Image by Yifei Fang

The renegade progressives

Has the University and College Union discovered freedom of speech?

Artillery Row

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” George Orwell, The Animal Farm

For a brief moment, I thought it was a prank, a deepfake scam cooked up by a tech-savvy social media user who had come up with a whimsical way of exposing University and College Union’s (UCU) dismal record on matters of free speech. I was wrong. This was a video featuring the real Jo Grady, shared by UCU’s official account, only to be deleted within a few hours following a torrent of sarcastic comments and criticisms by those in the know (UCU reposted the video later, possibly because it was already in the public domain).

“These things are not happening by chance,” Jo Grady told us in all seriousness. “They are happening because a vicious right wing government backed by murky interest groups completely want to reverse progress that we have made. We as trade unionists have to be the first line pushing back against that.” The video was meant to promote UCU’s “Exposed” campaign, which was launched at an event on 8 November with Guardian writer Owen Jones, Cambridge historian Priyamvada Gopal and General Secretary of the National Education Union Daniel Kebede as guest speakers. Grady ended her sermon with a call to arms: “We have a task ahead us that is to expose the actions of this government and to expose them not just to each other but to ordinary working people and to such extent that it leads to their removal from office. I am committed to that task. The panellists are committed to that task. The next step is to see who else is.”

The irony of this newfound passion for free speech was not lost on many who have borne the brunt of UCU’s militant activism in the last four years. After all, it was none other than Jo Grady, the general secretary formerly known as “Terf-blocker”, who turned the UK’s largest trade union for academics and academic-related staff into an advocacy group bent on eliminating dissent and rooting out critical voices (if you think I am exaggerating, just watch this oath-taking ceremony from UCU Congress 2023). It is quite telling that academic freedom was not amongst the 8 platform principles that underpinned Grady’s election campaign in 2019 (in fact, the terms “academic freedom” or “freedom of speech” never occur, not even once, in Grady’s election address and her 24-page long manifesto). In time, the principle of academic freedom has been reduced to a tool of reactionary forces, one that is increasingly deployed in a way “that undermines the dignity and threatens the safety of transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people”.

“In the coming years we are likely to see more attempts to engineer and amplify ‘controversies’ that will sow confusion and insecurity on campuses,” a UCU statement declared in 2022. “Talks — defended in the name of ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ — by neo-fascists and transphobes will suit that agenda very well.” The statement didn’t name names, but it didn’t need to, for UCU’s actions spoke louder than its words. One needs only remember the well-documented cases of high profile gender-critical academics such as Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix and John Pike, who were hung out to dry or actively hounded by their own UCU branches when they questioned dominant orthodoxies on sex and gender. It’s not only senior academics. In an open letter addressed to Jo Grady in January 2022, the Collective of Early Career Feminist Academics (CEFA) wrote:

There is a perception that because high profile “gender critical” academics are senior professors, that this is a generational issue. With misogynistic ageism, these women are often dismissed as “out of touch”. But this assertion is false. Established academics have the job security to speak out and the seniority to be heard. Early-career academics do not. There are many in more precarious positions who hold similar views but remain silent or leave academia altogether. We are some of those women.

“How much more does the climate of hostility against feminists need to escalate before the UCU unequivocally condemns it?” the members of the Collective asked: “We are women who need our union. It’s time for you to represent us again.”

Rather than lending an ear to what some of its members have to say, UCU escalated its campaign against academic freedom. It decided to compile a list of university backroom staff suspected of holding gendercritical beliefs, according to the minutes from a meeting leaked to The Times. The minutes stated that the LGBT members standing committee agreed to email a survey to LGBT members at universities across the country during a UCU meeting, to “get information about gender critical equality, diversity and inclusion consultants … employed in HR departments of various institutions” (Jo Grady accused The Times of harassing UCU members after the newspaper contacted them for comment, but didn’t address the allegations).

Does leadership come with a mandate to forcibly impose this position on members?

The problem with all this is not necessarily the beliefs themselves — though I don’t think that the particular definition of self-ID espoused by UCU, which enables members “to self-identify whether that is being black, disabled, LGBT+ or women”, would go down well with a lot of people of colour or disabilities, let alone women. The real issue here is whether a union which represents 120,000 members should stick to such a rigid and dogmatic position, on matters over which there is no scholarly or moral consensus. Does leadership come with a mandate to forcibly impose this position on members, and punish — even excommunicate — those who are reluctant to accept it? The above examples (a tiny fraction of a much larger catalogue of infringements) show that for Grady’s UCU, the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal “yes”.

Nothing illustrates the shady nature of UCU’s latest stunt better than Grady’s choice of fellow travellers to launch her new campaign: the enfant terrible of Guardian journalism Owen Jones and the doyen of online identitarianism Priyamvada Gopal.

