WHEN a Tory government launches a plan supposedly aimed at strengthening “academic freedom,” even the most accommodating of university vice-chancellors, the most compliant of academics and certainly most students raise a sceptical eyebrow.
Governments are apt to dress up their institutional drive for executive authority in the language of freedom.
“Free market” rhetoric clothes the insatiable drive towards marketplace monopoly, while the “freedoms” imposed by Nato drones mean the word is the most debased term in global politics.
Our government is to appoint a “free speech” champion tasked with ensuring that freedom of speech and expression is not constrained on campus.
In Britain university autonomy is not quite as highly charged an issue as it is in some countries.
Keeping cops off campus can be a basic survival strategy, as the students of Istanbul’s Bogazici University are finding out as they battle for freedom of expression against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointee as rector of their university.
Nevertheless the Russell Group of the most wealthy and prestigious of universities here leapt to the defence of their institutional autonomy while the National Union of Students weighed in with a perhaps overoptimistic assessment that there is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus.
Crisis? Probably not but problems, certainly.
University and College Union leader Jo Grady makes the point that the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called “cancel culture,” but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus.
An undertow to the government’s schema is a not-so-subtle bid to capitalise on a contrived “culture wars” climate in which libertarians of varying provenance see opportunities to advance their culture of unchecked individualism.
In this climate the defence of humane values and collective solutions to society’s problems are contested from across the ideological spectrum.
The contrast is stark between the government’s adoption of free speech rhetoric over the highly contested terrain of sex and gender, and its simultaneous effort to force universities to adopt the widely criticised (including by its own author) IHRA definition of anti-semitism. It stays silent on attempts to drive speakers with a record of solidarity with Palestinians, such as Ken Loach, off platforms.
It should not need to be added that a left which adopts a mirror image of that stance is being equally inconsistent.
The academic board at University College London have warned that the IHRA definition conflates anti-Jewish prejudice with political debate over Israel and Palestine, which, they say, could have “potentially deleterious effects on free speech.”
They fear “a culture of fear or self-silencing on teaching or research or classroom discussion of contentious topics.”
Similar concerns have been raised over attempts by some students to have Oxford professor Selina Todd, who had her invitation to speak at a conference withdrawn over positions she has taken in the gender identity debate, fired because of opinions she has aired on the question. Threats against Todd even led to the university providing security at her lectures.
Meanwhile, Bristol North West Labour Party secretary Esther Giles — herself suspended for standing up for Jeremy Corbyn — was bizarrely “no-platformed” from a Stand Up for Labour Party Democracy meeting for a similar reason.
When in 1865 Karl Marx was asked by his daughter Jenny to make a confession — or rather to answer a series of questions she posed him — he naturally indulged her enquiring mind.
Asked his favourite maxim, he answered: “Nihil humani a me alienum puto [Nothing human is alien to me]” and for his favourite motto: “De omnibus dubitandum [doubt everything].”
Whether we are discussing the present-day polices of the Israeli state or the materialist foundations of the human personality, these two mutually reinforcing principles provide the best basis for rational debate.
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