Cranks and Shills
‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines.
The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, wrote to museums, galleries and other ‘arm’s length bodies’ last September insisting that they avoid ‘activism or politics’ and instead ‘act impartially’. He emphasised that ‘the government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects’ and reminded the institutions that they received public funding, in case the stakes weren’t clear. But how could it be ‘impartial’ to present history as though it were not political? And in what sense is it ‘impartial’ to retain a statue glorifying a slave-owner? (Would anyone risk arrest to tear down an ‘impartial’ object?) If being ‘impartial’ just means leaving everything the way it is, there’s a more honest word for that.
These ideological incursions extend also to schools. The equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, announced in a Black History Month debate in the Commons last October that ‘we do not want to see teachers teaching their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,’ and claimed that doing so could be illegal. In September, the Department for Education had released guidance on the national curriculum that said ‘schools should not under any circumstances use’ teaching materials produced by organisations that have ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections’. Sandwiching capitalism between democracy and free elections in an attempt to make it seem self-evidently virtuous does not strike me as ‘impartial’, and outlawing criticism of it is, as John McDonnell noted, McCarthyist. It is against this backdrop that the education secretary is trying to convince us that the government prizes freedom of thought.
In his report, Williamson cites three cautionary tales, none of which, under scrutiny, amounts to evidence of a threat to ‘free speech’ in universities. The historian Selina Todd had an invitation to speak at the Oxford International Women’s Festival withdrawn after other speakers refused to share a platform with her, because of her support for a transphobic organisation. Yet not only is the Oxford International Women’s Festival not a university event; Williamson himself concedes that individuals have the right ‘to decide who they wish to share platforms with’. The organisers made a strategic decision to pull one speaker in order to hold onto others.
The education secretary also mentions Felix Ngole, a student who lost his place on a social work course after publicly expressing homophobic views. Sheffield University withdrew his place because of concerns about his fitness to practise. Again, this is not a question of ‘free speech’ in universities; it relates instead to the standards of care that are expected from professionals working with vulnerable people.
Williamson’s last example is the sociologist Noah Carl, whose dalliance with eugenics and links to far-right groups led to his dismissal from St Edmund’s College, Cambridge in 2019. The university panel that considered his case concluded that ‘the poor scholarship of this problematic body of Dr Carl’s work, among other things, meant that it fell outside any protection that might otherwise be claimed for academic freedom of speech.’
This last point is particularly important. There are moral and pedagogical reasons for keeping certain people off campus; no one can learn in a room in which their dignity is in question. But such reasons are rarely called on, because those who peddle marginalising ideas are usually ruled out for reasons of quality, not content. Anyone motivated by fanatical personal prejudice or a bid for the limelight of controversialism tends not to be an interesting thinker. As Robert Simpson and Amia Srinivasan have argued, ‘it is permissible for disciplinary gatekeepers to exclude cranks and shills from valuable communicative platforms in academic contexts, because good teaching and research requires that communicative privileges be given to some and not others.’ In other words: we have standards.
Yet none of this is to claim that silencing is not a problem. Academics working on race and gender, especially women of colour, live under the continual menace of abuse and doxing, as well as rape and death threats. While these attacks generally come from outside the university, and also affect journalists, politicians and other public figures, Williamson fails to acknowledge that ‘cancelling’ is heavily gendered and racialised, and that the government’s ‘war on woke’ exacerbates the real dangers to already marginalised scholars and students.
Nor does he mention Israel. I was a year into my first academic job when the US scholar Steven Salaita was fired from his post at the University of Illinois after criticising the actions of the Israeli government during Operation Protective Edge, in which more than two thousand Palestinians were killed. (Salaita has since found himself unemployable in academia, but continues to write in between shifts as a school-bus driver in Washington DC.) After a teaching observation a few years ago, I was told that I should avoid discussing Palestine in class, and a senior academic more recently advised me to dial down my public criticism of Israel’s state violence if I wanted to get on in academia.
This brings us to the glaring contradiction between Williamson’s recent diktats. While insisting on the importance of ‘free speech’, he is concurrently threatening to withdraw the funding of universities who refuse to adopt the definition of antisemitism devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. (Will universities be fined if they fire people for using definitions other than the IHRA one?) Not only do the details of the definition threaten to shrink even further the discursive space to advocate for the rights of Palestinians, but forcing definitions on those whose job it is to question the received meanings of terms is an absurd and terrifying precedent.
There are at any moment almost three million people in the UK working or studying at universities. The major threat to their ability to manage healthy discourse within their own diverse communities will now be their nervous navigation of the risk of government investigations and fines. We mustn’t be duped into thinking this was ever about ‘free speech’. Universities have been ravaged by the pandemic, and many now hang in the balance. This week’s announcement is most likely part of a campaign of demonisation ahead of whatever regime of cuts, imposition or abandonment the government now has in store.