By Ela Heeley
When the LSESU Debate Society announced their event “Israel’s Perspective: A New Era in the Middle East”, one could safely expect that the controversy between Israel and Palestine would attract healthy backlash and scrutiny. Some emotionally charged questions or a few strongly worded emails, perhaps. Instead, what ensued was an embarrassing showdown demonstrating the lamentable state of free speech on campus, contributing to the toxic notion of ‘no-platforming’ – the radical movement where groups or ideas are boycotted because they are deemed unacceptable and offensive, systematically destroying freedom of expression for academics and students.
I want to unequivocally state that I do not agree with, nor endorse, the views of the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Tzipi Hotovely. I find her to be a blatant racist and Islamophobe, a jarring example of extremism in contemporary government. The views expressed here are not affiliated with any of the societies mentioned.
Before I came to university, I would have thought it rare for students, who pay thousands of pounds a year to listen to renowned academics and politicians, to intentionally try to stop a debate. The very concept of ‘cancel culture’ in higher education seemed exaggerated. Reports of it looked, from afar, like a scare tactic pioneered by the far right to encourage disdain toward liberal millennials and Gen Z-ers. However, it took barely half of Michaelmas Term for the issue of free speech to arise.
The Debate Society event was promoted as an “interactive session”, a chance to call out and oppose Hotovely on her views in an open public forum. It never claimed to support Zionism or the policy of the Israeli government and maintained political neutrality. And yet, in response, committee members were threatened, harassed, and intimidated by our own student body. People attending the event or leaving classes at 32 Lincoln’s Inn were yelled at and jeered. The Palestine Society, alongside LSE for Palestine, campaigned for complete event shutdown and, at the very least, the removal of security measures and police presence on campus. It was abundantly clear that for many, the desire to be sheltered from negative discourse took precedence over academic freedom and even physical safety.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. Rather, it is one example of a pattern of students facilitating harmful speech restrictions. LSE Class War – who removed their Instagram account after making an Instagram story that threatened to smash Tzipi Hotovely’s car – notoriously fought (unsuccessfully) for the de-platforming of the Hayek Society back in July, citing its open dialogue around free-market economics as “outwardly call[ing] for the oppression of working class people”.
More recently, our Conservative Society received a torrent of abuse after a post on a society debate concerning the privatisation of the NHS gained traction on Twitter. Social media users called for the silencing of such a debate due to the controversial subject matter. Some of the more colourful messages included stating LSE conservatives “belong in a labour camp”, hoping the roof “spontaneously collapsed and buried them all”. Conservative committee member Natasha Bellinger commented: “I think no-platforming poses a massive problem to the LSE campus: encountering and challenging views you disagree with is an important part of education. As an education establishment I think it’d be foolish to give up on an opportunity [to] learn from other people’s opinions.”
Here, I must agree. Whilst I completely empathise with the sensitivities of those who feel offended by certain speakers, I also believe there should be extremely few conditions to free speech. Provided nobody incites violence or causes physical harm, you should be able to say whatever you want. It is fair and just, because you are then responsible for whatever consequences you receive, whatever people may respond with. No human being should be penalised for who they choose to listen to, especially in an educational setting. Have we become so comfortable that we, as a world leading university in politics, cannot allow an interaction with diplomats we disagree with?
What’s more, while the Israeli ambassador finished her discussion in its entirety, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, postponed his talk after the hostilities on 9 November. The official statement released by the Debate Society stated Zomlot “wishes to return to his alma mater when there is a healthier environment”. This is especially counterproductive as the protests were in support of the Palestianian cause. It has been rumoured that other societies have also had speakers pull out of events in the aftermath. In trying to de-platform someone they were at odds with, demonstrators only put a stop to political balance, and ironically stopped the side they were supporting.
There has never been and will never be any defence for discrimination. It is one of the most abhorrent qualities of mankind and a substantial menace to society. But if it is not heard, it cannot be challenged. We allow it to persist and subsequently refuse to learn from our wrongs. I commend the Debate Society for continuing to host the event despite the madness, and I equally respect all those who (peacefully) protested and continue to engage in open discourse concerning these debatable topics. However, what I cannot stand for is the suppression of the diversity of opinion at our university and in society in general.
Note: I also contacted the Labour Society and the Lib Dem Society. However, comments could not be given in time for the publication of this article.