Student politics is generally judged a subject best left alone by the real-world media, but this week Alex Illsley, a law student at Christ Church, the poshest college at Oxford University, has managed to get some big time press in the UK with a splendid dose of Americanization.
On paper he is a simple product of the English class system: having attended a minor public school (a British expression referring to a fee-paying private school that is not one of the more expensive big nine ‘major public schools’ that produce the top-tier privileged elites in politics, the civil service, finance, the law and so on) and now ‘the House’, as Christ Church is traditionally known by its inmates, he has a very comfortable future ahead of him in some kind of corporate legal shenanigans. Christ Church is fabulously rich, having an actual cathedral as the college chapel (‘only a small one’ as apologists will tell you), a refectory that was the model for the one at Hogwarts, and an art collection that rivals the Queen’s.
(For those confused by this, England’s two leading universities, Oxford and Cambridge, are made up of semi-independent residential colleges, that provide accommodation and undergraduate teaching, while the central university authorities set examinations and award degrees, so that you attend a particular college but gain a degree from the university. The colleges differ widely in history, prestige and assets, but this makes no difference to the value of your degree.)
This son of wealth and privilege, then, needs to make some 21st-century career moves to elbow his way to the front of the line, and like many before him, has chosen the route of student politics. Christ Church has produced 13 British prime ministers, and there is a well-oiled mechanism of student politics at Oxford so that the ambitious can start young. A conventional route is the Oxford Union, the university’s world-famous debating society, where becoming an elected officer will give a spotty 19-year-old with stereotyped establishment opinions (like Boris Johnson, for instance) personal contacts with all kinds of eminent public figures; but there is also Plan B for the more discreet social climbers, the left-wing Oxford University Student Union, which is a branch of the National Union of Students, the fearsome NUS.
It Is no surprise that the NUS should have become a major vector for the Americanization of British life, with social justice bleeding from its every orifice, and the Oxford branch follows the national trend, with compulsory statements of your or zour pronouns, for instance. But a problem with this groupthink is that you need to come up with something pretty bizarre to stand out from the crowd, and Mr Illsley has shown some definite flair in that direction.
There is a gay nightclub in Oxford called Plush which has been quietly getting on with being a gay nightclub since 2010. But reality has changed, and being a gay nightclub is so 2010. Now you have to be with the programme and be an LGBTQ+ nightclub. No Problemo, you might think, and Plush indeed advertises itself like that; but they had seemingly not given enough thought to the + part of the equation. In March this year, Plush suddenly declared that they were cutting their ties with the Student Union’s LGBTQ+ Campaign, and the union’s politburo were mystified by this. Blindsided. What submerged rock could their flagship of right-on-ness have struck?
Plush, an extremely successful operation that has become a fixture in the city, has unfortunately become a target of the thought police, who have decided on the unanswerable charge that it is not gay enough, or rather not LGBTQ+ enough. Student journalist Orla Parr, writing in the university newspaper Cherwell in February, drew attention to the fact that the inclusive policies pursued by Plush are mistakenly extended to cisgender heterosexuals, and called for such ‘cishet’ enemies of the people to be excluded by various means, suggesting that Plush’s policy of letting anyone in without proof of sexual orientation amounted to a ‘well-crafted corporate cop-out’.
Orla’s virtue-signalling is evidently part of a larger groupthink response, as Plush has been forced to such weak-kneed stratagems as citing its years of success, its thousands of satisfied customers, and blah blah blah. In March, however, it suddenly announced it was severing its contacts with the Student Union’s LGBTQ+ Campaign, which positions itself as the campaigning wing of the queer (etc.) movement, which is a pretty surprising development on the face of it. Plush say that the Campaign is making misleading statements and threatening to organize boycotts of the club if its demands are not met.
Alex Illsley of the LGBTQ+ Campaign describes himself in his election manifesto as ‘heavily involved in the current conversation with Plush’, and later on fills us in on what kind of misleading statements and threats the club might be facing. At this stage of his ascent, he was the Disabled Students’ Officer of the Campaign, and he provides us with the alarming news that Plush is ‘quite overstimulating’ to ‘autistic folks’ who may therefore find it ‘intimidating or inaccessible’. The use of the word ‘folks’ is telling. While it has been just about possible to get away with ‘Hello, folks,’ in the UK for some time, this use of ‘folks’ as a politically correct substitute for ‘people’ (one I cannot understand or see the point of) is Americanization in its purest form. All it means is that Alex is up to speed with Ivy League fashions.
