Free speech, ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’ seem to be common talking points in mainstream media lately. The ‘culture-war’ manufactured by right-wing media outlets has hit close to home before, but never closer than a first-year Durham student’s opinion piece in the Daily Mail comparing student protests over the invitation of Rod Liddle to a Christmas formal at South College to Maoist China. As a student of Tibetan heritage, this comparison could not be more odious.
When I was a child, I had many friends of dual heritage, and many whose parents were refugees, or migrants. They would go to visit their family abroad at least once a year. They would tell me about their Oma and Opa, Dziadek and Babcia, Waigong and Waipo, and how excited they were to visit them, the foods they would eat and the games they would play. I couldn’t relate to them, because my family lived in Tibet.
Many of them had been killed under Mao, whether through execution, starvation, or during combat with the Chinese military. Many had been imprisoned for no crime and without trial, and often tortured. The rest suffered ‘struggle sessions’, the curbing of their religious freedoms, and the destruction of their language and culture. I couldn’t visit them, because Tibet still felt, and continues to feel, the effects of communist occupation: limited movement in an effective lockdown of the Tibet “Autonomous” Region, a very small section of historical Tibet.
The “[i]ntolerance of dissent” supposedly pervasive at our University and decried in the Daily Mail article in question has been compared to Maoist China. For me, “intolerance of dissent” in Maoist China has been characterised by the execution, imprisonment, and human rights violations used to punish my family for the crime of being their ethnicity.
A lecturer, or a student, disagreeing with someone and choosing not to listen, to walk out, or to protest is clearly incomparable to the horrors committed against ethnic minorities in China, both historically and in the present day.
The fact that I can’t visit my family, or the country, I feel so closely connected to is a grave injustice and highlights how the curbing of human rights echoes down the generations. In my twenty-two years, I have only been to historical Tibet twice and never set foot in the Tibet Autonomous Region, while my friends could visit their families abroad for Christmas, or their summer holidays.
If I said “free Tibet” in Maoist China, I would be put in prison, tortured, or executed. If you say that you agree with Tim Luckhurst, or Rod Liddle’s comments at Durham University, the worst that could happen is other people will disagree or won’t like you much. Clearly, the two are incomparable.
Getting into Durham was, of course, a dream for me. Until now the only slight I have felt against my culture and my family is people un-ironically declaring themselves Maoists. However, to claim that students walking out of an unexpected speech given by one of the most controversial columnists in the country, and the ensuing protests and reaction of the University administration, is in any way comparable to what my family have suffered is nothing short of an insult.
The nature of any university ensures pervasive discussion and debate in seminars, lectures, and societies. I have been actively involved in Durham University Debating Society for the past two years, and we would be happy to host those who disagree with any of us politically for a spirited debate. A speech at the end of dinner is not a discussion or a debate, it is exactly that — a speech.
Free speech is not entitlement to be listened to, and South students equally exercised their freedom by walking out and going to the pub instead. Had these comments been made in a seminar, or discussion panel, where differing opinions are given equal platform, those who sacrifice their own respectability on the altar of ‘free speech’ might have a leg to stand on. But they weren’t, so they don’t.
In England, my father kept our culture alive by teaching me and my brother about it through food, language, religious ceremonies, and traditions. I have a Tibetan name, and so does my brother, and his son. I call my grandmother and grandfather Ama-La and Anye, I take part in Buddhist traditions like burning incense and saying prayers (and later became a Buddhist myself). I stuff myself with momos, thenthuk, tingmo, thukpa (and avoid my dad’s sepen, homemade chilli paste). Our house is decorated with Tibetan rugs, thangkas, an altar, and prayer flags wave from the apple trees in the garden. I value the free speech we have in this country even more given my family’s history, and I recognise the importance of universities — both in their proliferation of debate, as well as their duty of care.
To those who compare the perceived curbing of their free speech to Maoist China, know this: you would not be able to write articles about it in Maoist China. You would not be given chocolate by your professor, and you would not be having student elections. You would not have debating societies. You would not be able to complain about a student protest, because there would be none. You would not be given a byline in a national newspaper. If you were Tibetan, you would not be able to speak your language, raise your flag, or practice your religion.
You can still be imprisoned for sending an email that says “free Tibet”, saying “free Tibet” out loud, teaching the Tibetan language, or for singing a song about Tibet. You would be lucky if you escaped with your life, let alone your sanity. Consider your analogies before you make them.
Image: Iori Sean Thorpe