News Editor, Noa Hoffman, sat down with Robbie Travers to talk about Esme Allman’s complaint against him, the emotional impact of his latest public scandal and the boundaries of free speech.
Is it fair to accuse Allman, a black woman and former BME convener, of being a racist, akin to a neo-nazi?
Let me put this to you what would happen if you were to call a black man trash? Personally, I think we have to look at the climate we’re in. There is anti-black racism rapidly on the rise in the US, black men are getting shot by the police. We have a dangerous environment here and I think that Esme has done quite a lot of good work towards Black Lives Matter. But for someone who thinks that black men deserve inherent respect, to then call them trash? I don’t think Esme is racist as a person but what she did is say something that was racist.
I never reported Esme Allman to the university because I think her views were sociological. I think she was trying to say ‘I disagree with black men’ and this is why I challenged her on it. And the end of the day I think she’s said something that’s extremely worrying, it’s quite troubling. This is the language akin to neo-nazism. It might not be neo-nazism, I didn’t call her a neo-nazi, I’m saying her language in that individual instance was reminiscent of having dealt with neo-nazis. I’ve dealt with neo-nazis who have called black men trash so I just thought it was such a dangerous statement to make. Allman made a comment that could arguably be part of a structural racism against men. Now, if you made that comment I would condemn you if she made that comment I would condemn her.
Did you intend to provide your audience with the context surrounding Allman’s comment? She believes you did not.
I think its very interesting because I did say in further comments in the post that there was a context to which she was responding to an article but a lot of other individuals in the conversation also made the comment ‘black men are trash’. Even though there’s a heat of the moment, if you’re in a public position I think you have to be able to defend what you say in public. Facebook is a public forum and she published the comments in a group on Facebook. As far as I’m concerned once you publish something on Facebook it’s absolutely public.
[Allman’s] comment has a decontextualized accord. Would you say that there is an acceptable context for calling black men trash? I would say the only acceptable context would be someone else saying it and then condemning it. There is never really any grounds or any basis for calling black men trash unless perhaps it’s a satirical thing mocking racists, but it wasn’t, it was a comment expressed out of frustration. But when I’m frustrated I try not to be racist.
Allman claims you threatened her to release her ‘black men are trash’ comment to the public. What motivated you to allegedly do that?
I didn’t threaten her, I said it would help if she would just apologise. This comment could ruin her career. I mean if you look at whats on Facebook these days her background check is now going to be worrying. [Her comments] are now all over the international press who have seen evidence that she has made a racist comment, a comment that she could have simply made go away by saying ‘this was in the heat of the moment’. To several press organisations she’s defended making that comment, which to me is a bit strange. One doesn’t make a racist comment and then defend it. I think as much as she can say I threatened her I think I was simply raising the possibility of if not me then someone else.
So your motive for asking her for an apology, not threatening her, was out of concern for her career?
Not just concern for her career but the other motivation that racism it’s not acceptable at my university. [Allman] was the BME convener. She is the one person at the university who should be on the record for racism. She’s the person whose thoughts on racism should be disseminated amongst the student body. When you stand for a public position you should be accountable for that. And I think once you make a public comment in a public position which is specifically about tackling racism, which she’s done quite well, that’s a trigger.
Allman told The Student that you threatened to report her to the ‘Prevent Regime for Apparent Radicalisation’. How do you justify that?
I think there are certain elements that I said to her I said I looked at the [BME Facebook] group and my opinion was having looked at the group there were certain comments in that group that were… concerning. There were pro-Hamas comments in the group, I think we all know what Hamas do and believe. These were comments in the group that deeply concerned me, I raised them with Esme. There are some mild parts of anti-Semitism in the group. There was an individual involved in the Edinburgh University communist society who said things like ‘dirty Jews’. What’s the problem with these individuals? These individuals are members of the BME group.
As far as I’m concerned when you’re an anti-racist you’re an anti-racist against anti-blackness and any other form of racism which includes for me anti-Semitism. So to see that sort of thing going on the group I said there are group comments for ‘Prevent’ here. Also as well [someone else commented in the group] that not only are ‘black men trash’ but ‘black men are worthless’, ‘black men are worth putting in the rubbish bin’. Now those comments make me uncomfortable and that’s nothing to do with my identity, I just think that its racist. For me, when I see people going online saying ‘black men are racist’ and then individuals who are connected to a group that pro-Hamas I start to see warning bells.
