A Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research (SCSR) poster advertising an “informal discussion” on “how to deal with right wing attitudes and politics in the classroom” has sparked controversy.
Some students have reacted with anger at the academics’ apparent ideological bias against “right wing attitudes and politics”, with third year History and Politics student Harry Howard writing an opinion piece for the Telegraph arguing that professors think right wing students at Sussex are a “problem that needs ‘dealing with’”.
However, it is not only “right wing” students themselves who are unsettled by the poster.
Luke Williams, third year Politics student and a member of Politics Society’s committee, told The Badger that he agrees with Mr Howard although he is on the left of the political spectrum. “I’m certainly not on the right and many students who have defended the meeting say that the context for it was the racist Mosely stickers and that it was a response to extremism. But I can’t accept this… One cannot lump in these acts with the phrase ‘right wing’”, he said.
Mr Howard says that he contacted organiser Professor Jan Selby (director of SCSR) asking for clarification on how SCSR intended to define “right wing”. Mr Howard wrote in The Telegraph: “He never did (answer me) which is somewhat revealing, but the university now says the label referred to ‘extreme attitudes’ such as racism, sexism and homophobia”.
The Badger contacted Prof Selby and is awaiting comment. However, the School of Global Studies told The Badger they have not received any complaints about the poster.
Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Adam Tickell sent all students an email in response to Mr Howard’s Telegraph article.
“Whilst the intention was to explore how to handle racism and homophobia, as a powerful blog by one of our students points out, conservative students feel diminished and excluded by their lecturers. Racism and homophobia exist across the political spectrum and there should be no elision between right wing politics and extremism”, he said. Said the VC: “We must never forget that we must value and embrace difference rather than try to shut it down. These values seem more important to me than at any time within my lifetime: the growth of incipient authoritarian attitudes in some countries that we have historic ties to requires universities to model openness and tolerance”.
Reactions to the statement have been polarised.
University employee and student Jake Moore condemned the VC’s statement, telling The Badger: “The poster was clumsily worded but we are seeing a marked rise in xenophobia and while we should have free discussion this is not without bounds; respect is not earned for opinions which do not respect humanity. Not so long ago it was a common opinion that segregation should exist. There is no room to agree to disagree in cases of injustice. Tickell is at best naive at worst utterly unconcerned about any idea of justice”.
However, a third reaction of students is bewilderment, with some failing to see the importance of the poster itself. Andrea Garcia, second year History student, said: “I’m surprised this is causing such a fuss because as far as I see it, this is just a poster which was poorly worded. The university has clarified that it was an attempt to prevent racism and homophobia in class, which I think is very important and I hope that fundamentally everyone already cares about respect and compassion in the classroom. It seems like this is a national news story which is just about a misunderstanding”.
The Badger asked Mr Howard what he thought of the discussion sparked by his opinion piece. He said: “I’m very pleased that my article has provoked a response from the ‘powers that be’, and I’ve had many nice messages of support from many people who had similar views to me but were too afraid to speak their mind, for fear of being disliked. That isn’t the sort of environment that anybody wants at a university.
“However, I am also surprised at the level of the official reaction, because, when you think about it, all I did was express a different point of view, and stated some very obvious things. The real story is the poster itself, and the willingness to be so lazy in the use of political language by those who should know better.”
The final paragraph in the VC’s email has sparked a second controversy of its own.
Cautioning students against divisions and “intimidation”, the VC said: “Next week has been designated as ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ and even the language is deeply upsetting to many members of our Jewish and non-Jewish community. During this time, it is imperative that everyone feels supported and we will not tolerate intimidation of anyone for their religious or political opinions about the politics of the Middle East.”
Israeli Apartheid Week defines itself as an “international series of events that seeks to raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system over the Palestinian people”. It also aims to “build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement”.
In March 2015 Sussex students voted overwhelmingly to support BDS in a referendum which came only months after the summer 2014 conflict which resulted in 2,220 Palestinian civilian deaths and 66 Israeli soldier deaths according to the United Nations.
Sussex Friends of Palestine Society, the organisers of Sussex’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events, have taken issue with the VC’s words, saying they are “deeply disappointed” in his decision to “imply that a series of events taking place at the Sussex and universities across the world next week titled Israeli Apartheid Week is somehow problematic”.
The response said: “It is very unfortunate that Mr Tickell has used his power to imply that support for Palestinian rights is motivated by anti-semitism or intolerance. This is a view that dehumanises Palestinians, including the many Palestinian members of the University of Sussex community and our group that are directly impacted by Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians. By smearing our group and the very concept of standing up for Palestinian rights, Mr Tickell has failed in his duty to act responsibly in the interests of the welfare of all students”.
Rachel Rose, a Jewish student studying History and Sociology in her second year, said: “Jews across the country, regardless of politics, often feel excluded from being part of the dialogues and discussions during Israel Apartheid week. By demonising and delegitimising Israel, which plays a part in the identity of 93% of British Jews, IAW fosters an environment in which Jewish students feel intimidated and uncomfortable in having their voices heard.”
Sussex Students’ Union has released a response to the VC’s statement emphasising that they “support the right of all students to express their views and to be free from harassment, discrimination and abuse of any kind. We reaffirm the right of all students to stand up against any discrimination they or others experience on the basis of their identity”. Simultaneously, they emphasise: “in line with the Students’ Union policy on Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions we support students holding events for Israel Apartheid Week and acknowledge that the actions of the Israeli state fall under the United Nations definition of apartheid.” A meeting is planned between Students’ Union officers and the VC.