Jo Mitchison a member of the University of Manchester’s Free Speech and Secular Society, claims the culture of not engaging with controversial opinions is to blame for the success of Trump and Brexit
Jo Mitchison was not your typical student free speech advocate. Instead of being a passionate alt-right, clad in a ‘Make America great again’ cap to honour the new President elect, and carrying in a copy of the Daily Star in mockery of its recent ban, in walked Jo.
Clad not in a red cap, but a knitted cardie and purple scarf, Jo, who despite warning me she was woefully full of cold and may not be sparkling, was someone you could not help but warm to.
Jo, a mature student in her first year of studying adult nursing, is a part of the Free speech and secular society (FSS) and described herself as a feminist and liberal leftie, not two descriptions I imagine many would have expected to come before ‘free speech advocate’ in the landscape of today’s student politics.
We met in the Students’ Union, surroundings which could have stirred up animosity for my interviewee, yet instead the interview ended with Jo saying she “would just love to see a dialogue” set up between her society and the Union.
She even suggested an event could be held for there to be a breakthrough in relations, arguing they just “need to be talking more. We’re never going to fix the world if we’re just shouting at each other from opposite sides of the wall” and then when they do talk they might “find we’re not on opposite sides of the wall at all, but unless we start talking we’re never going to find that out are we?”
During the interview Jo admitted the society is having to enforce some reputation damage control this year, alluding to the string of reports of clashes with the Students’ Union Exec team, most famously in the case of the Milo Yiannopoulos and Julie Bindel no-platforming and the displaying of the controversial Charlie Hebdo cover. Jo stressed that most of this “bad reputation” was out of control of the society. She lamented the fact “that people from the Students’ Union just do not want anything to do with us, and I know we’ve been called crazy right-wing, Nazis, which is really misinformed”. Apparently invitations have been extended to the Exec, “but there is just an unwillingness to engage with us, probably because they think we’re a bunch of evil people but that’s wrong! It’s really wrong.”
Jo actually got involved in the FSS off the back of the Yiannopolos and Bindel controversy, after standing in to organise the Yiannopolos event on campus which eventually went ahead away from the Union building. After that Jo was kept on as what she describes as the ‘informal social events organiser’.
Our conversation started in the same way every conversation has probably started since Wednesday morning, with Trump. Jo believes the culture of not engaging with controversial topics it partly to blame for the result, as it has created “a sort of echo chamber.”
She argued that when “people say ‘I don’t agree with that opinion at all, that must make you a terrible person, and I’m going to ignore you to show that I disapprove of what you say’ that doesn’t stop them thinking what they think, talking and mobilising and eventually apparently winning really important votes.”
Jo spoke passionately about her belief that when people feel “shunned” and thought of as “terrible people” it only adds to the problem. She believes “if you don’t argue with those people they’re not going to change their mind, they’re just going to talk to people who agree with them, and it’s just always going to be polar opposites at odds.”
We then turned to safe spaces and trigger warnings, the two areas where free speech activists have clashed with unions most. Against what many might have expected, Jo claimed, acknowledging it might surprise some to find out, that she thinks “it’s great that there is somewhere where you know you can come and they’re not going to tolerate abuse.”
Jo revealed she had taught at a university level before and had herself imposed a sort of trigger warning before each lecture, explaining that if she thought a topic might be difficult for some “I’d just give them a bit of a heads up the week before and if they just decide ‘well I can’t have this, they just wouldn’t come’, it’s kind of just good manners.”
Jo then opened up to explain how this response stemmed from the personal tragedy of her Dad dying when she was young. She recalled skiving school if she knew that they would be doing family members in languages, because she “was terrified. I didn’t want to have to say, my Dad is dead.”
While she believed that in this sense safe spaces and trigger warnings were good she still believes things can “go a bit far”, we need to keep “discussing controversial thing, things that might offend you, these are important ideas to engage with, because they’re out there, and they need challenging, discussing and combating.”
The most recurring theme in no-platforming seems to surround people’s opinions on trans issues, which Jo addressed, acknowledging that she is not a trans person and was speaking from her “own privileged position.” She explained her belief that we need to accept “people have questions about it, they don’t understand it. Some people are very against it, they probably don’t know much about it, and I completely understand it’s awful to be constantly questioned, constantly bullied, and all that kind of stuff, but they [critics] are not going anywhere.
“If we don’t engage with these awful, awful opinions, they’re just going to stay awful.”
I then wanted to explore more what it was like to be a “liberal leftie feminist” in a society which has been, as she described, compared to Nazis. Jo admitted it has been “challenging” because she had “never encountered these views before” and now she is encountering anti-feminists. However she celebrated the fact that people who she first met as really anti-feminist are “now less anti-feminist because they’ve talked to me so that’s got to be a good thing.”
Interestingly she claimed that while when she joined the society it was mainly right-wing, now it’s mainly left-wing. She explained this in relation to the way society is going: “Before the people whose opinions were seen as wrong and bad were the right-wingers, so they were the ones using the label of free speech to demand that they are heard, and that’s why free speech is associated with all these, in my opinion, terrible awful opinions.”
She admitted it is still this way in student politics as the NUS is still “definitely left wing, so they’ve got no reason to fight for what they’re trying to say, because it’s like they’re the ruling party and it’s the minority right-wingers who are saying ‘don’t silence us – free speech!’”
Yet she warned that “if you say to someone, ‘you can’t talk about that it’s a terrible awful opinion’, what happens if they get in charge? And they’re like ‘well you shut us up’?” I then brought up the recent calls by Tory councillor Christian Holliday for those still supporting EU membership to be charged with treason, as an example of the tables turning.
Jo agreed and claimed that “that’s why you’ve got to fight for free speech across the board, even though you might hugely, hugely disagree with it, because we need to uphold it, because you never know when it might be you needing free speech for something genuinely important to you.”
Course: Adult Nursing, first year
Balance of life/society: Terrible. She “works two jobs, so basically I do what I can when I can… So yeah I balance it with difficulty.
Best part: “Meeting people. We’ve got gay people, straight people, people who aren’t gender binary, people from all over the world it’s so interesting, and I’m just getting my ideas shaken up and changed and I always love that.”
Worst part: “Feeling frustrated that I can’t initiate the kind of dialogues I want to initiate and where I’ve tried I feel like I’m in the middle trying to say ‘no don’t shout at each other, let’s just talk.’”
Where will you be in 15 years?: In the middle of a nursing career, a published fictional writer — if I ever get time to write the damn book.
They are also running a series of events, called ‘Dangerous conversations’. The premise being “we’re going to discuss things that are controversial that people might feel that they’re not comfortable talking about normally and they’re certainly not comfortable giving their real opinions so it’s a non-judgemental open forum.”