Jones’ take-no-prisoners approach to non-Corbynist progressives, in particular those who also happen to be “assigned female at birth”, hardly requires much documentation. This included, until recently, many who had been warning about the chilling effects of cancel culture on academic freedom and free speech in general. Not many moons have passed since Owen Jones declared on live TV that “when people often talk about cancel culture, what they mean is people on social media criticising them”. He continued, “Cancel culture is famous people screaming through a megaphone about how silenced they are.” Fast forward to today. Jones now says that cancel culture does exist — it takes the form of the systemic silencing of “those who have spoken out against one of the great crimes of our time”, referring to the ongoing war in Gaza. This time he has a point, but, as the saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. Rather than basking in the glory of his discovery, and certainly before flinging accusations around, Jones needs to have a good look in the mirror and ask himself why would anyone join him, knowing that he would not hesitate to throw them to the lions on a whim.

A little self-reflection might help Priyamvada Gopal as well. She sees cancel culture as “a bullshit gaslighting term used by the right and swallowed by some liberals and leftists to enable retrograde and discredited ideas to pass unchallenged whilst in the same breath, openly shutting down liberal and progressive discourse”. Gopal doesn’t seem to be aware of the dangers of therapy speak, as her casual use of expert terms and her eagerness to diagnose and pathologise, show. Gaslighting is a double-edged sword, of course, bandied about quite liberally by both sides of the culture war, often to discredit the views they disagree with. What matters, then, is who wields the sword. Gopal herself has a patchy record when it comes to defending freedom of expression. We know that she signed a letter which criticised the charity and professional membership scheme Advanced HE for hosting a session with the Professor of Sociology Alice Sullivan. The letter had been prompted, the organisers wrote in a tweet, “by Advance HE’s … alarming decision … to run a conference session with a speaker known for transphobia & disinformation”. In the light of Gopal’s outrage towards the idea that she had endorsed an attempted cancellation, we might assume that she has not seen this tweet and ask whether she would consider retracting her signature.

Gopal’s penchant for psychobabble was also evident in her reaction to the official tweet announcing the publication of my book Cancelled: The Left Way Back From Woke. Joining the chorus, which called a boycott on Polity for publishing yet another “anti-woke” book, Gopal wrote: “It’s a genre — embittered men (& a few women) who see themselves as Real Critical Thinkers, even as True Left, rail against ‘identity politics’ (that old chestnut) & produce takes they fancy as ‘edgy’ that are same as any crap in the Telegraph.” I am not sure how Gopal knew so much about a book that she hasn’t read, for the book had been published less than 24 hours before that particular tweet was posted — short of possessing telepathic powers we mortals cannot comprehend. Had she bothered to have a quick glance at the book before mudslinging and name-calling, she would have noticed that she was cited as the target of a massive right-wing cancel campaign to expose the hypocrisy of reactionary free speech absolutism. Instead, Gopal had no time for “embittered men” or “Guys Whinging About Woke discussions” (never mind that most of the academics cancelled in the last five years have been women). In any case, this wasn’t about “literal cancellation”: it was “an admission that they’ve lost the intellectual arguments & cannot propagate them except through privately-funded vanity projects”.

Unlike Gopal, I don’t have the psychological training needed to analyse the processes that generate this sense of entitlement and self righteousness. Still, I cannot help but wonder: if those “guys” grumbling about cancel culture have already lost the argument, who won? Surely, it’s not the progressives, as Gopal herself admits. What we’re actually seeing, she says, is a government-supported campaign “to marginalise, to render voiceless, to shut people up in universities and beyond”.

Orwell described how uncomfortable truths were suppressed voluntarily

True, nuance is lost, and binary thinking is rewarded in the highly charged atmosphere of the post-October 7th world. Was it any different before that, though? Does Gopal think that minorities were winning the argument before? No, they weren’t. By claiming to speak on their behalf, by conferring legitimacy on certain forms of oppression over others, Gopal and her ilk contributed to their marginalisation, handing the victory to reactionaries who already, and always, had the political and economic upper hand. The culture war is not indeed happening spontaneously. Gopal knows this, because she is not simply an observer but an active participant of this war. If there are “Guys Whinging About Woke discussions”, then there are also those like Gopal who are whinging about “Guys Whinging About Woke discussions”. If this is some form of DARVO inversion — another psychobabble term that Gopal uses lavishly — then she should look no further than her own X/Twitter timeline.

The upshot of this farcical episode, which seems to have been staged to insult our intelligence, was to expose the depth of self-delusion the identitarian Left has sunk in. The sanctimonious hypocrisy of Grady and Co reminds me of “the renegade liberal” that George Orwell talked about in a preface he wrote to Animal Farm, which was discovered and published only in 1972. Writing about the difficulties he encountered to get the book published, Orwell described how uncomfortable truths were suppressed voluntarily, without government intervention, in World War II Britain. “One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal,” he said:

There is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who “objectively” endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought.

It’s sad how little has changed since these lines were written. Instead of Orwell’s renegade liberals, we now have the renegade progressives who are more interested in policing and purifying speech than bringing about real, systemic change. Theirs is not a fight for free speech per se; it’s about what counts as free speech and who makes that decision. They don’t want more academic freedom, but the power to set the terms of that freedom. They continue to fan the flames of the culture war, shamelessly and recklessly, without thinking about its implications for disadvantaged groups or the broader social justice struggle.

So, no, Jo Grady. We will not join your campaign, because we’re not fighting the same fight. Your enemy is the tune that is being played at the moment; ours is “the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment”.

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