On campus free speech, the government will have a fight on its hands
Encouraging signs from the Education Secretary, but it's only a start
Encouraging piece in the Times this morning by Gavin Williamson warning that the government will take a zero-tolerance approach to the silencing of academic freedom on UK campuses:
This is a good start, and I am also pleased to see Williamson citing research and recommendations which Tom Simpson and I advanced in our recent Policy Exchange report on Academic Freedom in the UK.
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For years, many universities have either indulged or tacitly approved of radical activists who shut down controversial speakers around no-go issues of race, gender and sexuality. The range of subjects which run afoul of these sacred subjects has expanded as the meaning of terms like racism, sexism, transphobia and harm has undergone what psychologist Nick Haslam terms ‘concept creep’ to include innocuous behaviour like wearing sombreros.
I have repeatedly locked horns with these tightly-networked activists, who bring together like-minded faculty, students and student unions to police speech boundaries on campus. This exercise of power is concentrated on social media, where news of the latest open letter or twitter pile-on, or video of a no-platforming, energises followers. Sometimes progressive left outlets like Buzzfeed or OpenDemocracy will catch the scent, adding to the buzz. This serves as catnip to activists, earning them likes and a sense of power and self-righteousness from fellow-travelers around the world.
The radical network is extremely well-organised and expert at flash mobs. Like a virtual mafia, it exercises a ‘flat’ form of power, a spontaneous authoritarianism which concentrates on internal campus activism to stifle the academic freedom of dissenters in what the activists deem their sacred ‘safe’ space.
No-platformings are relatively uncommon, but represent the tip of a deeper, growing problem. Activists are launching internal investigations against academics they disagree with, infiltrating university committees, drafting expansive equality and diversity policies, and skewing hiring, promotion and curriculum content. The academic mainstream fears them. An ideologically monocultural, anti-conservative climate is created in the social sciences and humanities which narrows viewpoint diversity, reducing research quality and chilling debates in class. No wonder we found that fewer than 4 in 10 Leave-supporting students felt comfortable expressing this view in the classroom.
The problem is wider, and deeper, than the government might realise – they’re going to have a fight on their hands if they actually want to tackle it.
Many enthusiastic champions of academic freedom are very eager to circumscribe specific freedoms (eg things that are deemed ‘anti-semitic). Gavin Williamson, for one is keen to create a culture of academic freedom, but then pushing academic institutions to adopt a definition of anti-semitism.
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