harassment, assault/bullying or damage to property. And the protection of freedom of expression explicitly states that this does not “prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule [or] insult”.

Just to give an example, in 2009 Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were acquitted after insulting Ericka Tazi for wearing a hijab. If insulting someone for wearing a hijab does not count as criminal hate speech, it is unlikely insulting someone for their disability counts. Certainly, the items on the reading list would not.

Some may think that content which does not amount to criminal hate speech should be non-mandatory—in which case, the SU motion was insufficient. Others may think that this definition is about right—but then, the SU’s example and the intent was wrong—in which case, the SU motion was insufficient. There is a common theme: the SU motion was insufficient—and all because it was sloppy with definitions.

Either way, the fact that their example does not count as “criminal hate speech” leaves us with just “prejudicial” as a definition—which is far too low a bar. But before I explain why, note that the SU determines content should have a TW on the same basis—if it is prejudicial. The phrase “trigger warning” is used just once in the entire motion and appendix; as it happens, in the last sentence of the appendix. There it proposes introducing TWs for prejudicial material. But content should not be made non-mandatory (or require a TW) just because it is prejudicial. “Prejudicial” is too low a bar to set.

Some may think that content which does not amount to criminal hate speech should be non-mandatory… Others may think that this definition is about right—but then, the SU’s example and intent was wrong… There is a common theme: the SU motion was insufficient—and all because it was sloppy with definitions.”

Let’s start by showing how setting too low a bar for content to become non-mandatory is genuinely and seriously problematic. That is if we made all content which irritates people non-mandatory; or content we dislike, annoys us, or that we simply disagree with. All these stifle debate and stop people from engaging with rival or opposing views. And no matter what, you will have to come across such beliefs in the world—it is part of life to disagree and get a bit annoyed. And the benefit of engaging with irritating content is that we engage with other viewpoints. But also that we learn about other viewpoints: what they are, why people believe them, and how we might convince others to change their mind. These are key reasons we should engage with prejudicial content.

Consider content which discusses Nazi propaganda. Nazi propaganda is certainly prejudicial. But should such content be made non-mandatory? Absolutely not. How can one learn about what happened without understanding what the Nazis believed? How can one appreciate the dangers of something similar happening again—and how to stop it—without understanding what the Nazis were saying? And how can one convince the very few contemporary Nazi sympathisers they are wrong without engaging with their prejudiced views? One cannot. Engaging with prejudicial views is as essential to a university education as engaging with positions one dislikes or disagrees with.

But there are times when Nazi propaganda, or prejudicial content more generally, should be made non-mandatory. For instance, when it commonly evokes feelings of trauma or severe distress in people. But this content should not be made non-mandatory because it is prejudicial, but because it is triggering.

That is my proposal for how the SU should have gone about this. Content should be made non-mandatory if it is genuinely psychologically triggering. This goes neatly together with my other proposal: we should introduce trigger warnings for triggering content, not prejudicial content. And, bonus: this makes it super clear which content is/is not mandatory: the content with TWs is non-mandatory.

If we made all content which irritates people non-mandatory; or content we dislike, annoys us, or that we simply disagree with. All these stifle debate and stop people from engaging with rival or opposing views. And no matter what, you will have to come across such beliefs in the world—it is part of life to disagree and get a bit annoyed.”

But that is not what the SU proposed. Their proposal only mentioned TWs once and did not attempt to define them. Sure, it’s really hard to define when trigger warnings should be introduced—you have to account for what counts as ‘feelings of trauma’. Moreover, you have to consider how commonly a stimulus must cause such feelings in people to require a trigger warning. But the SU didn’t even try, nor did they outsource the definition to an appropriate body that has done the job for them. Guy Boysen’s article comes to mind.

(c.f. ‘Evidence-based answers to questions about trigger warnings for clinically-based distress: A review for teachers’).

Trigger warnings should be reserved for content, which is genuinely triggering, not just prejudicial. One could introduce content warnings (CWs) for that. But that is another debate. Equivocating prejudicial and triggering content trivialises TWs. So many people as it completely misunderstands the entire concept of triggers. Therefore, the last thing we should do is completely misrepresent and trivialise them.

And this trivialisation of TWs can be found in the SU motion, which was marked with a TW for misogyny. The only word in the entire motion (and its appendix) which could be considered misogynistically triggering is “misogyny” (or derivatives) itself. And this obviously cannot be triggering because the very word appears in the trigger warning itself! Where they find misogynistically triggering content in the Council’s motion/appendix, I do not know. Similarly of the TWs for “transphobia” and “classism”. The only trigger warnings which arguably do apply are “ableism” and “eugenics” because of the mention of the FHS Medical Law and Ethics reading list titles.

A recent article eloquently explained that reading could be triggering because it questions someone’s existence based on their identity—including, for example, a disability. This is an extremely valid discussion, and it is not an open-and-shut case. It is not clear whether such content is triggering or should amount to hate speech—but I agree with the author that such content hinders rather than helps students’ learning. In short, as Kate Manne wrote, trigger warnings are not about feelings being “highly unpleasant” or prejudiced but about them “temporarily render[ing] people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so.”