How would you respond to Allman’s claims that you target the BME community and put minority students at risk?
I’ll quote Edinburgh University and say that there is not only no evidence [that I’m racist] there is actually evidence that I challenge racism. So I was accused of anti-racism and Edinburgh University found that I was actually anti-racist. There are people I’ve targeted over the years in terms of they’ve said something that’s worrying. Never at the forefront was [whether individuals] were are minority. My thing was ‘this is what’s be done, lets actually find out if they did it, if they did it sorry, I will criticise you for it’. I think a lot of people should be more unafraid of dealing with individuals based on what they are and more about what they believe.
You claim that you’re being investigated by the University for ‘mocking ISIS’, Allman told us that actually you were rather being investigated for a breach of the student code of conduct.
Yes well, that’s what was alleged that was one of the things in the evidence that’s alleged to have breached student code of conduct. So if I was to say to you ‘you stabbed someone, you’re therefore under investigation for GBH, this would essentially be the equivalent of Esme going ‘well actually you’re charged with GBH but not for stabbing someone’. So there has to be an act to of breached student conduct. Essentially Esme’s right in a way I’m not actually under investigation for mocking ISIS, well that’s theoretically true but also theoretically not telling the whole truth. Mocking ISIS was a reason why the disciplinary complaint is alleging Islamophobia. But also as well what I would tell you is that the complaint actually noted that there is no evidence provided for any of these complaints. The university saw no evidence. I think a lot of the complaints said there’s ‘massive fear and panic’ at Edinburgh University when I say something. I don’t think that you would say that every time I spoke with my mouth there’s mass fear and panic. I don’t think that’s the case. The complaint essentially suffered from being completely un-evidenced, hyperbolic and having privileged feelings above legal fact.
Why do you focus the majority of your discourse on Islam as opposed to say global warming, Trump or North Korea?
I know it sounds bad but I’m paid for that. I’m paid by multiple organisations I’ve spoken at a national secular society. I’m paid in general to think and write about Islam. Not just about Islam, about anti-Semitism, about the current state of British politics. Climate change is for scientists, I’m not a scientist. I know a lot about climate change but I would leave climate change to someone who knows about climate change in much more detail. I’m a big subscriber of the philosophy ‘if you don’t know about it shut up’.
I have written about Trump, the problem about Trump is every time you mention him you cause a war. Every time I talk about Islam the war is slightly different. The thing about Trump is a lot of the people fighting against Trump are actually helping Trump. The man’s a President yet he’s managed to paint to hundreds and thousands of Twitter followers that he’s a victim of a global establishment. So I’m no fan of Trump and I’ve posted several times about it. The problem is there is an issue for me and the issue largely now is in terms of Islamic terrorism. Now that is an area which I’m normally well published on.
How much damage did the University investigation cause you generally mentally and financially?
I’m lucky, I’ll put it that way. I’m very lucky I have stable employment, I have people who fund me, I have backers that’s fine. Money wasn’t the big issue for me it still isn’t. I’m not going to after anyone for damages that would be counter-productive. I’m going after people for costs. I don’t want to have to pay to defend myself because this went so out of hand. I don’t want to take anything beyond the costs. I think that’s fair because I don’t want to hurt the Uni financially. I don’t even want Esme Allman hurt financially, I just want her to accept that her allegation was completely dismissed without any evidence. What I will say to you is mentally, I won’t lie, it’s not my first rodeo. I’ve been in a few of these things, it’s still tough though. My real concern here is for such an investigation my worry is that students who don’t have the resources or connections might struggle. And that really worries me. I really do think a lot of students wouldn’t have been able to defend themselves effectively.
Where should free speech be intervened?
I am a believer that hate speech is free speech. Racists are stupid people. I laugh at racists. The thing is people should be free to say what they want because actually we’re at university. You and I have the skills to call out a racist and say ‘actually you’re a racist, here’s where you’re wrong, here’s where people deserve their ability to be able to set their own rights.’ However, I believe incitement of violence is a boundary.
Image: Robbie Travers