The folly of Cambridge’s ‘Mutual Respect’ policy
Regulating everyday conversation undermines the central purpose of university
Anyone with common sense must see the folly of regulating everyday conversation; anyone who loves freedom must see the danger in it. But then, anyone who knows Higher Education today would expect universities to try anyway. And indeed in 2021 Cambridge University introduced ‘Mutual Respect’, a speech-and-behaviour policy that achieved a catastrophic hat-trick by (a) defining racism to exclude anti-Semitism; (b) proscribing legal speech (e.g. mockery of religion) as ‘micro-aggressive’; while (c) encouraging anonymous reporting of anyone overheard in these or many other speech-crimes. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, as almost everyone realised and enough of us said at the time. To its credit the University listened: (a)-(c) were withdrawn. But now ‘Mutual Respect’, or what’s left of it, is back. Anyone can sympathise with the desire for workplace harmony. But harmony — in life as in music — cannot be pursued at just any cost, especially not when the cost includes freedom.
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The policy prohibited ‘bullying’, for instance, defined to include anything unwanted and ‘offensive’. But most interesting speech offends someone; the most radical speech offends deeply and widely. Scarcely anyone in eighteenth-century Britain would not have found Jeremy Bentham’s defence of gay rights offensive. And feminism seems to cause similar offence today, at least to some religious fundamentalists and some trans activists. Should a university be restricting feminist speech on those grounds? (If you think the answer is ‘yes’ then you don’t know what a university is for.)
Again, the ‘Code of Behaviour’ proscribed ‘circulating or displaying any type of communication on any form of media that could reasonably be perceived as offensive…’ unless for academic purposes. Possibly the intention was, and probably the effect would be, censorship of social media output. I have colleagues whose tweets about race, religion and the rest of it are both copious and provocative; maybe provocation is part of the point. Still, the last thing I’d want is our local HR monitoring their Twitter feeds for ‘offence’. That doesn’t merely waste resources: it chills speech, thereby slowing the central purpose of a university.
Third, the policy proposed mandatory ‘Equality and Diversity’ training. There is some point in training in the basic legal framework; but anything beyond that is probably pointless and possibly counterproductive. There is plenty of evidence, for instance, that ‘implicit bias’ training serves no purpose except corporate virtue-signalling; and ‘anti-racism’ training looks like little more than institutional bullying.
Cambridge is, wisely, consulting on how much of ‘Mutual Respect’ to keep. In addition to scrapping what I just mentioned, it should ensure that anyone charged with implementing the policy gets training that might actually be useful — that is, in our obligation as a university to protect (and, in light of the new legislation, to promote) free speech.
It should also look at what is going on all around us, right now. As I’ve written elsewhere, this includes the cancellation of speakers and events, internal and external regulation of lawful speech, compulsory and ideologically-loaded training, and much else. But it should be obvious that in this environment the very last thing any university should be doing is restricting legal speech even more. Free speech is not a luxury good. It is the best weapon of the oppressed and the oxygen of the mind. Many academics here know this. We will never stop fighting for it.
Isn’t the problem that the people in authority, and their HR implementers, view universities as the means to bend the world to their view, to push their definition of progress, denouncing any opposition as abusive and “dangerous”?
They don’t care what the “old” purpose of a university was, its new purpose is to change the world, while at the same time satisfying their immature egos and inflating their social standing as well.
Note how they did this by taking over existing establishments rather than creating new ones, and notice how clever use of manipulative language dresses everything up as kindness.
The same could be said of countless other institutions.
As a society, we have been lazy and complacent while our finest institutions, such as Cambridge have been rotting from the inside out.
Thank you Arif Ahmed, people like you make me at least feel there is some hope.
Agreed! It is commonplace now in universities to expect (and to teach) students that they should be ‘activists’. Learning and then using your knowledge, understanding and skills productively is insufficient unless you set out actively to rid the world of all injustice(generally meaning through a left-wing , Ill-conceived view of individual liberalism.) It seems a worthy aim, but is not the purpose of a university.
As recently as 60 years ago, the purpose of scientists and engineers in universities WAS to change the world – for the better.
Women and people of color wanted to participate in that effort of scientists and engineers to improve the world. We did make social changes, as well as doing some excellent science and engineering.
Unfortunately, those changes then were picked up by social pseudo science departments who were more interested in expanding their own power than in IMPROVING the world. We now routinely gag scientist who don’t walk the party line and dare to question the current narratives. Guess what, science is NOT about PROVING things, it’s about questioning the status quo and admitting anyone, including me, might be wrong. College students appear to be less and less resilient to dealing with ideas they might not like.
Allowing people to talk about ideas that many don’t like is the ONLY way to change the world for the better.
We’re losing the distinction between attacking a person and attacking ideas. Name calling, using insults, demeaning someone’s character, belittling, stereotyping, applying guilt by association are all unnecessary attacks on a person.
Read the Guardian comments or Twitter to see how common and how toxic this is – anyone with ‘wrongthink’ is labelled and dismissed. N*zi. Terf. Cis. F*scist – name calling and lazy stereotypes. The label is used to dismiss the person, deliberately so the argument and discussion don’t have to be addressed. Who says something it is deemed more important than what was said.
