This isn’t the University of Southampton, but for now let’s think about what happened to free speech on that campus on the 24th October. Emily Dawes, the 21-year-old Student Union President in charge, has experienced some, if we’re being honest, well-deserved slack because of a selection of tweets she posted about a mural at her uni.
Emily's original tweet (deleted) sparked controversy online.
The University of Southampton Senate Room has a mural depicting a WWI soldier being conferred a degree in front of a procession of academics, but Dawes was royally pissed off because they’re all white men. For reference, those roles were nigh-exclusively filled by white men in 1916. Does she also want to paint over The Last Supper to make the disciples not white, which in theory is a more historically accurate proposal?
Of course, as much as her view is rather offensive, journalism like that seen in The Mail Online’s report makes offensive the concept of free speech. Their reporters paint a picture of a 21-year-old suggesting she is hysterical and unreliable, and unworthy of being listened to for “boast[ing] about her ‘extra as heck’ manifesto”, calling her “Nose-ringed Dawes”. I imagine the students of Southampton, whether they agree with the mural or not, would be alarmed by such a depiction.
Emily has since tweeted an apology.
There’s much ado made over Ms Dawes’ American upbringing. Does she or does she not fully understand the severity of her words on British culture? The Mail remains undecided. Yes, the United States looks much more favourably on their living soldiers than their dead ones – hence the Remembrance Day of Europe doesn’t exist in the US, being replaced by Veterans’ Day. Many US History lessons will gloss over war efforts that aren’t American. But clearly the Mail doesn’t have a map, because they repeat several times that the Dawes family home is in Vienna, Virginia – a place no more than 10 miles from the Arlington National Cemetery. And from her tweets it’s obvious she’s got at least an idea of the British pride in Remembrance, so I doubt her comments came from a place of complete ignorance. Nor from a radicalised one. The Mail labels her “activist” and “feminist”, over-emphasises her sexuality and mental health in a design to turn these qualities against her.
How is this kind of hate, written and broadcast worldwide on the internet much like her tweets were, any more acceptable? Most people might disagree with Emily, but we don’t have to villainise her. The tweets have gone for the enthusiastic swearing you don’t expect from her official SU President account, and an apology has been issued. She knows she shouldn’t have said it. And perhaps she doesn’t even think it, taking cues from the students that they might support this, and not expecting the tweets to get far. But even if she does, it really isn’t a view with an aim to cause harm, or erase war sacrifice: it comes from trying to be progressive; it isn’t a spiteful view that deserves to be wiped from free speech.
Let’s not colour a young woman in a position of power as so insane she shouldn’t be allowed an opinion.