Bahar Mustafa is wrong, but should be allowed to speak

A version of this article was published on Palatinate

Bahar Mustafa, former welfare and diversity officer for Goldsmith University, has had charges against her dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service. She was going to appear in court on charges of “sending a threatening letter or communication or sending by public communication network an offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing message”. It relates to a hashtag she allegedly used – #killallwhitemen – although she has denied sending the tweet.

Mustafa hit the news earlier this year after a number of controversial statements. She asked men and white people not to attend an event – a protest against inequality and a celebration of racial unity – because it was to be a ‘safe space’ for women of colour. She also labelled someone “white trash” in an argument on Twitter.

Mustafa defended herself by claiming she could not be sexist or racist. She said “racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender and therefore women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist, since we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”

Yet this is a disingenuous argument. Sexism and racism are systematic, with women and ethnic minorities as overwhelming losers, but that does not mean it is always one way, or that men and white people do not suffer as well.

Her binary approach to race and racism – where you are either a white perpetrator or someone of colour who is a victim – ignores the diversity of society. What about antisemitism against white Jews? Or xenophobia directed at Eastern Europeans? Meanwhile, gender stereotyping fails everyone: for example, high male suicide rates for men have been linked to concepts of masculinity preventing men from speaking out about depression.

I write this as a white male: these simple two facts mean I have an easier time in life, and make it harder to see the structural discrimination others face. All the same, I find it hard to understand the benefits of excluding so-called privileged groups from debate, as Mustafa has tried to do, based on their gender or skin colour, under the pretext that people are only qualified to talk about issues that directly affect them.

It reinforces barriers and represents a massive generalisation of what it means to be non-white or a woman, suggesting all share a common experience of persecution that others do not. It stops others join your side: from a simple marketing point of view, saying vast swathes of society cannot fully participate in your movement certainly restricts the appeal of your cause.

However, while I disagree with Mustafa, I support freedom of expression. Her arrest was a failure of common sense. It is a similar case to that of Paul Chambers, who was dragged through court after he jokingly tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” The conviction was eventually quashed. It is obvious in the context that the tweet was provocative, not trying to encourage people to actually go out and commit homicide, nor was there a risk it would be interpreted this way.

Mustafa’s only ‘crime’ is to have caused offence. The irony is that today’s student identity politics, of which she is a part, have also veered towards censorship of offensive opinions. At the University of California in the 1960s liberal students fought in the Free Speech Movement, to overturn a ban on on-campus political activity: this was when being left-wing meant fighting against stifling conformism. Today’s liberal students seem to be going the other way.

The policies of ‘no-platforming’ and safe spaces were designed to protect students from far-right speakers and topics which would trigger traumatic memories. Today these good intentions have been perverted so that figures who stir emotions face protest when they speak. Julie Bindel, a prominent feminist, landed herself on the NUS’ ‘no platform’ list after making offensive comments about transsexuals.

What she said was deplorable, however the idea that she now has nothing worthwhile to say on any topic is ridiculous. Just a few weeks ago she was banned from a talk at the University of Manchester’s Student Union, ironically about free speech and feminism. Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born equality campaigner, critic of Islamism and member of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, was banned from speaking at Warwick University (although the ban was later reversed) after fears it would upset Muslims and “incite hate”.

If people are prevented from speaking because they offend others, it is unsurprising if some people will try to clamp down on Bahar Mustafa when she says something controversial. In the arms race to be offended, no one wins: instead of debate, we have censorship; instead of learning to argue against bad ideas, we are told we can shut them out.

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