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Richard Vaughan: Witch hunt against UCL professor betrays free speech

Richard Vaughan, a Masters student at Sussex, takes aim at the “trial by social media” and the University of Sussex Students’ Union for its record on free speech.

One of the many dangers of social media: the witch hunt (no pun intended) towards Professor Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner who has made invaluable contributions to cancer research, who simply made a joke. Twitter and the media as a whole has in the last two weeks been awash with debate surrounding the biochemist who has made invaluable discoveries in the fight against cancer. Has the debate surrounded another discovery of his? Not at all. This debate centred on a comment he made in a speech to female scientists and journalists in Seoul. A comment which resulted in him being forced into resigning from his position as honorary professor at UCL after being a victim of trial by social media.

His crime? Nothing more than making a joke about female scientists; particularly how they fall in love and how they cry in the face of criticism. Admittedly this may not be seen as a joke that was in excellent taste, but that should not detract from the fact that it was a joke, something which until recently was seen as an acceptable part of human communication.

His joke spread quickly across social media, ignoring any form of context or even explanation, and instantly a large number of fauxminists (to consider them advancing the feminist cause would be inherently wrong) decided to take the most powerful feeling known to modern humankind: offence. Twitter timelines over the world became inundated with demands for his sacking, because as a white male he has spent the last few centuries oppressing everyone else and therefore deserves no human rights today such as freedom of speech.

Professor Hunt has become the victim of a society that feels it has the right to decide what we can and cannot joke about. As a result of these decisions, taken by some person who must feel they have some higher power, the media have been able to spin the story completely out of context and actually add in a quote about thanking the women for making lunch which now appears to not actually have been said at all, focussing only on the joke, not paying any attention to context or his own actual character. Perhaps it is a telling fact that many male and female scientists have publicly backed him in the wake of this ‘scandal’.

As has now become clear, in cases like this, context becomes crucial. All of the reports about his comments missed out two very important words he spoke after his joke: “Now seriously”, followed by praise for female scientists and the role they have played in South Korea. He went on to say that “science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles.” I must admit that I find it odd that the reports decided to ignore these words. Perhaps they did not fit in with the image they clearly wanted to create; one of a chauvinist who wants to oppress women, in the hope of proving that all men are evil. I can only hope that Professor Hunt gets the apologies from the fauxminist groups and journalists who tried to demonise him so openly. Only time will tell if that will happen.

If I am honest, I’m not surprised that this has all blown up completely out of context, nor am I shocked that people will take a comment made in jest and use it to demand that a cancer researcher loses his job. Student politics has long been making up rules about what we are and are not allowed to say.

Even our beloved Students’ Union at the University of Sussex appears to be making ‘one rule for us, one for them’ statements. This is the Students’ Union which tried to ban UKIP from the Question Time event on campus in the run-up to this year’s election, until a petition and poll of students found out that most felt that inviting all major parties to an election debate would help people make a decision on their own. It is the Union that holds a no-platform policy which ‘prevent[s] individuals…known to hold racist, fascist views from speaking at union events’. Who gets to decide what is and isn’t fascist? If you ask me, attempting to ban a political party that does not hold left-wing views seems a bit fascist.

I know that I’m not the only who thinks that the Union appears to take the view that the best way to deal with any opinions they don’t like is to ban them, stick their fingers in their ears and shout loudly so that they don’t have to listen. Unfortunately it is not a particularly mature way of handling opposition. But clearly it is effective: the Students’ Union has received a red rating from Spiked in an analysis of the University and Union’s policies towards freedom of speech.

Anyone who has had a vague conversation with me about the Students’ Union knows that I disagree with most things it comes out with, particularly our very own Communications Officer, Michael Segalov. This is the man who once posted on Twitter that he thought Tories should be banned from speaking at the Union of Jewish Students Conference. This sort of opinion appears to be typical of a Union which tries to ban any groups people might get offended by, and obviously as you can imagine, he would hold this opinion for anyone who might be perceived as offensive.

Not so. The name Bahar Mustafa may ring a bell. If not, I shall quickly recap for you. Ms. Mustafa is the Diversity Officer of Goldsmith’s University, who recently held an anti-racism event, but decided to ban white men from it. An unusual description of anti-racism, I’m sure you may agree.

She later posted a tweet containing the hash-tag “kill all white men”, although she claims this to be a joke. Naturally, she kept her job, as joking about killing all white men and calling people “white trash” is far more acceptable than joking about women crying. She also claimed that, as a minority, she cannot be racist. Mr. Segalov tweeted his support for her, including stating that the Union Executive Committee supported her on their official Twitter – although it later became clear that the Committee did not even meet to discuss it. He compared the tweet to a golf club which only allows male members, ignoring the fact that there are also women-only clubs. He told me that she said her tweet was a joke, and because she is a kind, generous person, he believed her.

I asked him if he would support a kind, generous white person who tweeted about killing all black men. His response: ‘No.’ Funny that. Freedom of speech for all, unless you’re white or a man, in which case, stop talking now before you offend me.

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