Give offence with a fine two-finger salute

January 7, 2005

If the thought police arrive in his neck of the woods, Bob Brecher has a plan

As if the consumerisation of university education weren't enough - research assessment exercise, Quality Assurance Agency, differential tuition fees - it looks as though the thought police are being given a seat in the seminar room. In parts of Durham University, at least, "teaching that raises issues that are likely to cause offence to some... must have ethical approval from the departmental teaching and learning committee" ( Times Higher , December 17). As so often in higher education these days, fact has become stranger than fiction. But how should we respond to this growing pressure to infantilise us and our students? The first imperative is to understand exactly what is going on and why, rather than just dismissing it as the latest in the strange-but-true series.

There is an awful lot to be said here, but three issues stand out. First, this sort of diktat is part of an ideological drive aimed at preventing critical thought, whether its authors understand the fact or not. What are universities about if not to encourage people to think hard about things that matter? And, of course, that can cause offence. But so what? Some students might be offended by the claim that the Earth was not created in seven days, others by the claim that the free market perfectly reflects human nature - still others by denials of precisely those claims.

The list goes on, and the more you think about it the longer it gets.

Second, policing debate is part of the sustained drive to deprofessionalise academics, to cow them into submission and to make sure academic activity doesn't interfere with business plans. So it's no surprise - though it is depressing - that the colleague who was prepared to criticise the Durham diktat "asked not to be named". Maybe the person concerned had good reason to be afraid, maybe not. Either way, Laurie Taylor's reference in the same issue of The Times Higher to "a profession with such a distinguished record of acquiescence" says it all.

Third, and I say this as a member of a National Health Service research ethics committee, this latest sortie by the ethics police represents another chapter in the continuing story of the neoliberals using - or rather, misusing - "ethics" as a cover for their political agenda. Consider "business ethics", the pharmaceuticals' manipulations, or the move from welfare provision to lifestyle therapy: "ethics" is the perfect term to redescribe what is unethical and disguise what is political.

The attempt to stifle thought on the grounds that someone might be offended can't be dismissed as bureaucratic nonsense. It has to be resisted. If your academic integrity - indeed, your identity as an academic - is attacked, you must fight back. The obvious weapons are solidarity and publicity. If you act with colleagues, raise the proverbial two fingers, and do so openly, the attack can be repelled. Involve students; invite them to consider how their intelligence is being patronised, how they're being treated as sensitively fickle customers. Get the public support of colleagues in other universities; for now, ridicule still works. Exploit the contradictions in the structure of the university system by contacting the QAA, your Learning and Teaching Subject Network, and the university's "staff development" unit; get them to give you advice about how to teach without ever giving offence to anyone, no matter how idiosyncratic, mischievous or fundamentalist they might be. Publicise any advice. It'll be at best hilarious, at worst absurdly vacuous.

In short, don't do as you're told. Otherwise we'll end up with a system of self-censorship that Brezhnev could only have dreamt of, and an academic profession so utterly bereft of self-respect that it'll no longer be worth defending; and all - the greatest irony - in the name of ethics.

Bob Brecher is a reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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