By Freddie Gough
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mum dragging me kicking and screaming into nursery. This wasn’t because my preschool education was particularly traumatic, but more to do with the fact that I was always something of an anxious child. I didn’t much like going out of my comfort zone and my natural assumption was that new places were strange, dangerous and therefore very scary. I distinctly remember the sense of injustice I felt every time my childish yelling wasn’t taken seriously. Why was I being made to do something I so clearly didn’t want to do? How could mum not hear the ear piercingly loud screeching I was making? The fact that my nursery teachers laughed at me the harder I stomped my feet only made matters worse. This scenario occurred on a near daily basis, with the same outcome every time.
It goes without saying however, that my mental age did not remain at that stage forever. As I got older, I learned that being obnoxious and shouting as loud as possible was not the best way of achieving my goals. It turns out that people aren’t particularly receptive to relentless heckling and whining. There are always going to be things in life that we do not like and ruining everyone else’s day by trying to eradicate them will only negate any sympathy that others may have with your cause.
This made me all the more intrigued when last week, I encountered several fully-grown adults who had yet to come to grips with this concept.
You see, last Friday I attended a talk by one Jacob Rees-Mogg, that was being hosted by the Politics and International Relations Society. This much sought-after event had been in my diary for some time and I was very much looking forward to it. I have always liked Jacob as a character. Often (and I think aptly) referred to as the Right Honourable Gentleman for the 18th century, I admire the strength of his convictions. For whatever criticism has come his way, I have never seen him flip flop on a policy simply because his original position is no longer in vogue. Furthermore, the fact that I disagree with him on variety of issues only made me all the more excited for the event. What better way to explore these differences than in a Q+A session of this nature? Is that not the point of both university and politics in general?
Jacob entered the room to a lengthy round of applause from an enthusiastic, full capacity audience. However, shortly after he began speaking, the event was interrupted by what can only be described as a gang of 8 or 9 overgrown children, wearing ski masks and sunglasses. The reason I describe them like this, is because their behaviour reminded me exactly of my own from all the way back when I was at nursery. The protesters entered through the back door of the lecture hall and immediately proceeded to shout, stomp and scream as loud as they could so as to halt the event. They claimed that Jacob was something of a racist/fascist and that they were unhappy with the lack of single mothers in the audience (yes, they actually said this).
I will state clearly at this point that people have every right to freely protest things that they don’t like. While I personally prefer having a dialogue with those whom I disagree with, I completely understand why others opt for a more collective approach. My criticism of this group specifically is with the tactics they employed when staging their protest. Not only does one not have the right to break into a ticketed event and then physically harass those in attendance, it is also just plain rude to scream in the faces of one’s ideological opponents. It is not conducive to a civilized discussion to simply try and bully those who oppose you, and when you do so wearing balaclavas and hoods, your self-defining as “anti-fascists” becomes about as meaningless as the “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea.
With that said, I now see why my nursery teachers found my infantile whining so funny, as when the group first stormed in most of the audience just laughed. There was actually an audible chuckle when one of the protesters screamed “NAZI!!” as he hammered his feet on the floor. However, much like with a screaming child, after about 10 seconds the situation stopped being funny and instead became quite incredibly irritating. I confess, I am not a particularly patient man, but even a Tibetan monk would have had a hard time not becoming infuriated by these morons. What’s more, it became increasingly apparent that security were not going to be arriving to remove the mob anytime soon. Realising this, myself and a group of fellow knitted jumper wearing friends put our most serious faces on and decided to go up and kindly ask the protesters to stop acting like a class of year 4s and to please leave the grown-ups in peace.
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t much like this. “Get away fascists!” they screamed as we approached them. Jacob had already been up there for about a minute before we arrived and by this stage they had become increasingly riled up. One of the particularly vocal protesters began trying to shove the rest of us back down the stairwell. Unfortunately for me, I ended up face to face with him and so had to endure an unhealthy level of exposure to his impossibly smelly breath. It’s a pity he was one of the few who hadn’t tried to cover his face, as I suspect one could be tried for war crimes with the kind of gases he was releasing from his mouth.
What was clear throughout all of this, was that this gang of childlike adults were not there for a discussion. They were there to cause havoc, drown out all other voices and intimidate those who had dared to attend a lecture at their own university. Perhaps the only mob member more tragic than the foul mouthed (both literally and figuratively) individual mentioned earlier, was the 40-something year old bloke who appeared to be orchestrating the whole thing. I mean seriously, what kind of loser has nothing better to do with their Friday nights at that age than to spend it intimidating 20-year-old politics students on a university campus? I think if I found out that my dad had done something similar, I would probably change my name by deed poll…and then file for a restraining order.
To cut a long story short, the scuffle continued for a good 10 minutes before eventually the security team arrived and restored order. Once the mob had finally been removed, the talk was able to continue and proved to be even better than I had initially expected. Jacob talked about the economy, Brexit, housing and most unusually for the modern day, media savvy, air brushed politician: his honest opinions. My favourite part of the event was by far the Q+A session in the latter half. It was clear that many students in attendance were not going to be buying Moggmentum t-shirts any time soon. However, because they had IQs that were above single digits, they were able to articulate their disagreements in a way that didn’t involve bullying and harassing the other audience members. They pressed him hard on issues like welfare spending and foodbanks. I suspect I was not alone in feeling like I’d developed a greater understanding of both sides of the debate from hearing the discussion.
What was most amusing about this entire situation, was that the protesters’ intended aim of shutting down the event went entirely unachieved. Their rather naive belief that a small group of balaclava wearing dweebs could terminate a high profile, 300 person lecture highlights just how childlike they really are. I do not recall a single instance from my childhood where my mum turned to me a said, “thank you for giving me tinnitus Freddie, now let’s get you out of this awful nursery and back into your comfort zone”. Not only was my incessant crying ignored, if anything it hardened any sympathy that others might have felt for me. Now if I had to come to terms with this aged 4, I don’t think it’s much to ask for a group of fully grown adults to do the same.
If you dislike Jacob Rees-Mogg so much, engage your brain, buy a ticket and come and challenge him with a difficult question. Not only might you change his mind, you’re also far more likely to persuade the rest of audience to agree with you than if you just harass them and waste their time. The subsequent cross-party condemnation of last Friday’s events highlights just how important open discussion is to our political process. This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a matter of common sense. If groups like this can’t come to grips with that, then they shouldn’t be surprised when we refuse to take them seriously and just laugh at them instead.
Since publishing this article only a few days ago, I have received feedback from several individuals advising me that I ought to clarify my statement “I have always like Jacob as a character”, so as to make clear that I am referring to his personality and not his political views. Setting aside the fact that I actually do this in the very same paragraph, these comments speak to a wider problem in our political discourse. There is something very Orwellian about my need to pledge allegiance to the accepted ideological consensus, before I can enter a conversation about a politician.
In the aftermath of the events that occurred at last Friday’s talk, those wishing to defend Jacob’s right to free speech feel obligated to first state their disapproval of his political views. While I’ve no doubt that their objection to some of his opinions is genuine, my problem is that they feel as though their point would lose legitimacy if they did not state this fact clearly from the outset. While I did make clear that I think Jacob is wrong on a number of issues, I deliberately did not labour over this fact because it is quite frankly not relevant to the overall meaning of the article. I would therefore ask that you do not get hung up over this matter and instead focus on the principles that underpin all of this, namely freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom from political violence.