Free speech and the war on the woke

Free speech

These are substantial issues that a short blog will fail to fully address, but nonetheless I wanted to try and expand, at least a little, on something I said on Twitter yesterday that ended up getting more attention than my usual tweets on Higher Education, Religious Philosophy and the relentless and brutal business of following Sunderland AFC. My tweeting was a reaction to being awoken to news that Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, was appointing a ‘free speech champion’ to the Office for Students. Guidance to ensure free speech in Universities would be strengthened, and also extended to Student Unions. This is apparently to ensure no potential speakers are ‘no platformed’ and staff are not dismissed for their ‘potentially controversial views’.

Mr Williamson claimed to be “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.” The Vice-President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students responded by saying “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus.”

Despite a handful of high-profile cases, there does seem to be some substance to the NUS position. Very few of the cases that have made the press have actually led to lectures being cancelled – and it seems bizarre to fine Universities themselves where most of the campaigns have been student-led, demonstrating students expressing their own views – not acting corporately on behalf of the institution they are registered as students of.

If we actually look at the most widespread limits on speech in Universities they are not those of ‘woke’ academics or students, but originate with the Government. The controversial Prevent Duty that Higher Education has, under the law, means we have to avoid inviting extremist speakers onto campus to speak, where they could influence young people. Even if one agreed with the goals and existence of this Duty, it is the Government drawing a line around some things and saying that they cannot be said on campus.

Another way that the Government has intervened in what can be taught is in relation to ‘Critical Race Theory’ and the idea of ‘White Privilege. In October 2020 women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch stated that “… any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory as fact, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views is breaking the law.” What is interesting here is that it seems reasonable – make sure pupils receive a range of views – but at the core of Critical Race Theory are facts. Data about systemic variability in life chances, health and economic opportunity really isn’t an expression of a political orientation. ‘White Privilege’ isn’t a hypothesis to try and distort experience, but is a description of how race intersects with other factors to skew prison sentences, job offers, and much more.

Many argue that the rather relentless insistence that Universities are the site of a free-speech crisis, in fact highlights government concerns about what is being said within them. In his book on How Fascism Works, Yale Philosopher Jason Stanley notes that one of the core elements of fascism is the use of free-speech discourse to actually close down speech. The concern is one found particularly in authoritarian regimes, but it is widespread in Trump’s MAGA thought world, as well as our UK Government (and elsewhere such as in France): that somehow Universities are indoctrinating young people with dangerous ideas. Given that such claims pre-date my being alive (to the extent that Socrates’ death was for corrupting the youth), this is a tired trope and if it was true – we must be pretty bad at it, as we haven’t seen the fruits of our alleged labours in terms of a socialist society with radical gender equality.

Further, as the well-known Twitter refrain exclaims: “Indoctrinate students? I can’t even get them to do the reading.” Although we do have a position of power, young people at university are there to find their own voice and the majority do. The idea that I (and my ‘woke mob’) couldn’t bear being disagreed with, as some suggested in the replies to my tweet, is at odds with my experience. In 25 years of teaching religious studies and philosophy I have been profoundly disagreed with. All the time. By staff and students. I think some of the best grades I have ever awarded have been to students taking a view that I fundamentally disagree with – because they have argued well, presented evidence and demonstrated research and writing skills. Staff at University don’t want their own words chanted back at them: nothing is more tedious and duller in student work, and we strive to avoid it.

So, while I don’t really mind being called a ‘wokester’ by strangers on Twitter (it’s just the new ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ culture war slogan), the energy the government is expending on this is notable. We have a national education emergency due to COVID19-caused lockdowns and Gavin Williamson is taking time to use a supposed ‘crisis’ for which there is little evidence, drawing on populist tropes, to mischaracterise a vital segment of the UK economy.

Professor David Webster is Director of SOAS Foundation College.

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