Ideas, on the the other hand, have no personality. You can’t bully an argument into submission, but have to dissect it and pull it apart, and can refine it and rebuild it – that is the purpose of a university education – to critique, improve and reinvent.
The challenge is that some people identify themselves with an idea so strongly, that if the idea is attacked they believe they are being attacked. This is ideology. Ideology is the most deadly and dangerous human invention and must be resisted always.
I can’t help but notice that the people now expressing my point of view increasing have names like Arif Achmed, Ayaan Hirst Ali, Kimi Badenoch and Nadhim Xahawi.
This is not to make a point, just an observation.
Very happy to make you an honorary Indian, Martin, I suggest we change your name by deed poll to ‘Mahadev Bolli’.
However, just like with the UK Citizenship test, you will need to learn the circular head motion, indicating neither yes or no clearly, when people ask you a question!
Dang! I’m going to get cancelled for this comment, aren’t I.
I have NO issue with my great respect and glowing admiration for the Indian brain… nor any issue with admitting that it is superior to my Anglo Italian Irish version…
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is Somali, not Indian, and a personal hero of mine. (Lucky Niall Ferguson…)
In the US such ethnic “minorities” who outperform both the US black and white population are now reclassified as “white adjacent” by the woke to sideline their interests and views. It is depressing that you often need to have some extra melanin in your skin to be relatively safe to voice non-woke views.
Kemi, not Kimi.
A code of practice that tries to control thought and speech on threat of sanction. How is that not bullying?
Being respectful of stupid opinions is certainly not a desirable aim for a University. What most Universities lack is sufficiently robust criticism of the absurd opinions not only of the students but also many of the lecturers and administrators. As usual another harmful proposal is put forward in the name of safety.
I am sure that many Cambridge dons will find the new policy from HR to be fundamentally offensive. So maybe this Code of Behaviour should be banned under… the Code of Behaviour.
At university, thoughts and opinions are meant to be robustly challenged, defended, and discarded when discovered to be untrue. Unfortunately, most universities make money from pandering to students, so they are unlikely to criticize the brain-sickly imaginings of the young who have grown up so cocooned from real life that the slightest disagreement causes them emotional pain.
It is both sad and unfortunate that gullible students, far less emotionally developed at university age than their peers of 50 years ago, are so easily led by the nose by the left wing liberal elite in univerisites. Having witnessed that the right-on parents of these children, in this case my friends, turn to their offspring to know what to think on the leading controversies of the day, trans, race, gender etc, it came as quite a surprise when the real agenda of BLM was made plain to them. They had sucked up the pro-B L M messaging spread by Cambridge University “scholars” via their children without questioning it at all. This is why we have a problem. Guilty, wealthy, white folk showing obeisance to the W O K E agenda through lack of intellectual rigour.
PROVIDED ALWAYS that the following are outside the ambit of this policy and, for the avoidance of doubt, do not enjoy its protection and may not invoke it, viz. supporters of the Conservative or Brexit parties in the UK, or the Republican party in the USA, persons adherent to the state of Israel, individuals who seek to deny that gender is a matter of choice and white persons of whatever origin.
Oxford and Cambridge are no longer solely the educators of the male children of the upper class educated in privately owned boarding schools, content to sharpen their intelligences by arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin, and confident of futures managing the inferior peoples of the British Empire. The world has changed, including Britain, and University cultures have changed with it. The repressions of the black communities in the UK were challenged by Brixton Riots and resulted in developments of anti-racism and equal opportunities policies in employment. The Women’s movement similarly opposed discrimination against women and led to the opening of a range of new opportunities for women. The massive expansion of University Education gave opportunities to both women and black and asian people, not all of them from the middle classes, to get degrees to help them compete in the jobs markets. The protections some Universities are developing to prevent hate speech and racially and sexually discriminative behaviour are essential to assisting women and people of colour thru the educational system. Of course not all of this is easy, and of course at times these changes will be difficult. The culture wars now being waged particularly by the white “Trumpian” lobby in the UK is a reaction to these changes and the language of “free speech” is used to justify the Reaction.
Who actually is preventing women and ‘people of color’ from graduating college? And if such people exist what kind of things are they saying that shouldn’t be said?
Indeed, in the US more women graduate than men now. AND women are still paid less.
I will agree there are still a lot of those incompetent, privileged [usually white] males who resent being forced to compete with SMARTER women and people of color. Unfortunately, those are not the people opposing gag rules. In the tech community, it is the best of the best who are getting tired of not being able to call out stupid IDEAS, be they inferiority of working class students or refusal to debate social theories. If you can’t engage in an objective debate about any idea you have, you’re not fit to be at a university. AND if you can’t criticize an idea on it’s merit and you only name call the proponents, then you’re unfit for any social discourse.
Yes, YOU have stupid ideas that need to be examined. So do I. Time to examine those ideas, not throw a temper tantrum because somebody disagrees with you.
Trouble is, students of colour are often the victim of these byzantine speech codes which trample on individual rights, the case of Trent Colbert in Yale comes to mind.
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