Academe is guilty of institutional cowardice

November 2, 2007

Richard Reynolds is appalled at the failure to defend the right to debate academics' unpleasant viewpoints. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The well-known paraphrase of Voltaire's sentiments has been forgotten in the past couple of weeks by those who should know better. When our great academic institutions are put to shame by a students' union, as they were last week, something is very wrong.

On one hand we have the University of East Anglia students' union voting through an unprecedented motion asserting "that in order to combat illiberal, extremist or racist ideologies it is necessary to openly confront these ideas and not merely pretend they do not exist".

On the other, we have the Science Museum pulling a lecture series by Nobel laureate James Watson on the basis that the remarks he had made in the press had "gone beyond the point of acceptable debate".

It's normally disappointing when you look at the world of student debate. If you have never had the (mis)fortune to attend the sort of debates that tend to go on in the student community, it's fair to say that cries of "fascist" or "Nazi" are used by all sides with about the same level of thought behind them as a five-year-old telling someone that they smell.

Students, through the National Union of Students, have long been fearfully making tokenistic gestures against fascism by "no platforming" (refusing to talk to/allow that at their conference) groups they - rightfully - do not like very much, for example, the British National Party and Hizb ut- Tahrir.

The students of UEA broke ranks recently by calling for an end to such policies. They did not do it through some sort of new Norfolk-based neo- Nazi campaign but rather by standing up for the very principles that the academy is supposed to be founded on - a rigorous academic community, based on dissent, discussion and, above all, a belief in the ability of good ideas to win over bad ones.

At the same time, what we have seen from the Science Museum et al is total moral cowardice. There must be an inherent contradiction in calling oneself an academic or academic institution and at the same time shying away from a contentious debate.

However, while James Watson has been all over the papers in the past couple of weeks, it's the self-imposed day-to-day restrictions lecturers are putting on themselves that are causing the most harm.

Some students are trying to stand up for a more progressive concept of debate. It is massively disappointing to see our academic betters failing to do the same. As students, we are always hearing our lecturers complain about us, describing us as uninterested, disengaged or just plain hung over. Perhaps our silver-haired guardians of knowledge have forgotten their student days and that engagement in ideas and ingesting a great deal of alcohol, while not all beneficial, are not mutually exclusive. More important, what they should not have forgotten - indeed, what they should be doing - is engaging in rigorous debate, not hiding from it.

Students are adults; we do not need protection from arguments that are unpleasant. On the other hand, we are also learning how to be future academics, or at the very least learning how to engage in academic discourse. A vapid, dry, disengaged academy, in which only certain ideas are licensed for discussion, will and does breed vapid, dry and disengaged students - not drinks deals in the students' union bar.

The failure of the academic community to stand up for unrestrained free debate seems to be less a matter of combating institutional racism and more a case of institutional cowardice.

Society relies on all of us, academics and students, on both an academic and a political level, to challenge orthodoxy to make progress. I have no doubt that racism, whether coming from Nazi ideology or perverted genetics, is wrong, but I for one would have enjoyed the opportunity to discuss this with a proponent, no matter how abhorrent his views.

Students, through the NUS's no-platform policy, still seem deeply politically regressive, but until those who set the tone of the world we live in awaken from their idle slumber to realise that their freedom is being threatened too, it is unlikely that much will change.

So for God's sake grow some "gender-neutral spherical objects" and get involved in arguing with people - students as well as academics - you disagree with. You never know, a little more controversy might inspire rather than scare us.

Richard Reynolds is an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. He is the founder of Student Academics for Academic Freedom.

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