Oxford Student Union is wrong to no-platform Jenni Murray
Earlier this term, Oxford Student Union’s LGBT and women’s representatives released a statement strongly criticising an event planned by the history society: a talk on ‘Powerful Women in History’ that was to be given by Jenni Murray, the presenter of the BBC’s Woman’s Hour. According to the student’s union, inviting Murray to speak anywhere in the university was ‘deeply inappropriate’, due to a Times column she wrote a year ago, challenging some of the more extreme (and, some would say, anti-feminist) proposals of trans rights activism. She has now pulled out of giving the talk, citing ‘personal reasons’.
I don’t dispute the basic principle behind this statement: that there are some people whom it would be inappropriate to host at the university. Terrorists, leaders of extreme hate groups, individuals almost unanimously reviled by the rest of society.
However, Jenni Murray is not in any sense one of these people. If you haven’t read the 2017 column that got her onto OUSU’s no-fly list, I urge you to do so (link here). It is a thoughtful and sensitive piece that draws on the varied perspectives she has heard from trans people over the last twenty years or so. It is clearly the product of prolonged, serious reflection, and I believe almost all readers would agree that Murray’s voice is not hateful, rude, angry, or inciting violence. Not only this, but the point she is making is not in any way extreme. If the union were to protest everyone who thought the points made in Murray’s column were reasonable, they would be left with a pool of approved speakers that was very small indeed, and excluded a large proportion of mainstream commentators.
The purpose of a union is to speak on behalf of its constituents. For Oxford SU, this ought to involve some recognition that the student body contains a diversity of experiences, opinions, and political leanings, many of which are not shared by the union’s officers themselves. In taking the stance that Jenni Murray should not be invited to speak at Oxford, the statement’s authors have used their positions as a vehicle for expressing their own personal opinions, rather than representing the student body as a whole.
Some students will agree wholeheartedly with the statement against Jenni Murray — as is of course their right. Others may believe that Murray’s column last year was flawed, in poor taste, or advanced opinions they object to; while disagreeing that it is inappropriate for her to speak at the university. Perhaps they take the view that ‘no-platforming’ as a tactic is always something to be opposed, no matter how controversial the speaker. Or perhaps they see Murray, an accomplished journalist with a unique insight born from interviewing women from all walks of life for over thirty years, as an interesting speaker whether or not they agree with everything she has ever said.
Others still, and I count myself among these, actively admire Jenni Murray. I attended a talk that Murray gave last year (also heavily protested by the student union) and thought she was fantastic. Her recent book, A History of Britain in 21 Women, was very enjoyable. She has been a fixture in UK media for longer than I have been alive, representing women’s concerns in all manner of issues. I would love to hear her speak again, and I am very unhappy to have the decision made on my behalf, by those who claim to speak for me, that I may not.
The point is that this is a contentious issue, and our representatives should take into account the diversity of feelings on it before coming up with an official position on our behalf, if indeed they need to do so at all. They are not supposed to be speaking for themselves here, but for all of us.
My own perception is that, far from standing up for the welfare of women, the statement sends a deeply concerning message about the union’s view of women — older women especially — in the public sphere. Student unions may have a reputation for being trigger-happy in denouncing speakers, but I find it hard to imagine a similar level of hostility being raised against a male commentator who wrote a single opinion piece expressing really quite mild and mainstream ideas. It seems that older feminists are permitted to share their perspectives on feminism only if they are in line with the dominant view within the student bubble. I believe this would be a grave mistake on the part of the student body if that were its unanimous conviction; for union representatives to unilaterally advance this policy on our behalf is unjustifiable.