Over recent years, we’ve learned to pay attention to the intellectual trends and taboos on university campuses — they have a way of spilling out into mainstream corporate and political life.
Which is why the vote among the 7,000 faculty at Cambridge on a new ‘free speech policy’ matters. The results will be announced tomorrow at 5pm and will be an indication of the willingness to resist the increasing threats to free speech and academic enquiry around politically sensitive topics.
Cambridge has been in the news all year in this regard —rescinding the invitation of a visiting fellowship to Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, removing academic Noah Carl after his controversial study into race and intelligence, and subjecting a college porter to a campaign to be removed after he voted a certain way on a trans issue as a Labour local councillor.
I spoke to Dr Arif Ahmed, a Philosophy tutor and fellow on Gonville and Caius college, who has raised concerns that the inclusion of a requirement to be ‘respectful’ of people’s opinions and identities, included in the proposed free speech policy, risks legitimising future censorship. He thinks it could have been used to justify excluding Jordan Peterson, on the grounds that he has not been sufficiently respectful of certain religions, or forbidding the inclusion of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a course about free speech. He suggests it is replaced with the word ‘tolerate.’
The influence of universities:
“The universities are a kind of crucible from which all of these ideas spill out. So to take an example, if you think about trans issues, for instance, you know, that’s not just academics talking to each other. But about, you know, what it is to be a woman, what it takes, you know, whether it’s a social construction or not, that’s actually now spilled out into effect in people’s lives. We see, you know, with what’s what’s been happening in Britain, recently, you’ve seen, they can have a very profound effect on people’s lives, you know, whether for better or for worse, the gender recognition act, issues about whether you can give consent to puberty blockers, you know, these are all things that go to the heart of what makes someone’s life better or worse. And these are ideas that come from from academia. So clearly, it’s very important. The these ideas be discussed freely within an academic setting, rather than some particular dogma or ideology being imposed.”
The marketisation of higher education:
“The fact that universities now view students as customers means that there is much more emphasis on making them feel comfortable and making them feel at home.The rhetoric of the people who I politically and philosophically oppose, you find them saying quite reasonable things, which is that university is a community of scholars and students. And scholars and students should be made to feel comfortable in this community so that it serves some sort of social function. You can understand the move towards that now that universities have paying customers. They’re not being subsidised to pay for a certain public good; they’ve got paying customers and they’ve got to give those customers what they want.”
The threat to liberty:
“It will always come under attack from different directions, sometimes from the Left, sometimes from the Right. At the moment, I think it’s coming under attack from both the Left and the Right. So will always be necessary to defend it, there will never be I expect a permanent condition. And we can feel secure about the freedoms that we have. We must be, as they say, constantly vigilant about defending them. So I’m not optimistic in the sense that these sorts of problems will go away forever. On the other hand, it’s extremely heartening, of course, that there are people who are willing to speak out like, like Susan Moore, you know, who’s obviously had the most dreadful, unbelievable time recently, how far this goes, will remain to be seen. The other issue which, on which most of optimism turns in a way is the extent to which these things are either generational effects or age effects. And so what I’m what I mean by that is that it’s not entirely clear to me whether the phenomenon that we’re seeing amongst young people today, even though I don’t think it’s particularly widespread, is something that’s going to continue when these people get into their late 20s, early 30s 40s, and start running things, or whether it’s something that at least to some extent, you know, is that, you know, the kind of rebellion that teenagers having now just as dropping out and taking drugs as the kind of rebellion that teenagers had in the in the late 60s and early 70s. This is the kind of thing a lot of teenagers doing, and when they leave University go out into the real world, or how to get jobs cope with all kinds of pressures that most adults have to face, you know, they’ll very soon drop all of that stuff.”