What did I do wrong?
Your whole style of writing.
In the previous instalment of this two-parter I laid out the details (as fully and as neutrally as I could) of my run-in with some elements of the Lancaster University LGBTQ+ Assocation back in my second year. In this instalment I will analyse why things happened as they did (and, most importantly, how my own actions fed into them) with a critical comb. Could it all have been avoided? Do I think, in retrospect, there may have been some substance to their criticisms? Did I handle things as well as I could have?
Let’s find out.
I’ll start by looking at the spark that lit the bonfire: my article for The Tab Lancaster. What was my intention when writing the article? I think I had a couple:
- to draw attention to the Free Speech University Rankings, and explain them to a widely unfamiliar audience;
- to emphasis Lancaster’s specific ranking and explain the methodology by which it had been granted; and
- to tie this in with my own experience at Lancaster and explain whether it supported or challenged the ranking.
And how well did I do? Not very well at all in the first and second cases, and I overdid it on the third. Allow me here to attempt to rectify that imbalance.
In the article, I explain that
the rankings divide universities in the UK into green, amber or red, with brief explanations of what each of those categories supposedly represents. I also add that
the ranking is determined by an average of the ranking given to both the university itself, and to its pet SU. In a roughly 600-word article, these are all of what I devoted to explaining the central subject.
I do not mention the issues with the methodology used to produce the rankings, such as the fact that all policies are gleaned from publicly-available documents which may or may not (more likely the latter, in my experience) be up-to-date. spiked do not appear to contact universities or students’ unions for comment, and no notice is apparently paid to the actual enforcement of the offending policies. For example, though
no platform policies may be on the books, are they actually being used to stifle speech?1 I also neglected to disclose that the rankings are a nakedly ideological effort by publication with an outspoken stance on free speech.
How about the coverage of Lancaster University’s place? I mention that we were awarded
red, and put it in the context of what some of our rival2 institutions achieved. I then detail the specific policies of ours that spiked take umbrage at. I link to the policies in question, but I, too, fail to do any further research into how they are actually being implemented in practice. Where in the article did I contact the Students’ Union for comment? Where are the Lancaster University students whose opinions I have elicited? Nowhere.
The remaining 230-odd words were the cause of all the trouble and looking at it now, I can see where the misperception has arisen. By closing one paragraph with the statement that
…we don’t half have a militant lot in our beloved SU before opening the next with
…their most recent campaign…, I created an unintended segue that, since the
Gender Grammar campaign was an LGBTQ+ Association campaign and thus the
their could be quite reasonably interpreted as insinuating that the Association were part of the
militant lot, whereas I only meant to say that they were part of the SU. I should have made the
they less ambiguous, better separating the two paragraphs’ subjects—the subtleties of using
they will come up again later.
I then go on to make an embarrassingly cliché
appeal to Orwell and continue to criticise the Gender Grammar poster. My criticisms are made partly tongue-in-cheek,3 but the point remains that they detract from the very argument I had originally been trying to make. The entire paragraph after the photograph of the poster could be excised and the article would be no worse-off for it. In the penultimate paragraph I do finally return to the point I had been trying to make with the poster, an argumentum ad absurdum to demonstrate the
…can of worms… that is regulation of speech, but by this point it’s too late: the preceding paragraph has already done its damage.
After I have so muddied my actual argument, I will have produced one of two articles in the mind of the reader, depending on their personal views. Either it’s an article by an
insecure cis white male who is scared by a few posters challenging my gender norms, or it’s a
call to arms against the
SJW invasion of campuses. At this point, the remaining two paragraphs serve only to reinforce whichever article the reader thinks they are reading, and not the one I thought I was writing.
The public letter
Yeah, the public letter probably wasn’t the best idea. Whilst I don’t believe anything in the letter was necessarily wrong, it probably didn’t need to be said in the form of a public letter. I don’t think I contacted the CCO: LGBTQ+ prior to releasing my letter to them, and that was certainly a mistake on my part. Where we could have had an in-person discussion4 and resolved our issues—their concerns about my views, my issues with their handling of the matter—I instead presumed they would enjoy a public discussion/verbal punch-up as much as I would.
Whilst I still believe that that is a reasonable assumption to make of someone who has chosen to run for a publicly-accountable position within a representative body such as a students’ union, I still feel I should have made private contact beforehand. True, I was perhaps not wholly unjustified in considering them to have drawn
first blood in complaining to the Pendle JCR Exec. without attempting to contact me first, but it all comes back to the old adage of
going high even when one’s opponents
go low. Worst case scenario they may have simply ignored my entreaties, in which case I could have still decided to go public and would have had more of a leg to stand on in doing so.
My counter-complaint was 100 % indignance-motivated counter-dickery. I think I probably realised that, even at the time.
Looking back, the whole affair is a prime example of the harmfulness of any conflict in which all parties feel aggrieved and are keen to escalate matters, and none attempt to de-escalate. The initial article allowed itself to get sidetracked from the point it was originally making, which gave rise to not-unreasonable misinterpretations. It is thus not unreasonable for a group who, based on one such understandable misinterpretation, feel attacked to attempt to fight back, particularly after presumably putting their time and effort into an event that they feel passionate about. I believe that their attempts to apply pressure via indirect means, rather than by contacting me directly with their concerns, were a bad idea, but I can empathise with them in thinking that contacting me would probably be unproductive—I cannot guarantee either that, at the time, that it would not have been.
I viewed this as an underhanded attack on me, and responded in kind. I do not think ignoring the issue was an option—recall that even before making their official complaint they were accusing me (and Pendle College) of hate speech, which is both reputationally damaging and, in England & Wales, potentially even a matter for police interest. However necessary some kind of response may have been, it should certainly have taken a different form to the one it did. I should have taken the
high road and contacted the Association and/or CCO; I certainly had enough intermediary contacts who would have helped with such rapprochement. Instead, we countered each other with escalation upon escalation until I found myself facing down financial- or union membership-targeted sanctions. I was acquitted, but things could have gone quite differently.5
Whereas, at the time, I considered my acquittal a victory, I now consider the fact that it ever reached such a point an overall failure.
Of course, spiked usually counters by claiming that such policies
are pre-emptive, and so their impact cannot be assessed via how many events have been shut down under them, but by how many were never organised in the first place. ↩︎
Update 2020-07-04: My writing style in The Tab, like the publication’s own (clearly taking its cues from Vice), is perhaps best described as
punchy contrarian irreverence. Presumably the CCO was not a regular reader, which may also help to suggest why they took the article so poorly. That said, re-reading it now, the style has aged like milk. ↩︎
I have, to this day, still never met or spoken to them, and the claim in the Investigating Officer’s report that there had been communication between us is false. ↩︎
One interesting thing I discovered whilst researching for the first part of this series was that, according to the Lancaster University Students’ Union disciplinary procedure, the outcome of my case should have been decided by a Disciplinary Panel chaired by the Vice President (Welfare & Community) and consisting of
…two other members of [now abolished] LUSU Council…, as chosen by the VP. The then-VP was known to be an incredibly militant campaigner on LGBTQ+ issues and was, I had heard, at the forefront of the efforts to call a vote of no confidence in me; many of the LUSU Councillors were of the same mind. Assuming that the disciplinary procedures were followed and the Disciplinary Panel was composed of those people, I am very surprised that I came out unscathed. ↩︎