Where are the Safe Spaces for academics?

Oct 09




Helen Whitten

Posted In


Where are the Safe Spaces for academics?

Universities used to be places where information and ideas were shared, in order to expand a student’s knowledge.  By sharing new facts and ideas it was intended that a student broaden their perspective, understand that many people in many different parts of the world and at many different periods of history, think and have thought differently to them.  The aim to be that they sharpened their own beliefs, questioned those opinions passed on to them by parents and early-years teachers, and developed cogent and coherent views that they could express articulately.

These days, students seem to want to shape the world to their own views, even though they are generally too young to have experienced much, read as much as their lecturers, travelled as much as those older than themselves.  They even want to force others, including the lecturers employed to expand their knowledge, to adhere to their own views, and are unwilling to listen to other perspectives.

In this process, academics, writers, politicians and others are losing their livelihoods and their reputations.  Usually at the behest of a small minority.   But a small minority who shout the loudest.  As Jonathan Haidt of the Heterodox Academy points out, small minorities are often better organised than the disorganised and disunited majority who disagree with them.

So, we, the majority who believe in free speech, need to get a little more organised and cohesive, in order to put a stop to experts and academics losing their jobs for saying something with which the students don’t agree.  We need, as Jonathan Haidt recommends, to speak up louder and not be bullied into going along with ideas just because we can’t be bothered to stand up to them.

Surely, we do not want to live in a totalitarian system where those with alternative viewpoints are cancelled or lose their jobs?  In other countries those people are slung into gulags and prisons.  We have just seen the Nobel Peace Prize going to two investigative journalists, Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, who are being awarded for following the route of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  Yet these young student bullies are doing the opposite.  In the name of ‘diversity and inclusivity’ they are silencing those who disagree with them, which is the precise opposite of the meaning of diversity or inclusivity.  They ought to look in a mirror more honestly from time to time and see exactly how hypocritical they are being.

The trouble is that they are using the language of the playground, doing all the things our teachers told us not to do – eg call people names, tell tales, push people out of friendship groups, shame friends and others into silence for fear of being the ‘outsider’.  How come our educational establishments are being so weak to let this happen?  How come the NHS and others are going along with these minorities who claim to feel ‘unsafe’, when such groups seem to be doing all they can to make others feel unsafe.

How would you feel as a lecturer or academic in a university now?  Terrified, I imagine, of having your words taken out of context, or even gestures used to illustrate a point (see The Chair on Netflix).  But we can’t let this happen.  Academics have stirred us up for centuries, been the ones to provoke thought, creativity, ideas, innovation, analysis.  We must not allow them to be silenced, and those in charge of the universities must speak up, as Sussex University’s Vice-Chancellor, Adam Tickell has done in defence of freedom of speech and of Professor Kathleen Stock, the latest victim of accusations of transphobia.

As Professor Stephen Pinker points out in his new book Rationality, our medical and scientific advances have come about through challenge, through peer review.  The justice of the legal system has come about through adversarial processes.  Leaders in business are developed through 360-degree feedback.  But the students accusing Stock and others are not interested in such systems.  “We are not up for debate” they say, calling for the sacking of lecturers who do not follow their precise way of thinking, using the antithesis of rigorous debate with phrases like “transphobic shit”, “I hope you die alone”.  And these people will be running our country in a few years’ time, which is not an edifying thought.

Of course, young students have new ideas and we must listen to them.  But equally they must listen too.  How will they ever learn anything as they journey through life if, at such a young age, they are closed to opposite opinions?  Learning comes through endeavour, challenge, and often failure.  It comes from being open to different perspectives, being willing to adapt one’s view or approach through taking many viewpoints into account and then shaping who you want to be, the action you want to take.

The Stoics suggest that we should all see life as though we are in a boxing match.  We should expect and welcome the daily punches and falls, recognising that these provide us with an opportunity to stop, learn, adjust our approach.  This is life and it is normal to experience problems, people who irritate us, be presented with things we don’t want to do but have to do.  We should not tremble or see these events as threats, and certainly not become ‘offended’ or feel ‘unsafe’ when someone articulates a view we don’t like or are unfamiliar with.

We all need to be resilient in the face of life.  Other people need us to be resilient too, as resilient people will look for solutions to problems.  We cannot become resilient unless we are robust enough to receive feedback, analysis, and critical thinking thereby honing ourselves to be able to articulate a viewpoint and provide the evidence to back it up. 

The world has become the amazing place it is through the very diversity of thought and approach that has been experienced through the centuries. And we continue to learn daily, what is helpful and what is not.  We are a far more tolerant society in every way than the world in which I grew up in the 1950s.  Dictators, such as Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, who insist on just one authoritarian view, demonstrate no tolerance.  If we were run by such leaders now, we would be living in a very different world, a world where academics, journalists, writers and artists are silenced, imprisoned, and potentially assassinated.

We cannot let it happen that students are given the power to sack their lecturers for holding a view with which they disagree, have misinterpreted, or misunderstood.  We cannot let publishers silence writers.  We, the majority who believe in the freedom of speech, must get ourselves more organised and speak up in the name of balance and debate.


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