Content warning: transphobia.
There is a moment in the trailer for the latest entry in the Halloween movie series where a child asks for the cupboard door in their room to be closed. A woman tries to close it, but finds that something is blocking the door. When she opens it to investigate, out comes Michael Myers with his William Shatner mask and knife ready to wreak some bloody havoc. Just when people think that a force of such unimaginable, inhuman evil has been shut out and forgotten, he hacks his way back into their lives.
One of cinema’s most famous horror icons might seem a strange comparison for hate speech, but just think about it. Both are utterly repulsive, they both seemingly refuse to die, and both represent a kind of anger and violent force that we would all like to bury six feet under if we possibly could. The sorry truth is, like Myers, hate on campus continues to rear its ugly head. Unlike Myers, however, perhaps hate speech can finally meet its demise on the university campus.
Reflecting on the past year of university life, it has been a time of heightened tensions. Last semester we had the University and College Union strikes up and down the country in protest to pension reforms within higher education. Around the same time, the new Vice-Chancellor attracted (and continues to attract) scrutiny for the size of his generous salary. In August, the new Rector attracted criticism for her online actions regarding antisemitism within the UK Labour Party, and more recently demonstrating online support of organisations accused of being transphobic by the likes of Stonewall UK.
Then this semester, when the Edinburgh University Students’ Association introduced pronoun badges as a way to try and help transgender and non-binary students feel more included on campus, the backlash they received from some quarters was horrific, not to mention unexpected.
Just recently, racist jokes posted anonymously on the university-centred Facebook page Edifess have come under fire. On top of this, an at times ill-tempered debate about the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) still creeps around campus, with anti-GRA stickers being stuck in bathrooms and Students’ Association posters being vandalised to voice disapproval of the proposed reforms. The Students’ Association have taken a firm stance against this, denouncing this alleged transphobia and saying that anyone caught vandalising their property will be reported to the authorities.
It’s as scary as any Halloween movie, the amount of anger and resentment that seems to be building up on campus. Peel back the surface of this ancient institution and it can feel like hell itself is rising to the surface; blood is boiling, furious screams bellow out and the strongest opinions overrule the fairest, like some misinformed mutation of Darwinism.
It seems like a scary, disenchanting time to be at the University of Edinburgh. It is worth remembering that this is one of the most distinguished universities in the world in one of the greatest cities we could ever wish to call home. There is support where it is needed, and plenty of chances to let your hair down before it all gets too much. Yet, a university that can feel like it is bitterly divided over so many different things is as unpleasant and unexpected as a vampire bite. You just want to bury your head in a pillow and count down the days until the poison drains away.
Without simple, calm explanations on offer, people have resorted to scaremongering and resentment. A variety of comments left on The Student’s website in recent times, for example, make hate-fuelled generalisations about transgender people – namely that they are “rapists” and “predators” – in order to voice disapproval of the GRA reforms.
How should anyone respond to these claims that to many seem stoked with prejudice and fear? Someone could argue that is a dangerous culture of misogyny that threatens women (a culture being challenged on campus by the #NoExcuse campaign, and more broadly by the #MeToo movement), rather than transgender individuals. Yet this message, and others like it, risk not being delivered or received in a calm way, and a shouting match resumes. Everyone is talking and nobody is listening, and the dark clouds of inequality and ignorance hanging over society are not dispelled.
It is the same case with Edifess. Many of the racist posts identified on their page have not been removed, with advocates of freedom of speech making themselves heard and a storm of anger and disbelief greeting them in response. The fine line between allowing free speech and the responsibility for decency that comes with this has become less than fine. It’s a mess.
For those tightroping with neutrality, there is a reluctance to engage with issues like racism and the GRA reforms as much as they really deserve. Nothing is done, the status quo is favoured, and what is heralded as neutrality turns out to not actually be neutrality at all.
Anger clouds judgement. It prevents you from looking at situations in their entirety and making decisions based on evidence and reason. This kind of rational decision making is something that university can be so good at equipping us with, and yet it feels as fruitless as trying to catch a ghost. There is too much hatred out there
Combined with a less than perfect wider world, it can be a distressing time for students – or for that matter, anybody who has grown accustomed to the University of Edinburgh as a place where clear heads prevail, where the safety of those within its walls is paramount and where fair and honest debate is encouraged. All of those things have been cast into doubt in recent times, so needlessly. Whatever opinion you have, is it that hard to agree with the Equality and Human Rights Commission when they say that everyone wanting to get their piece in should “engage in a constructive and respectful way?”
Of course not everyone is shouting and bellowing, but enough people are doing it that the calmness that sensitive discussions about gender, race and politics need is being drowned out. While this continues, hate speech will, like Michael Myers, come to resemble some kind of immortal bogeyman that embodies all the unpleasant characteristics we link to monstrosity. For hatred cannot be killed, cannot be escaped and will not cease to plague our minds. Not unless we all approach the discussions that we need to have with clarity, respect and at least an attempt at feeling empathy for all concerned.
Illustration: Hannah Robinson