My opinion is too dangerous

A British writer claims that academies fear controversial ideas

Foto Julian Anderson

British writer and academic Joanna Williams argues that freedom of speech is threatened at universities in the United Kingdom. And the same could happen in the Netherlands.

“Not long ago, I wrote a bit in the paper about a women’s college at Cambridge, where they have recently started to admit anyone who identifies as female”, says Joanna Williams, an educational specialist at the University of Kent.

“To my mind, it’s becoming an issue, because we are redefining what it means to be a woman and consequently getting rid of women-only spaces. I was immediately called in to speak to the head of my department, who urgently requested me not to name the university when I wrote such articles. They thought my opinion was too dangerous. I’m certain that if I wrote a piece celebrating inclusivity, the communications department would have sent out a resounding press release. That’s partly why I only work one day a week at the university: I’m leaving the academic world, step-by-step.”

You see, that world is changing, Williams says in her book Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (2016): the atmosphere is becoming claustrophobic and rebel thinkers and controversial ideas are becoming more and more taboo.

Today, Leiden University celebrates its 443rd anniversary and Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker has already posted on Twitter that his speech will address “activist professors” and “the university’s core values”.

“It’s still not a problem to be involved in politics or an activist”, Williams says. “But the chances of a collision with the university governors are more and more likely. The university has become too much of a firm and consequently it frets about its media image.”

As a result, she maintains, there’s less room for deviant ideas – in Great Britain, at least. “I’ve experienced it personally: I voted for Brexit. After the referendum, angry Remain colleagues suddenly avoided meeting my eye. Good friends at the university wouldn’t talk to me. Brexit was very emotional; it was a major blow. I even saw groups of scientists weeping. They simply couldn’t conceive that so many people didn’t agree with them. It came as a shock that the people wouldn’t listen to them.”

At British universities, it’s mainly the students who very actively oppose anything they see as pernicious. “It can be quite drastic. Dozens of universities have prohibited Robin Thicke’s number Blurred Lines because the song supposedly encourages rape and is degrading for women.” Tabloids like The Sun and Daily Express are banned on several campuses due to the allegedly racist articles.

“You could call it ‘campus madness’’, Williams continues. “Something else that happens a lot is the ‘no-platforming’: someone is invited to speak, and students then try to stop the talk by staging a protest. The phenomenon started about forty years ago to keep dangerous, far-right characters away from the campus, but now it happens all the time.

“Even people you associate with more traditional leftist radicalism are targeted. In 2015, 3,000 people signed a petition to prevent feminist Germaine Greer giving a lecture at Cardiff University. She had claimed that transgenders who had had sex-change surgery were not yet real women. In the end, however, she gave the talk. Another radical feminist, Linda Bellos, was no longer welcome at a debate at Cambridge after making some comments about transgenders.

“The bad thing is that the academic staff doesn’t put a stop to it. Radical students believe they are defending freedom of speech by banning things, but they’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Banning is always the ultimate threat to freedom of speech.”

In that case, should the university offer a platform to anyone with an opinion, including alt-right racists and holocaust deniers?

“It’s not for me to decide where to draw the line”, Williams replies. “Of course, there are some people who shouldn’t be invited to speak at a university, but the decision should be based on the speaker’s academic qualities and not on his or her political beliefs. Provoke a controversial speaker with your arguments. Debate the issue. If lecturers were to introduce their students to a broader range of ideas, the tendency to invite controversial speakers would weaken. But they don’t do that enough by far.”

Where does this pressure to censure things come from? “I don’t think that eighteen-year-old students go to university specifically wanting to ban things. But there are several issues here. Students have become customers who must be satisfied – especially in the United Kingdom, where you pay much more in tuition fees than in the Netherlands. It’s creating a certain mentality: a degree certificate is a product you pay for. The university isn’t a place for intellectual struggles any more. If it’s your aim, as a lecturer, to keep students happy, you don’t confront them with controversial ideas – it might upset them!

“In addition, students are increasingly regarded as fragile creatures. They’re not viewed as young adults, but big kids who need lots of care. That’s changing the dynamics of our education. Moreover, the social sciences and humanities have started to stress the notion that words are the most important aspects in the construction of reality and could cause psychological damage, so students must be protected from those nasty words.”

But censure entails more than banning speakers and songs. “There’s less opportunity to do controversial research because it might get bad press. I don’t agree with them, but there are scientists who argue that colonialism was not all bad. Universities won’t tolerate that kind of research. That can’t be justified: there is too little respect for the value of knowledge.”

Research reveals that political consensus at university is larger than ever, Williams says. “It’s a fact that lecturers often vote left-wing, although there isn’t any conspiracy to keep right-wing scientists away. It’s more of an organic process. In every sector, people prefer to take on people who have similar ideas and the same goes for universities. I’m in favour of more diversity of opinion, but I don’t really want political colour to influence job applications. We’d start to tick them off: ‘We have three right-wing lecturers, so we need three left-wing ones.’”

Last year, former MP Pieter Duisenberg, currently the chairman of the VSNU, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, proposed a motion in which he called for a study as to whether “self-censure and the restriction of diversity of perspective influences science in the Netherlands”. Williams, however, is wary of political intervention. “In Great Britain, they’re talking about legislation to ban bans, so students don’t have a chance to limit freedom of speech. But that’s raising problems too: I don’t want the government to decide who can and who can’t give a talk on campus.”

A huge cultural shift is needed to liberate the universities intellectually, says Williams. “Controversial ideas are essential, particularly in academia. Such ideas challenge you. If you don’t agree with them, use them to define your own opinion more clearly. In the past, new knowledge has often been regarded as offensive. How many attempts have there been to denounce the theory of evolution? If it’s the university’s aim to only provide space for knowledge that won’t offend anyone, nothing would get done.”

By Vincent Bongers

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