A professional masquerade

Demands that scholars like David Starkey not speak outside their subject threaten intellectual freedom, Frank Furedi says

September 1, 2011

Whatever one thinks of David Starkey's provocative statement on Newsnight, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the censorious tone and ambition of his critics, as expressed by the signatories of the letter published in Times Higher Education last week ("Starkey's ignorance is hardly work of history"), represent a far greater threat to the freedom and integrity of intellectual life in the UK.

The letter is crafted as a critique of Starkey's right to make pronouncements on television as a historian. The writers are disturbed by the BBC's decision to choose a historian whose expertise is so far removed from the "issues of race and class". But what Starkey's naysayers really object to is not his status as a historian but his rejection of a perspective that they have signed up to.

They note that he has "rejected" an approach to history based on "race and class" and that therefore they are "unsurprised by the poverty of his reductionist argument, which reflected his lack of understanding of the history of ordinary life in modern Britain". This is a roundabout way of stating that the signatories of this letter disagree with what they describe as Starkey's "evidentially insupportable and factually wrong" arguments.

Those committed to the cause of intellectual clarification would use Starkey's allegedly "insupportable" arguments to elucidate the issues at stake. They would mount powerful arguments to expose the erroneous views of their opponents. As we have learned from John Stuart Mill and other advocates of tolerance, even views that are deemed to be false can serve the positive end of forcing us to develop and clarify our opinions.

But Starkey's detractors are not interested in engaging with his views. Their objective is to question his right to voice his opinions as a historian on the subject of the riots. They seek to accomplish this objective through questioning his authority to speak on a subject in which he apparently lacks expertise. Their call on the BBC to stop using Starkey to comment "as historian on matters for which his historical training and record of teaching, research and publication have ill-fitted him to speak" should be interpreted as a mendacious call for the policing of discussion and debate in the public sphere. It seems that unless you possess a PhD on 21st-century rioting, you have no right to offer a view.

Calls for censoring the controversial views of intellectuals usually emanate from second-rate politicians and moral entrepreneurs. The signatories to the letter understand that explicit and overt calls for censorship contradict the ethos of academic life. Thus they attempt to obscure their censorious project by hiding behind the dignity afforded by the affirmation of high professional standards. So after stating that they "do not seek to censor him", they go on to plead that he "no longer (be) allowed to bring our profession into disrepute by being introduced as 'the historian, David Starkey' when commenting on issues outside his fields of expertise".

Something is truly amiss when 100 colleagues take it upon themselves to advise the BBC on who has and does not have the right to speak on a topic. Both intellectual and academic freedom face a particularly grave threat when the demand for limiting speech comes from within the academy. It is symptomatic of a shallow, almost casual, orientation towards the value of criticism and debate. Equally disturbing is the attempt to use the authority of expertise as a warrant for policing intellectual and disciplinary boundaries. It appears that the diminishing status accorded to the intellectual is inversely proportional to ascendancy of the expert. Sadly, the claim to expertise has encouraged academics to adopt a language that is unnecessarily technical and specialised. Instead of assisting communication and debate, the institutionalisation of expertise has led to the proliferation of parallel monologues. As it happens, expertise is far too often overrated. There are historians of public disorders, but there is no expert on the English riots of 2011.

As intellectuals, we have a responsibility to engage with the issues that concern society. Our expert letter writers would do well to adopt an orientation towards open debate rather than devoting their energy to silencing their opponents.

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