Trivialisation of TWs can be found in the SU motion, which was marked with a TW for misogyny. The only word in the entire motion (and its appendix) which could be considered misogynistically triggering is “misogyny” (or derivatives) itself. And this obviously cannot be triggering because the very word appears in the trigger warning itself!”

In response, I think it would be easy to slightly broaden our definition to make content that questions someone’s existence based on their identity non-mandatory and include content warnings for them. And we can do this without making the far more problematic, broad-sweeping, and vague definition about “prejudicial” content.

But that is not what the SU did. So, what does their proposal entail?

Firstly, by being so utterly unclear, future interpretations about what content should be non-mandatory/display TWs could range from any mildly upsetting content to only incitement to hatred. But the latter is far too high a bar and does not rule out enough content. Hence, the SU motion’s sloppiness might enable future commentators to completely undermine the intention of the motion.

Yet more worrying is the “mildly upsetting” interpretation, under which virtually all content would be non-mandatory, and feature TWs. By their own demonstration, any content including the word “misogynistic” should have a TW, which is ludicrous. The reason for this is that the motion entirely fails to distinguish directly prejudicial from indirectly prejudicial content. Consider the difference between contemporary content arguing in favour of the holocaust and historical studies of the holocaust that quote historical content arguing in favour of the holocaust. The former I call “directly” prejudicial—and indeed, directly counts as hate speech. The latter is “indirectly” prejudicial: it is not itself prejudicial, or hate speech, but it features content that is.

I imagine that the motion primarily meant to make content non-mandatory if it directly counts as criminal hate speech or is directly prejudicial. But there is no real reason why the embedded hate speech in indirectly hateful content would be less triggering than the hate speech indirectly hateful content. Quotations of Nazi propaganda are as capable of “render[ing] people unable to focus” and triggering feelings of trauma as the Nazi propaganda itself.

So, the motion would not only rule out all content that is directly prejudicial but all content that is indirectly prejudicial—which includes virtually any work of history or literature. And this is unbelievably problematic. Is it wrong to make a lecture mandatory which, in a discussion of Martin Luther King Jr., considers the prejudice levelled against him and other people based on race by looking at quotations which are prejudicial? As far as I am concerned, no one can engage with the issue of the Civil Rights movement without considering the prejudicial beliefs and statements faced at the time. That is why it should be mandatory.

Consider the difference between contemporary content arguing in favour of the holocaust, and historical studies of the holocaust that quote historical content arguing in favour of the holocaust. The former I call “directly” prejudicial—and indeed, directly counts as hate speech. The latter is “indirectly” prejudicial: it is not itself prejudicial, or hate speech, but it features content that is.”

And if such a low bar is adopted, it would not even help. If we start adding TWs to the majority of items, students avoiding these TWs will feel like they’re stuck with two rubbish options. Either they could risk reading content marked with a TW because they’re overwhelmingly common—which is unfair on them. Or, they could stick with reading an insufficient part of the reading list—which is not only unfair on them academically but also undermines academic engagement with a variety of views—the whole point of university. Similarly to making most of the content non-mandatory. And, as noted, it would massively trivialise TWs.

Most worrying of all is the ominous last line of the appendix. This states that prejudicial content “should require trigger warnings… at a bare minimum”. In combination with the fact that it fails to define what counts as “prejudicial content”, this predicts extremely oppressive future policies. Do we ban all prejudicial content? Even indirectly prejudicial content? Do we ostracise or even kick out people promoting or discussing it?

The SU may have not intended for the potential consequences I have discussed, where completely benign items are made non-mandatory. Or where virtually nothing on the history syllabus is mandatory, and where virtually everything requires a trigger warning. But the devil truly is in the details because intention doth butter no parsnips when it comes to subsequent interpretation and actual consequences. When looking back on what has been passed on paper (or rather, over the internet), the original intentions and the context in which it was written will be irrelevant and lost to the winds of time. The scarily broad applications I have highlighted could be enforced.

I can hear people saying that being pedantic like this is not good enough reason to quash the motion. But we should judge the motion not on what it may or may not have intended, but on what it does. Scrutinising keywords and definitions is vital to determining what a policy achieves. Imagine a political policy which intends to help the least well-off in society but does not—it is in fact to the detriment of the least well-off. Should we cheer on the political policy because of its good intentions, or criticise its actual consequences and shortcomings? I know where I stand.

The devil truly is in the details because intention doth butter no parsnips when it comes to subsequent interpretation and actual consequences. When looking back on what has been passed on paper … the original intentions and the context in which it was written will be irrelevant and lost to the winds of time. The scarily broad applications I have highlighted could be enforced.”

So, criticisms of the SU motion are valid. The intention behind it may or may not have been right, but there is no point criticising or praising their intentions since they are so unclear. And anyway, criticising what a motion does is not the same as criticising its intention. And what it does is bad. The motion trivialises TWs. It hinders intellectual engagement. It enables restrictions on academic free speech. So, I suppose, Dawkins was right.

Mental health, trigger warnings and the rights of minority students are so important. And they do have a tough battle. So, we owe it to students to deal with them properly. And this SU motion completely fails to do so.

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