December 11, 2020

On Wednesday, there seemed to be some good news in the free speech wars, when the governing body of Cambridge University rejected a new set of speech codes. The rules, proposed by the university council, would have mandated that academics and students at the university should be “respectful” of the views of others.

Of course there was an air of flagrant hypocrisy about such a speech code, since the university was hardly respectful to the views of Noah Carl and Jordan Peterson. So one doesn’t have to be a huge cynic or pessimist to fear that a “respect” clause might, therefore, be used in a highly political or one-sided manner. “Respect” is easily-demanded but begrudgingly given, especially by those who feel they are occupying the moral high ground; and as one of the academics who objected to the proposals, Arif Ahmed, explained to UnHerd, “respect” is also a very weak basis on which to build free speech.

Must a scientist, or anyone else at Cambridge for that matter, “respect” a flat-earther? Or someone who believes it is turtles all the way down? Lost though much of academia is in over-specialisation or specialisation in non-specialisms, this instruction could only further the university’s troubles, creating the situation where absolutely everyone feels entitled to “respect”.

As Prof Ahmed and others suggested, a much better guideline is that “staff, students and visitors” at Cambridge should “be tolerant of the differing opinions of others”. And so on Wednesday this amendment was voted upon and passed with an overwhelming majority.

This was presented as a great win in the free-speech battles both on campuses and in wider society — and of course in some ways it obviously is. But it is also a sharp lesson in how the “diversity, inclusion and equalities” agenda never sleeps, and every small victory is just a momentary skirmish in an endless battle to stop further encroachment.

Because only a day after the vote went against the university council, all employees in the School of Arts and Humanities at Cambridge were treated to an email informing them that their university is “committed to ensuring an inclusive culture of mutual respect and tolerance”. And as with all such statements, the very blandness of the language masks the relentless advancement of a political agenda that is the opposite of tolerance.

One of the first rules of logic I was taught — by a Cambridge-trained philosopher, as it happens — is that you should never utter a sentence the opposite of which would only be uttered by a madman.

Alas the people who now instruct Cambridge’s academics in how to think do not have the rigour of previous generations. It is hard to imagine a sane person instructing an academic body of distinctly intelligent people that their university is “committed to ensuring a hostile culture of mutual antipathy and intolerance”. There may have been certain colleges at certain points where that appeared to be the aim, but nobody would ever state it as such. So why say — why bother even to type out — this verbiage about respect and tolerance? Why waste the time of intelligent people with such drivel?

The answer is that of course the drivel is part of the guiding theology of the time. Just as the university ethos might once have lingered over transubstantiation or the nature of the Trinity, so in our time ancient foundations such as Cambridge have dedicated themselves to belief in these wide and shallow concepts, rolled out by people who are shallow in turn. They are enforced by people who imagine that what they are saying is not just profound, but necessary, and who construct their dogmas in order to try to make them impossible to oppose.

And of course they now have whole armies of bureacrats on their side. People whose sole job — generally remunerated at a level noticeably higher than that of an academic setting off on their career — is to enforce the “diversity and inclusion” agenda. The high priests of this faith may have the odd setback in their battles (such as Wednesday’s vote) but they will not be diverted from their mission for long. For their souls depend on it. Their salaries depend on it. Their pensions depend on it. And they presumably feel some sense of moral distinction from enforcing these edicts.

The email sent to faculty after Wednesday’s vote waffled on about the need to “treat each other with respect, courtesy and consideration” informing them that their employer is “in the process of setting up an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) forum” which would “take forward work in this area” (as opposed to taking work in this area backwards, which would actually — on this occasion — be the recommendation of a sane man).

The Cambridge academics are also told that all staff must “undertake the following Equality and Diversity Training” which includes “Equality and Diversity Essentials” and “Understanding implicit bias”. The university has also apparently agreed that all staff should attend sessions on “Race awareness” and “Respect at work”.

Professor Chris Young, whose signature shamefully signs off this letter, tells his colleagues that “the School would like to see all staff attend these training sessions wherever possible by the end of 2021 and statistics on uptake of the training will be monitored via the School Council”. And if that is not a covert threat from an employer to their employees, it is hard to see what is.

Similar training courses have sprung up at universities across the country, without discussion or consulation, with even well-established academics cowed into attending for fear of damaging their careers. It doesn’t matter how irrelevant their subject should be to the religion of anti-racism — for the new ideology, nothing is outside politics. Many academics are privately very unhappy about the state of affairs, but of course they keep quiet; no one would “respect” their views if they objected.

And thus Cambridge’s best will be subjected to sessions such as “Race Awareness: Whiteness and being a White Anti-Racist Ally”. During this two-part seminar one Dr Joanna Jasiewicz will help Cambridge academics develop “practical tools to become a white ally” and provide “an opportunity for us to speak about race and challenging racism”.

I wonder what conclusions these sessions will come to? Or what presumptions it might make in advance? The fact that implicit bias training has long been comprehensively debunked is apparently not so serious a problem that it should deter Cambridge University from forcing all of its faculty members to undergo it.

But this is the problem with the whole “equalities” system of belief. It is an agenda that never sleeps because it involves an industry paid to stay awake. And not just to stay awake, but to advance. It may lose the odd battle, and be exposed in the odd national publication. Its foundations may be shown to be shallow and its conclusions demonstrated to be false. Yet on it will march, through the faculties and over the schools, around the traditions of an ancient institution and beneath the dignity of the people it forces to submit to it.

Its opponents may be encouraged by the small victories along the way, but in doing so they risk forgetting that every victory on these terms is not a victory — it is merely the slowing down of the advance of this misguided ideology.

Cambridge University’s response to the vote this week is a fine demonstration of this. Yes. the ideology suffered a setback, when faced with an actual vote. But onwards it intends to march, and however wrong it proves still it intends to take its “work in this area” forward, not backwards, to a future of greater stupidity and mental sloppiness. It cannot stop, and it never will — unless it is made to.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the University Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, proposed the new speech code; it was the governing council.