The touchy-feely brigade: coming your way soon

November 4, 2005

Fear of hurting people's feelings is killing critical debate. Dennis Hayes calls on fellow scholars to resist those who want to trade judgment for emotion

Something is happening to academic freedom. Even as concerns are raised about the Government proscribing certain groups and criminalising the "glorification of terrorism", a pernicious transformation is already well under way. The right to put forward new or unpopular ideas for criticism and discussion is being slowly replaced by the desire to put forward thoughts and feelings to be listened to and treated with respect.

Debate is increasingly absent from higher education institutions and academic freedom is giving way to emotional freedom.

"Respect" and "tolerance", the buzz words of Tony Blair and the Prince of Wales, have been repeatedly used in recent debates about banning "extremists". Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of Luton University who is drafting guidelines on hate speech and intolerance for Universities UK, tells us that debate must take place within "an atmosphere of respect and tolerance". This feel-good vocabulary seems unobjectionable. But surely the watchwords of academic freedom are respect nothing, tolerate nothing, criticise everything.

Calls for respect and tolerance are not about sensitive ways of defending the right to debate. They are about avoiding debate. They mean not putting forward the most hard-hitting criticism. A general relativism about beliefs and values exists in higher education. "Tolerance" means accepting them all, "respect" means not challenging them. Within this relativistic climate, criticism will not be met with counterargument. It will just be labelled offensive, or branded as hate speech or hate crime. Criticism of Israel is denounced as anti-Semitism and criticisms of Muslim beliefs are denounced as Islamophobia.

The line between speech and behaviour has been blurred by the idea of giving "offence". Intellectual criticism of deeply held views may hurt people's feelings but it cannot be considered abuse. However, if concerns about feelings are equated with intellectual concerns, it follows that it is unacceptable to criticise beliefs and values. What starts as general sensitivity to the need to encourage debate becomes oversensitivity to subjective feelings.

An emotional culture prevails in our wider society in which feelings, particularly those of the vulnerable or oppressed, override any attempt at intellectual critique. Take the example of the distinguished Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. Despite being a defender of the rational and intellectual aspect of Islam, he asserted in a speech at Cranfield University: "You are a Muslim if you feel you are a Muslim." In the wake of the July 7 bombings in London, many commentators have insisted that it is essential to understand the feelings of Muslim youth who were moved by videos of attacks on Muslims worldwide. Subtle theory and decontextualised emotional responses lend force to the tendency to put passion in place of political thought and analysis.

The academy is a place for reflection on society and thus is sensitive to the emotional culture that pervades society. But it is the focus on teaching in higher education, particularly since the Dearing report, that has accelerated the march of emotionalism through the UK's lecture theatres.

Academics such as Alan Mortiboys, who runs staff courses at the University of Central England, promote the idea of teaching with "emotional intelligence" and developing "social and emotional" competencies in lectures. Others defend various forms of staff counselling and therapy.

These propagandists of emotionalism punch above their weight through staff development events. Their concerns about teaching skills and student motivation have always drawn on inappropriate parallels between school and university. Such experimentation with tuition was once restricted to the academic disciplines of education and the social sciences, but it is spreading to all subjects. Initiatives are under way to bring the "benefits" of counselling, creative interdisciplinary thinking and reflective and active learning to engineering, medicine, science and mathematics.

No doubt these experiments will make students happier and help them get through their degrees. The overall effect, though, will be to emphasise the affective side of learning. This undermines hard critical thinking and what is already pejoratively called "negative" criticism. Increasingly adults are seen not as autonomous learners but as dependent pupils who need to be taught as they were at secondary school or even in the lively interactive ways typical of a good primary school, according to Guy Claxton, professor of the learning sciences at Bristol University. This shift is the driver of the new emotionalism pervading the wider academy.

Even when work is supposedly intellectual it is presented in emotional ways. Not only in infantile "safe spaces" or through "poster displays" is work seen as an expression of a person's feelings as much as of their intellect - but at research conferences, poor or boring papers are listened to with respect. There are few questions other than requests for clarification. To be critical is to be hurtful. This situation certainly exists in education and the social sciences, and there are already expressions of it in "harder" subject areas. Science, for example, is being undermined by environmentalism and precaution just as it is in schools. One discussion even urges those interested in interdisciplinarity to reflect on nonsense such as the Gaia hypothesis because it helps explicate the role of metaphor in science. The message is loud and clear: take the ambiguous and confused notion that the Earth has emotions seriously.

Academics who engage in criticism too enthusiastically with student groups may be subject to complaints, as some now undergoing disciplinary action have discovered. Meanwhile, colleagues increasingly ask what people feel about something. Not just in that colloquial way in which "feel" is synonymous with "think" but how they respond emotionally to some position, argument or event. University bureaucrats offer staff development sessions at which academics are encouraged to express their views. Being empowered to express views is a therapeutic and emotional activity - not a critical one. It is about acceptance and hence compliance, rather than academic freedom. Anyone who ventured criticism in the context of this therapeutic management style would be very unpopular for not playing the game. Indeed, such events often involve just that: infantile game playing justified as a means to allow people to express themselves freely.

None of these changes has anything positive to contribute to academic freedom. And they will get a firmer hold on the academy as the new generation of teacher-trained lecturers enters the profession influenced by sessions that emphasise the emotional side of working in higher education.

If books and courses promoting the idea of the "emotionally competent"

lecturer become dominant in universities, emotional competence could become the UK equivalent of "cultural competence" in the US. But while the requirement to respect diversity and be uncritical - essential for "cultural competence" - remains public, "emotional competence" demands a far more complete and intrusive compliance. It demands the compliance of the private soul rather than just the control of speech and behaviour. In future you will have to feel correctly to work in the academy. Political correctness in Britain is much more about emotional correctness.

So the current consternation about academic freedom expresses something more central to contemporary academic life than it seemed to at first glance. It is not the academy's dedication to open debate that is being defended, but emotional freedom, with all the restrictions on thought that this implies.

Emotions, after all, cannot be questioned. They just are. When we reduce the expression of ideas to the expression of emotion, or see them as equally important, academic freedom is further weakened. Individual academics are subjected to more restrictions that are based on the subjective feelings of students, colleagues and managers. And rational debate is debased because emotional freedom is the basis for intellectual and social atavism as the strength of emotion decides matters. The result will be quietude in the face of emotional correctness or - and this is the greater danger - "emotion wars", a British counterpart to the US"culture wars". If this happens, university teaching will need to be increasingly a therapeutic rather than a critical activity in order to restrain emotions.

Whatever UUK's intentions, Ebdon's report will encourage university bureaucracies to promote policies that undermine academic freedom because they do not want complaints from offended students. Emotional freedom is a safe option for bureaucracies because it gives individuals and groups the right to express themselves in an uncritical climate.

The growing emphasis on emotions in the academy says much about the widespread withdrawal from intellectual and public life into relativism, subjectivity and feelings. The emotions are the last bastion of this cultural retreat. Mortiboys suggests that "I think therefore I am" should be replaced by "I feel therefore I am" as the teaching slogan of our time.

The recent interest in academic freedom in the face of government interference has provided an opportunity to point out the greater dangers of new emotionalism on campus. But this is only the first step. To prevent the rise of the therapeutic university, more academics will need to be made aware of the problem and then be prepared to oppose it.

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University and president-elect of lecturers' union Natfhe.

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