Columnism Under Threat - A Response to Epigram's Column Removal

Columnism Under Threat - A Response to Epigram's Column Removal

A lot is made of censorship on university campuses. The irreverent viewpoints of internet agents provocateurs, incels, and those who use the esoteric notion of constitutional free-speech to peddle highly problematic views back into quotidian conversation constitute a particularly large part of this. It is however not something that I have never considered a bona fide dichotomy; I believe that those who are challenged on outward misogyny aren’t suddenly martyrs, they aren’t the last defenders at the gates of liberty as an army of brainwashed, politically-correct androgynes advance, as they like to present it.

Such censorship is a positive thing: it aids community cohesion; quashes divisive falsehoods; and makes the media and internet a safer place for everyone. There is, however, a rather more worrying ramification of blanket, complaint-triggered censorship: the removal of satire. Satire is an entirely different phenomenon to the schismatic ramblings of the alt-right and others, and the long history of satire as a respected and effective media form is well-documented. Concerningly, however, editors now seem either unable or unwilling to distinguish complaints made against offensive content and those made by the butts of jokes and they ultimately resort to the same level of severity for both, which is killing satirical creativity.   

 When I began writing a column for Epigram, I never imagined that any of my writings would ever be divisive and removed from publication. I don’t write about contentious issues. Yet, a fortnight ago, my column seemed to receive enough backlash for my editors to take the decision to have it removed without explanation. What hatred was I spewing? I discussed the closure of Blue Mountain. In it, I wrote that Blue Mountain’s teasing swansong had been an operation in re-asserting its authority over the Christmas clubbing scene, in a savvy, if avaricious, exercise, taking a few Badockians for a long-overdue ride, in the process. This piece was a satirical lampoon on the university’s privileged elites, as well as on the laughable emperor’s new clothes that adorn the gentrified Stokes Croft. I hasten to add that it’s something I’m a part of, myself living in Stoke Bishop and often enjoying the delights of the Gloucester Road, so it was, in part, self-deprecation. They did not see it this way. Instead, what I wrote, in their opinion, was a hate sermon; I was rabble rousing, encouraging the East Village proletariat to march on their Stoke Bishop ivory tower and overthrow the correct order, a status quo of Woodland Road reverence for vintage garms, airpods and embellished anecdotes.

 I am dumbfounded. Not only was my piece picked up by a Bristolian stratum I would never have considered to be in the Epigram readership, but they had also taken such great offence at my Punch-and-Judy repartee that they had gone to the effort of demanding its removal. Shortly after publication, I saw a comment describing it as “trash.” That’s fair enough. People have every right to respond to what I write however they see fit. I fully accept that voicing opinions in a column sometimes leads to a certain level of disagreement, and that person, who I later discovered was a Blue Mountain rep, was perfectly within his rights to voice his reaction to what I wrote, and I respect him for sticking his head above the parapet to respond - as is his right. However, it was not as a result of this pithy if slightly inarticulate comment that what my column was removed, I imagine. I don’t know for sure as the editors of Epigram haven’t reached out to me once to explain the reasons why they decided to censor this parochial piece, despite my plethora of increasingly irritable tweets. This is poor form on their part, and it is this censorial shadiness that is most worrying. It is hard to imagine a more parochial subject matter, yet still this has proven too much of a divisive subject for some gentle satire. Fortunately for them, they have had it their way, and there is no trace of it left. It did make it into print before the backlash started, however, and for those of you with a copy of last week’s Epigram sitting in your room, keep hold of it - it’s now a collector’s piece; I half expected to see it redacted with Sharpie, but it was at least granted a dignified death in the pulping machines at Bristol Recycling Centre.

 The whole debacle has, without doubt, irked me. Such behaviour not only utterly disregards the significant amount of work that goes into writing such a satirical think piece, but it also sets a dangerous precedent for topics that actually matter, are relevant and have a tangible impact upon our society. The list of no-go topics grows longer and longer. Hateful and offensive material has, quite rightly, been censored, but nowadays, ever more banal subject-matter is being kicked into the long-grass of censorship, in Orwellian fashion. Furthermore, it is the way in which our writing is removed that is troublesome, press censorship is hushed-up, as if it didn’t happen at all. This is because censorship itself is a divisive topic, and we are living in a zeitgeist of non-debate. Were such issues brought out into the open, we could engage with them, engage in debate and find solutions.

 As university students, we can’t be wrapped in cotton wool, the millennia-old foundation of higher education is to have one’s ideas and opinions challenged, and it is this process moulds both an intellectual, and a global citizen. Moreover, the nine-hundred-year-old Magna Charta Universitatum to which Bristol University is a signatory underlines these ancient values. Nevertheless, it is all too easy for people to shut down ideas without ever having to risk sticking their heads above the proverbial parapet. My experience is but a microcosmic and trivial example of this, but in its way, it portrays the extent to which people will go to avoid the satirical contamination of their echo chamber. In less than a day, certain people were able to have a gentle lampoon at their expense swiftly and silently removed, so that they could return to hearing exactly what they like to hear and seeing what they like to see.

 Epigram, much like the majority of our media, is a smorgasbord of talented ideas and opinions, yet the maudlin encroachment of censorship is beginning to limit an ever-narrowing view of acceptability in a neutral newspaper. We’ve now seen that a subject as minor as a satirical Blue Mountain lampoon can upset certain entrenched people to such an extent that they (successfully) demand its removal. If this becomes the status quo how are we to discuss, let alone solve, the crippling number of issues facing societies everywhere? When you disagree with something you come across, rather than anonymously complaining, dare instead to write a reaction piece criticising what’s written. The beauty of a neutral publication is that there is boundless room for the expression and articulation of ideas. The platform is equally weighted in your favour as it is in an opposing opinion’s. Tunnel out of dingy echo chambers, into the sun; recuperate with the Vitamin D of discourse, debate and the sharing of uninfringed ideas, as well as a healthy dollop of satirical self-deprecation.  

George Ruskin

Read George’s original article on his Twitter here.