On November 23, students put the online policy of “don’t feed the troll” into offline action, staging a walkout on Britain’s most hated newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins as she gave a speech at Brunel University.
Ali Milani, president of Brunel University’s student union, explains:
In the current social media climate, where everyone is provided an online platform to speak, do we need to have a serious conversation, as a student movement and a society, on how we deal with online trolls?
These are people who make their living by deliberately saying belligerent and offensive statements. Katie Hopkins is the physical manifestation of these trolls and we should not be providing the oxygen to her fire.
“Don’t feed the troll” means resisting the urge to respond to rabid claws for attention. The ideal response to someone like Hopkins, then, would be no response at all.
By writing a celebratory screed, Milani has turned the straightforward policy of “don’t feed the troll” into a statement. Rather than deprive “oxygen to her fire,” putting words to action has served only to fan the flames, giving Hopkins the attention trolls so desperately crave. In other words, Milani fed the troll.
Hopkins’ uncharacteristically measured response to an “Offended Young Nation” can be read here. Taking her lead is freelance journalist Charlotte Gill, whose comparatively unmeasured response targets the “mollycoddling student culture that hates free speech” she says Hopkins has “fallen victim to.”
In their quest to promote a linearity of views, the young are taking our society into dangerous new territory. I understand what the students of Brunel were trying to achieve – they want to create a world where people live free from offence. Free from the bigoted views of Hopkins et al. In some ways, that’s admirable.
But by muting Hopkins with their silence, they become the true bigots, the people who think they can weed out the ill thoughts of our society by quite literally turning a blind eye. Engagement with Hopkins’ arguments is the only way the students could have really killed the dragon. To silence her gives breeding ground to those who share her thoughts – who will feel angrier and more evangelical the longer she is prevented from airing her views in public.
The actions of the Brunel University students were celebrated throughout social media, and by some in the press, held up as an amusing incident and a triumph. But in the context of Greer and Starkey’s problem with universities, and the rise of enthusiasm surrounding ‘no-platform’ policies, we have to be concerned about freedom of speech (or lack thereof).
Gill is correct in that the refusal of students to listen and debate offensive opinions and ideas is symptomatic of a wider problem currently sweeping university campuses, the censorious practice of No Platforming speakers with opposing views rightfully a cause for concern.
But by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the students who walked out were denying Hopkins a platform to speak. “Muting Hopkins with their silence” is an oxymoron. If anything, these students were exercising their own right to free speech to make a clever if not totally ineffective statement.
Katie Hopkins isn’t a “victim,” she’s a strong, bullheaded woman with a national platform from which to give her strong, bullheaded opinions. She doesn’t require Charlotte Gill to run to her defence because a few mollycoddled students wouldn’t listen.