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 To its credit the University listened: (a)-(c) were withdrawn.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.
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.