Tatchell the ‘bigot’: the cowardice of student politics

Student politics is cannibalising itself. Fran Cowling, the National Union of Students’ LGBT officer, has refused to share a platform with celebrated gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell.

Tatchell was accused of transphobia and racism by Cowling due to his endorsement of an open letter published in the Observer last year, urging universities not to ‘allow censorship’ or the ‘silencing of individuals’.

Cowling has refused to take part in an event at Canterbury Christ Church University unless Tatchell was dropped from the panel.

Allowing speakers with allegedly controversial views to speak, and their audience a chance to challenge them, is currently a rather unfashionable idea on UK campuses. But Cowling took the logic of campus censorship a step further. After all, Tatchell is no bigot – he just doesn’t believe in No Platforming bigots.

It should be noted that other signatories to the offending open letter included: Gita Sahgal, a former member of Amnesty International; the comedian Jeremy Hardy; Marxist feminist Beatrix Campbell; and the classicist Mary Beard. Does Cowling think they’re all bigots, too?

While this incident doesn’t quite amount to Tatchell being No Platformed, it clearly represents an attempt to circumscribe debate, to discourage the expression of certain opinions. In this case, this meant shutting down a debate with someone precisely because they are opposed to shutting down debates.

Cowling’s reasoning goes something like this: Tatchell supports the rights of those he disagrees with to speak at universities and other venues; some of these people have been labelled transphobic and racist (however promiscuously); Tatchell himself is therefore both transphobic and racist.

Perhaps the most risible detail of Cowling’s petulant outburst was her suggestion that, in signing the Observer letter, Tatchell ‘supported a number of TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] in their right to be openly transphobic and incite violence against trans people’. This is absurd. Can any fairminded person claim that someone like Germaine Greer, a recent target of accusations of trans bigotry herself, has ever countenanced violence against transgender individuals? Of course not.

Clearly, students like Cowling, absorbed in the mad, solipsistic world of identity politics, are picking the wrong targets. But what is most riling is their pompous dismissal of writers, activists and, in some cases, authentic radicals who, in the past, dared to question consensus.

Whether you agree or disagree with Tatchell, does he really need a lecture on radicalism from an NUS officer? I don’t think so. While I can’t claim to know much about Cowling herself, I know that Tatchell has been arrested over 300 times, and has been so badly beaten by the charming associates of Vladimir Putin and Robert Mugabe that he has suffered brain injuries.

Tatchell has put himself on the line fighting for his principles. What has Fran Cowling done, apart from cry ‘bigot’?

Stefan Rhys-Williams is a writer based in London.

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