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Free speech in universities: A case study from Exeter

Jeremy Black explains how free speech is being undermined at Exeter University

5 March brought two items into my gaze, one possibly an instructive comment on the other, however totally different they might appear. The former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, a former Minister for Women and Equalities, due to speak on encouraging young women into politics to the UN Women Oxford UK Society, had her invitation withdrawn half an hour before she was due to appear due to her role in the Windrush controversy.

Separately, a student of the University of Exeter has received disgusting, anonymous emails from a racist idiot somewhere in the world. This has led to a “statement in response” drafted by the English department and signed by many academics. It uses the incident to substantiate what it claims, based on no evidence, are “wider structural issues” and “how appeals to freedom of speech” are abused in order to justify “racist and misogynistic violence”, and calls accordingly for “taking a stand” against what is presented as a community with “a deeply ingrained problem with racism”, a “culture of racism”, and a “culture of permission, without fear of recrimination”. Apparently, the university is guilty of appeasement because it pursues matters “on legal grounds.”

The analysis and prospectus are clear:

“Our community needs to get better at understanding whiteness as a position of structural advantage, liable to reinforce all sorts of unconscious and damaging assumptions when it comes to the most basic social and pedagogical interactions … all of us need to take a public, systematically reformist, and unambiguous stand against gathering forces of reaction, hatred, racism, and fascism.”

This analysis represents a serious misrepresentation of university life, but captures very well the transference of paranoia into an hysterical call for action. Thus, the racist and disgusting anonymous emails become ammunition for an established platform of bashing “whiteness,” the university, and Western culture as a whole. Moreover, there are supporting emails that make it apparent that a witch-hunt is in prospect. One lecturer felt able to opine on 6 March: “there are individuals among us (by us I mean lecturers/staff at Exeter) whose written opinions enable such occurrences. Racism and sexism very much exist in UK HE and they inherently shape each other.”

This is all also part of the call for decolonising the curriculum which means, in practice, the imposition of a crude, unscholarly, but career and ego-enhancing version, of grievance studies with reputational blackmail used to weaponise the campaign. This is not laughable, but rather dangerous and contemptible: dangerous in that it is inherently totalitarian in intention and vicious in its arguments; and contemptible in that it is scholars, or at least academics, who are involved. While selfserving, the scholarship in the matter is poor, and, ironically, matches in its shallowness some of what rightly calls up criticism. The criticism of “whiteness” is inherently racist, and can moreover be readily considered so if we substitute other terms or groups such as “Jewishness” for “whiteness”. Crude generalisations, the argument of collective guilt, and ethic disparagement have been used about Jews, Blacks, Roma, and other groups, and it is ironic to find such tripe coming now from academics; but then the intellectual standard of the work of some of the latter can be readily questioned.

To add to the mélange, on the 6th, Eva Poen, an Exeter economics lecturer was accused of transphobia by feminist and LGBT students over a tweet in which she observed “Only female people menstruate. Only female people go through menopause.” This led to Dr Poen being accused of “openly singling out trans people.” Adam Deloit, the university’s LGBTQ+ society’s transgender representative, added: “The fact the university tolerates her is really frustrating.”

So there we are. Another day in Hollywood, or at least universities, where the zeal to suppress opinion, freedom of expression, academic debate, democratic rights, and the rule of law, gathers more energy and makes steadily more demands. The irrelevance of these people in the face of a range of pressing immediate issues, whether Coronavirus, environmental change, the need to create jobs in a transforming economy, and the problems of advancing the national interest, or many others, may well be apparent; but they are all too potent in destroying the basis for a free and liberal society.

Ironically, the disgusting emails of the bigot that has spurred the immediate issue in Exeter are matched, albeit thankfully in a very different language, by the attitudes of the would-be thought police. It will be instructive to find if the treatment of “whiteness” as toxic makes the university attractive to students; students of all backgrounds, many be unimpressed by such flawed and racist arguments. As an instructive guide to the parody morality of the signatories of the merry-go-round of mindless petitions, it is worth asking how they square their views on the supposed structural privilege of “whiteness” with that of widening participation to poor and underprivileged white boys/young men; the lowest demographic of British campuses. These students presumably are their targets for indoctrination as well as trashing. That Exeter has an ethos of inclusivity and a commitment to anti-racism makes one wonder why these staff members are not sacked. Given that many signatories to the attack on “whiteness” were also on strike, one wonders the point of being taught in such a context. The English department at Exeter appears particularly unbalanced in its views, but History is not too far behind.

The facts spell out a different story to the arguments of the activists, in some lights a pampered mob clamouring to police every aspect of life. The saga of course is endless. Thus, the draft email to University management circulated by the BME network both admits that the police have “declared the case closed for difficulty in procuring evidence” and that there is only a “possibility that the writers of these emails are our own students,” but feels able to refer to “racist and misogynist crimes on campus” and proposes to make institutional changes that would prevent the occurrence of such crimes … decolonise the curriculum … resource allocation.’

The paucity of evidence, poverty of thought, and self-serving character of the prospectus, are all too wearyingly predictable.

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