The project of using the charge that a long-established and successful nightclub that advertises itself as an ‘energetic nightspot offering dynamic dance floor lighting’ might be accused of being ‘quite overstimulating’ as a basis for election is in itself a sign of some imagination, and Alex is therefore to be congratulated for his elevation to the position of co-chair of the Campaign. He/him is clearly a non-cishet folk with big ideas.
While the rest of us are obsessing over the global pandemic, he has been putting his mighty legal brain and superb and expensive education to good use. It is hard to see who else is behind the new policy document ‘Hatespeech’, condemning ‘any incitement of hatred on the grounds of gender identity, disability and socio-economic status, including to trans, non-binary, disabled, working-class, and women* students.’ Like ‘folks’, I am at a loss to know what ‘women*’ means, though I can guess. But what once again makes Mr Illsley such an attractive and compelling thought leader is the detail of his campaign plan.
He thinks that Oxford University’s teaching materials, including lectures, tutorials, seminars and (brilliantly) reading lists should be classified as criminal hate speech. Not just as a general piece of invective: he means that it should be possible to make legal claims against the university on that basis under the Public Order Act of 1986. And since that might take some time to organize, while we are waiting the university should adopt policies as if that were already the case. Sharp legal minds might like to consider this Jesuitical argument:
The University should prevent incitement to hatred on the grounds of gender identity, disability, and socio-economic status as if those groups did enjoy the protections set forth in the Public Order Act 1986.
‘At a bare minimum’ this should include trigger warnings on reading lists (a policy adopted by the Student Union last week, which has prompted the national press attention), but beyond this minimum a whole magnificent vista of re-invented education heaves into view.
The idea is that in order to avoid the ‘fear of violence’ such hate speech inevitably arouses in a group that merely with ‘women*’ includes over 50% of the student body, they should be able to take legal action against any attempt to examine them on materials thus classified as criminal hate speech, or to require them to read them. Even suggesting they might read them would probably be actionable. With mental illness claims among US college students now running at about 40%, Alex has evidently seen the writing on the wall, to the extent that those not covered by his scheme as Americanization proceeds would be a small and insignificant minority: the cishet wellness untouchables.
To cement his plan as unimpeachable, he does not merely suggest that speakers with inappropriate or unfashionable views be refused a platform. What would be the point of proposing such a mundane and partial solution? No, the idea is that those proposing to question such views in the university context should also now be silenced. This is the purpose of the purge of the reading lists. Mention an article about ‘ableism’ on a reading list – even one whose only purpose is to criticise it – and all students who are part of the herd immunity from hate should (while waiting for the opportunity to prosecute you for the distress caused) refuse not only to attend your lectures, but to take examinations in your subject, on the grounds that this would only encourage you.
This unfortunately is not a fantasy. The only concrete example given in the policy document passed last week is that of the Medical Law and Ethics module taught by Professor Jonathan Herring, a keen proponent of disabled rights, who remarked mildly to The Blue, another Oxford student publication, that ‘If reading lists could not contain any able-ist material, oddly that could mean you could not have some of the leading disability rights writings because those contain a summary of able-ist views.’
Does he think this is a mistake of some kind? While this is now an official if low-level Student Union policy, there is no danger of the University going along with it, and the project is so outrageous that a number of leading academics have been triggered into denouncing it, which is only going to add fuel to the fire as far as naturally bolshy students are concerned. Alex himself must be delighted. Perhaps he is already refusing to attend his lectures, tutorials or seminars, and refusing to look through his reading lists; but as Prof. Herring is a former lecturer at Christ Church, I suppose they know each other personally, and perhaps they should discuss it over breakfast. Alex no doubt finds great inspiration for protecting the working class as he sits in the magnificent panelled hall and helps himself to a little more toast from his silver toast-rack with some marmalade from his silver marmalade-pot, wondering if he might ask the servants for another kipper to fortify him for a long day refusing to prepare for examinations and devising some still more ingenious plans for personal advancement. King’s Counsel Illsley? Lord Chief Justice Illsley? More devilled kidneys, sir?