Laugh in the face of their demands

January 5, 2007

Are we doing enough to deal with the corrosive actions of our political masters? asks Bob Brecher

Asked whether academics have anything in common, I would say something like this. Our basic task is to understand the world we live in and to help others, especially our students, to do the same. That includes understanding our place in the world and the particular conjuncture we inhabit; which in turn means that we need to have some grasp of how others see us, in particular our political masters. On the whole, that is not something we are conspicuously good at.

Luckily, the Government recently offered us an ideal opportunity to begin to get to grips with the task, courtesy of Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell's remarkable document with the catchy title Promoting Good Campus Relations: Working with Staff and Students to Build Community Cohesion and Tackle Violent Extremism in the Name of Islam at Universities and Colleges , available gratis from the Department for Education and Skills website.

In the few minutes it takes to read this document, the depth of the contempt in which we are held by our Government becomes apparent. It is full of non sequiturs, unwarranted assumptions, bathetic homilies, basic confusions and laughable "scenarios" - it could serve as an ideal text for basic first-year courses in critical thinking, discourse analysis and even study skills. That it should have been published in November rather than being left for a suitable date in April illustrates not only how stupid our masters take us to be but, no less important, their disregard for the basics of rational argument and thus their extraordinary authoritarianism.

On one level, of course, the proper response is laughter; and the fact that vice-chancellors up and down the country have reacted to it in just that way is very welcome. At least we can take comfort from the fact that "the authorities are concerned with any form of extremism that espouses, promotes or leads to violence: 'violent extremism'", even if we may be left wondering where that leaves the authorities and whether we should be reporting to the local police the presence on noticeboards of flyers for Labour Students. Or are those permissible so long as they are not in Arabic?

But that is only the beginning. Turning from how the Government sees us to what it expects us to do, it soon becomes apparent how deep and how wide the demand for surveillance and censorship runs. Take just one example: even "if there is no evidence to support the claims (that 'the speaker's conduct could amount to a criminal offence'), the higher education provider will still need to deal with the concerns raised and decide on the potential impact of the talk on the wider student communities" - whatever such "communities" might be. Part of our function, then, is to ensure that students are infantilised.

But that is not all. There is something even more corrosive. By the time we reach details of the Terrorism Act 2006, helpfully laid out at the end, it is clear that the line the Government has in mind between academic analysis and possible arraignment is inordinately fine. What our political masters expect of academics is not the disinterested pursuit of critical inquiry, but unthinking obedience to their own view of the world - as some colleagues already know to their cost ("Ministers vilify researchers", December 1).

Depressing though that is, knowing it is at least a basis for doing something about it. But the question is: are laughter and ridicule enough?

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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