2015, the year that… students decided they’ve had enough of your ish

Sorry for the inconvenience, we're trying to change the world.

by Paris Lees
30 December 2015, 11:45pm

Young people smashed it in 2015. From the students calling for Queen's University Belfast to sell its shares in fossil fuel firms, to the young Parisians i-D profiled in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, the past 12 months have been all about getting your voice heard. Students around the world have inspired me with their spunky, creative and no-time-for-your-ish activism. Many British universities introduced gender-neutral toilets following successful campaigns by students. And the Union of Students in Ireland was instrumental in the country's push for equal marriage. It's no secret that Millennials and Generation Z are the most socially liberal demographics in history - but in 2015 we made it VERY clear that we haven't got time for anyone's racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic or Islamophobic bullshit. And we're not afraid to make some noise about it.

Again and again, students went head to head with university authorities. In Dublin, the "distrust between the senior management teams and the rest of the college population" described at Ireland's National College of Art and Design seemed to sum up the mood at universities around the globe. In New York, there was "intense hostility between administrators and students" as young people campaigned to keep education at the Cooper Union free. Several managers resigned at the University of Missouri following a hunger strike by a student and a boycott by the football team to protest poor leadership and racism on campus. Rather than being pleased, though, that young people aren't the feckless, apathetic creatures we've been criticised as in recent years, middle-aged, middle-class misery guts in the media and academia chose to patronise or dismiss us. Well. Sorry for the inconvenience. We're trying to change the world.

So three cheers for the students at Brunel University who walked out on Katie Hopkins last month - the British columnist who referred to refugees as "cockroaches" and called for boats full of migrants to be sunk. The protest was a symbolic "See you later", one of many such rejections students made this year when bigots were invited to speak at their universities. Activists recently tried to get Maryam Namazie - who campaigns against Islamic ideology - blocked from speaking at Warwick University on the grounds that she is "highly inflammatory." I broadly agree with the Guardian's David Shariatmadari that banning her would be over-the-top but, as he notes, that's not really the point: "the underlying sentiment is reasonable: we don't want to have any part in the further stigmatisation of Islam."

Namazie has since become something of a cause célèbre for free speech fetishists - as did veteran feminist Germaine Greer when students protested her invitation to talk at the University of Warwick last autumn. Young feminist Payton Quinn objected to Greer being invited to give a "distinguished lecture" without any mention of her hate speech towards trans people, including, once, referring to a trans person as "it" and repeatedly implying that transgender women are rapists. I wrote a big piece for VICE on the subsequent media fall out - which you should definitely read - but, basically, loads of privileged pundits started going on about the importance of free speech, as if the students involved didn't already know it was important and weren't, in fact, making the most of their own free speech by telling Greer she wasn't welcome.

According to Lindy West the American university system is "currently the battleground for what looks to be our next great culture war: free speech versus political correctness." As she rightly points out though: "Political correctness doesn't hinder free speech - it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo." It's true that many people say they feel very strongly about free speech. Why are they silent about Adil Waraich? He was the elected student leader at De Montfort University until he launched a campaign criticising David Cameron - at which point the university suspended him and banned him from campus. I can't find a single word about Waraich printed in any of Britain's national newspapers. Maybe the media would be interested in his free speech if he were a lecturer rather than a mere student?

At Yale there was yet another face off between staff and students when lecturer Erika Christakis sent a group email telling people to chill out about offensive Halloween costumes. According to Christakis, American universities "have become places of censure and prohibition". If the thing being prohibited is racism or sexism or any other form of bigotry, I'm personally all for it. Yale has also come under criticism recently for a residential hall named after John Calhoun, a prominent slave-owning politician, and a similar controversy in the UK has become one of the biggest stories of the year. Students at Oxford University are trying to raise awareness about its racist Victorian benefactor Cecil Rhodes, known as the founding father of apartheid. Rhodes described Anglo Saxons as "the finest race in the world" and the people he colonised as "despicable specimens of human beings". The Rhodes Must Fall Campaign (RMFO) is calling for a plaque and statue celebrating him to be removed from campus. Many of the students behind the campaign are black and from countries that Rhodes helped colonise.

Cue white people. Here's Guardian columnist Will Hutton warning RMFO activists to "tread carefully" because, well, everyone was a bit racist back then. James Bloodworth makes a similar case in the International Business Times while bemoaning the "delicate flowers" of modern activism. I admire Bloodworth usually but if he really wants to talk about people who overreact he might start with posh Rhodes scholar RW Johnson, who compared the RMFO campaigners to "what al-Qaeda and Isil are doing in places like Mali - they are destroying historical artefacts and defacing them". Or how about this ridiculous and extraordinary editorial in the Independent, telling Oxford's "naïve students" to "grow up"? Even the usually brilliant Mary Beard got a bit carried away with it all and called RMFO a "dangerous attempt to erase the past".

Excuse me?

As RMFO point out, no one was discussing Rhodes's racism before the campaign. Indeed, the whole point of their campaign is to draw attention to his shameful past. Judging by all these people like Mary Beard and James Bloodworth and Will Hutton and me now talking about Rhodes' ghastly racism all of a sudden, I'd say they've done a pretty good job, wouldn't you? I'd never even heard of him before. I hope they tear his statue down and erect a new monument to honour all those forgotten people who died under Britain's shameful, abusive, colonial history. Way to go, RMFO!

If all this is political correctness gone mad, great. Sign me up. I prefer it to the thousands of years of "prejudice gone mad" that lead up to it. Yes young people should thank those who came before us for the progress they made, but it works both ways. The older generations need to realise that we're the future now, and that it wouldn't kill them to show us a little respect every once in a while too.


Text Paris Lees
Photography Lewis Rabjohns

Think Pieces
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