Two stories today of bravery; and one rather less heroic.
You have probably heard of Malala Yousafzai, whose autobiography I have been reading over half term. Currently 18 years old and in the Upper Sixth in her adopted home town of Birmingham, and the youngest Nobel Laureate of all time after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Malala grew up in the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan at a time when the influence of the Taliban was spreading to such an extent that it took over her home town of Mingora. Bit by bit, all of her accepted freedoms were steadily banned – music, television, women’s shopping; the Taliban insisted on their way of life; they were particularly harsh on the freedoms of women; and they moved towards a position they finally took in early 2009 to ban altogether the education of girls. Furthermore, they were brutal against any minor perpetrators, flogging to death or beheading men for wearing the wrong clothes, or for being suspected of holding contrary opinions. Two remarkable people in particular stood up against this repression: Malala’s father, who was the Head Master of the girls’ school which Malala attended, and Malala herself. Malala’s father spoke out against the Taliban, continued to run his school with a few brave pupils, and tried to get the central government to intervene; Malala herself, only 11 years old, but fiercely determined and the only one brave enough to do so, agreed to write a blog for the BBC to highlight the fear being spread by their occupiers. On October 12 2012, aged 15, Malala was shot by a member of the Taliban who had boarded her bus looking for her on the way back from an exam she had taken that day. Her life was saved only after airlifting to the UK; and since then, far from being cowered into silence, she has stepped up her campaign for girls’ education in the world, and has become a great world figure: a simply remarkable young lady.
You may not have heard of Henry Olonga, a remarkable man whom I am lucky enough to have played cricket with and who has stayed in my home. He was Zimbabwe’s first black Test cricketer when he made his debut in 1995; he has also been a professional opera singer – an unusually brilliant double! What Henry Olonga was most famous for, however, was his stand alongside Andy Flower (the Zimbabwe opening batsman and recent coach of England) against Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe in the 2003 World Cup. The World Cup was being staged in their home country under Mugabe’s repressive dictatorship, and Olonga and Flower (symbolically and importantly, a black man and a white man) decided that they would wear a black armband in the first game against Namibia to state to the world that they were, in their own words, “mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe In doing so”, they wrote in their statement to the world “we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe and to restore sanity and dignity to our nation”. What an unbelievably brave thing to have done. After the tournament, a warrant was issued for Olonga’s arrest on charges of treason and he received multiple death threats to himself and to his family. Olonga fled the country and has not been back since; but his legacy has lasted to this day and his stance remains one of the great moments of bravery that sport can provide on an international stage.
Finally, something to contrast these brave stories from abroad, something far closer to home. Students in our own universities seem to have hit a purple patch of political correctness; there is a craze to ban events and to stop people from giving lectures at university who might be considered to hold “threatening views”. It is called “no-platforming”. Recent no-platforming has involved Goldsmiths University banning comedian Kate Smurthwaite for her views on legalising prostitution; York university banning International Mens Day, which was due to focus attention on the very serious issue of male suicide rates; and perhaps my favourite ban (if that is the right phrase) was at Oxford University, where a student magazine entitled No Offence was banned from the Freshers’ Fair, over fears it may “cause offence”. The magazine apparently aims to promote discussion surrounding ideas people are afraid to discuss.
Tomorrow night, students at the University of York will debate the motion “This House believes freedom of expression is under threat at British universities”. The debate is billed like this on their website:
“Our own university has seen its rank slip from green to amber in a recent free speech study. Is suppression a more powerful weapon than debate, in the battle to defeat dangerous ideas? Are some opinions so harmful, so upsetting, that students ought to be prevented from hearing them? Has the concept of free speech been abandoned by precisely those institutions that should act as its champions? Or perhaps student activists are rightly trying to safeguard themselves and their peers from individuals preaching damaging, oppressive doctrines. Book your free tickets now to secure your place to watch another thought-provoking York Union debate.”
Where do you stand on this? It is important, because the problem lies most clearly, it seems to me, not with the universities, but with schools, where the minds of young people do their growing and are at their most impressionable. It seems to me that there must be some censorship of speech, particularly that which is specifically designed to incite hatred. But for the most part, we not only should debate sensitive topics, but we must debate them. Having the words to defeat unsociable or inhumane actions must be the driving force, as it was for Malala and Olonga. Such issues require bright, socially engaged, balanced and brave people to stand up and debate. We can all learn to do this here. Do not be afraid of the debate; but do always remember the school values whilst you do so: responsibility, integrity, curiosity and endeavour. What you learn here, a sense of security through solid values, respect for one another and how to live peacefully and supportively together, should enable you to be brave if that security is ever threatened later in your life.