A few hours ago I went to Katie Hopkin’s talk at The Cambridge Union, bumped into her beforehand, and left the event with a significantly altered opinion of her. I want to clarify something from the start: after writing about eating disorders previously I was somewhat incorrectly labeled on more than one occasion as White, middle class and privileged, as if I wasn’t worthy of discussing my mental health issues because of these things. I bring this up because already after posting an Instagram of pictures from tonight someone has labelled me as middle class, as if this [incorrect] point makes my opinions less valid. Yes I am White, and yes I have been lucky enough to receive a good education (through working hard for it) but I by no means am middle class. I come from a working class background, where my parents genuinely struggle on a daily basis to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads. I recognise the privileges that I do have, but I also experience struggles that most of my university peers do not and this gives me an insight as to why some people – including members of my own family – have views that are very different to my own.
I went to Katie Hopkin’s talk with the widely-held view that she was a person with utterly vile, horrible, despicable views… views that I could in no way comprehend myself. But I thought it would be interesting to hear her talk, to try and understand why she acts the way she does, and at least find some entertainment in her pantomime on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday evening.
I bumped into her whilst I was trying to find the nearest toilet before the event, and my friend Owen asked if I wanted a picture with her so I said OK. What striked me was how normal she seemed. She was chatty, quite friendly and even threw in a joke. She even gave me a hug. Yes I recognise that perhaps she would not have been this way around everyone (perhaps she would have acted differently if I was wearing a burka, for instance), but it did remind me that people exist outside of their online or celebrity personas. Whilst we may not share her views, and she is portrayed as a caricature villain in the media, she is nevertheless a human being. She is someone’s mother, wife, daughter etc.
She was very open from the very start of the event, saying that she wished she was allowed to engage in a conversation with the protesters outside and stating that we could ask her absolutely anything that we wanted to. She talked about issues that she holds controversial options on (such as refugees, the NHS and politics), and on these matters I largely disagree with her: I welcome refugees, I don’t believe in the privatisation of the NHS, and I’m a firm Labour supporter that would never advocate for someone like Donald Trump. For me what was interesting was the way in which she responded to questions from the floor. She was good at facilitating discussions, ensuring everyone who wanted to ask a question was able to (despite some disorganised Union stewards doing a poor job of handing around microphones). She never interrupted anyone, and genuinely listened to and engaged with those speaking. She recognised and acknowledged when people made good points that she hadn’t considered before. I’m not singing her praises or anything like that (I still fundamentally disagree with her on almost everything), but I’m pointing out that she did not appear to be the evil monster she is so often presented as in the media.
She made some interesting points, ones that I have certainly not really considered before. When asked what was her most hated thing is, she replied “Liberals”:
“You have a word that doesn’t really reflect anything about you. Liberals have become the new fascists. Because you want to close down speech,”
I am proud to call myself a Liberal. But her point was a valid one. It is commonplace for so-called Liberals to shut down opinions that differ to our own. Yes some people’s views may incite hate or be unfavourable in our opinion, but does that give us the right to pick and choose who should have free speech and who should not? After tweeting and Instagramming a picture of me and Katie after the event I was met with a flurry of comments from left-wing, so-called “Liberal” friends. People were outraged that I had even recognised that she exists and has opinions, let alone suggest that she was actually more pleasant and funny than I had anticipated. She said that she feared children were being “indoctrinated” by left-wing political views in schools, and that celebrities revealing mental health issues were “in danger of teaching people it’s fashionable and cool to say you have a mental illness”. Whilst I believe that we should try to teach tolerance and respect in schools, and not promote extreme views that can increase tensions etc., she has a point. It’s bigoted to force particular views onto children and to make them feel uncomfortable to challenge such views. And whilst I do not agree with all of Katie’s views on mental health, I do agree that it is dangerous to promote mental illnesses as trendy or cool (the main reason why I refuse to watch 13 Reasons Why).
What striked me most was how funny I found her. And I was not alone. The entire Union chamber filled with laughter every few minutes as Katie came out with various quips. For example, when talking about how male politicians drag around their partners on electoral campaign trails whilst female politicians don’t, she said:
“[Nick Clegg] is the most flaccid man on the planet”
I was expecting to laugh at her, not with her. She complimented one audience member on his “great skin” and joked with another about his surprisingly deep voice. As Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” blasted from a speaker outside she was excited to point out that she “love[s] this song!”
Yes, Katie Hopkins is loud, brash and outspoken. Yes, she holds views that I will never agree with. Yes, she plays up to the caricature created of her by the media because it makes her money and gets her publicity (“They are Frankenstein and I am their monster,” she said of the protesters outside. “The more they do that, the more I do this”). But at least she stands for something. She is confident and unapologetic; she defends her views in spite of criticism; she provides reasons for her opinions instead of backing down with a half-hearted “sorry” as soon as she is challenged.
So what have I learnt from tonight? I’ve learnt that it’s problematic to disregard someone’s views just because you do not share them. I’ve learnt that I should be more open to listening to other people, especially those with different opinions to my own. I urge you – if you have the opportunity to do so – to go to talks and debates from people with views different to your own. It’s ignorant and self-indulgent to merely acknowledge our own views. We are living in a period where there are complex and divisive political situations, and so now more than ever is it important to try and understand why people hold such different views.