Forgive me, but this is one of my rare political rants. But it’s related to writing because words have power. They can collapse governments (intentionally or otherwise), destroy a career or leave one subject to ridicule. They impart knowledge and opinions and help people discuss and see differences. There are few places where words have more power than in academia. Yet the world of science and discussion, the pinnacle of freedom of thought and belief, is under attack from both left and right.
Problems with the Right Wing
In a letter just a few weeks ago, Chris Heaton-Harris called on students in the UK to effectively “grass up” lecturers and academics speaking out against Brexit. Heaton-Harris is a staunch Brexiter and later received mild criticism from Universities Minister Jo Johnson who said he should never have sent the letter. The problem with certain elements on the right wing is the rigid adherence to loyalty and obedience. Now, Brexit is becoming like a religion against which we are not allowed to speak or criticise with The Conservative Party as its church whom we must not question.
This is further enforced by the British “newspaper” The Daily Mail whose incendiary comments earlier this year called the judges upholding the law of the land on the process of triggering Article 50 as “traitors”. Now, they too are calling for the “outing” of lecturers expressing Remain sympathies and for students to write in (with hilarious consequences). As Another Angry Voice states in the link provided here, their tactics reflect those of 1930s Germany when Trade Unions and other undesirable groups were eradicated to serve the wishes of the totalitarian regime.
But this is not new from the right wing media. There is and has always been a certain mistrust of education and of the educated, usually imparted by this media, upon their right wing working class readers. Sowing mistrust of “academics” as snobbish elitists who do not live in the real world is norm – when they’re not referring to scientists as “boffins” and “egg heads”. They sow mistrust of education because a compliant and obedient readership guarantees readership. This is a common theme of authoritarian regime, not just in Nazi Germany but also in Stalinist Russia.
Problems from the Left
But before we on the left go giving ourselves a collective pat on the back for not stooping to their level, think again. In some ways, the radical left are just as bad as those on the authoritarian right, using much the same tactics and language. Into this mix comes the concept of “offence”. We can’t say this or do that in case it offends somebody. This is racist, that is sexist and we should point it out all the time and shame those who express views we do not like. The extreme example is the idea of “Safe Spaces“. These should never exist anyway, but in academia which is supposed to foster the idea of free thought and free expression, the idea of a Safe Space is the enemy of the reason universities were set up.
Slightly related to this is “No Platforming”. In the past, a reforming Muslim in Maajid Nawaz (founder of The Quilliam Foundation), an ex-Muslim in the form of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (now a prominent secularist and anti-Islamist campaigner) have been No Platformed. More recently, long-time gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and 1960s feminist campaigner Germaine Greer have also been no-platformed for speaking views that some find unsavoury. You would think that such people would be mistrusted and silenced by the right wing, but his has come from natural allies – left-wing student groups. Tatchell especially has criticised the control and silencing of free speech on campuses across the country.
Then add into the mix the tearing down of statues of famous patrons of the universities. These people may have done unsavoury things in life that we might abhor now, especially related to slavery. But what does tearing down statues achieve? Ah yes – the creation of yet more Safe Spaces where nobody need feel oppressed.
Academia Should be a Place of Free Expression
If you’re at university with the expectation that your deeply entrenched beliefs are never and should never be challenged, then you are in the wrong place. Universities are places for the dissemination of information and presenting facts, no matter how personally unpalatable they are to your personal sensitivities. You should be prepared for research to challenge what you think is true and in turn, any good academic will expect you to challenge theirs in your own personal academic journey.
If we allow our highest educational institutions to be swayed at academic level by personal feelings or political pressure, to silence them with shrieks of “I’m offended by that” or “traitor!” and expecting them to do the bidding of the government of the day, we may as well not have them. Left or right, if that is the sort of world you want to live in then I strongly suggest you move to North Korea.