Pluralistic academy is a model for politics in a polarised society

Politicians and social media warriors could learn a lesson from the ‘ivory towers’ they are so quick to deride: plurality and exchange of ideas are good things

May 24, 2018
Alfred Hitchcock with seagull and crow on his shoulders
Source: Getty

Here’s a theory: if video killed the radio star, then social media has murdered the maxim.

“Inspirational” quotes purporting to reveal a universal truth are as much a staple of Twitter and Facebook as unfunny gifs and Russian bots are.

Academia is, of course, far too sophisticated for such things. But one saying, coined long before the social media age, still regularly does the rounds among scholarly networks: that the politics of academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

Very droll, Henry Kissinger. But the idea that academic politics is more bloodthirsty than the real thing seems rather quaint as the bitterness of public debate intensifies.

Speaking last week, the Labour MP Stella Creasy said that UK politics was getting “nastier”, not least because of Brexit, which is creating a new tribalism and causing a rabid press to froth at the mouth.

It cannot be good for a country for its masters to be so focused on political gamesmanship, she suggested, when most people just want their day-to-day problems sorted out.

Which made me wonder whether politicians (and, indeed, social media warriors) might not have something to learn from the “ivory towers” that they are so quick to deride.

It was a thought further fuelled by an exchange on Twitter between the political scientist Colin Talbot, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, and the BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson.

When Talbot suggested that the stalwart BBC newsman John Humphrys was an enthusiastic Brexiteer, Simpson replied that as a “close friend for 41 years, I still have no idea how [Humphrys] votes or what his private views on Brexit are”.

Fair enough, Talbot responded, “happy to accept that”. This being Twitter and Brexit, though, others were not, and a pile-on duly ensued.

So far, so run-of-the-mill. What was striking, though, was Talbot’s reminder as he responded patiently to the Twitter mob that, in academia at least, plurality and the genuine exchange of ideas and views is still considered a good thing.

“Can you confirm or deny that [Humphrys] has close friendships with ministers with Brexit-related portfolios?” raged one Twitterer.

“Does it matter?” replied Talbot, reasonably. “I have had close friends who are Tories and revolutionary socialists – doesn’t make me either.”

“Can you seriously not see the problem with journos getting too close to the people they are supposed to be holding to account?” raged the tweeter.

“The idea – prevalent in parts of politics – that you can never be friends with someone you disagree with is infantile,” Talbot replied.

And so it is. But it is not only in politics that this polarisation has occurred – social media itself is to blame for a much wider shift, one that was summarised neatly in a blog by Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Oxford.

Reflecting on what it is like to use Twitter as an academic, she writes: “I soon learned that some people on social media don’t play by the rules of academic engagement.

“They are not sincere in their desire to discuss topics: they have a viewpoint that nothing will change, and they will use any method they can find to discredit an opponent.

“This includes ad hominem attacks, lying and wilful misrepresentation of what you say.”

To anyone who has followed politics over the past year or two, this will sound startlingly familiar.

Which is why whatever those politicians might say about universities’ allegedly dwindling respect for freedom of speech, they could learn a lesson or two from the groves of academe.

This week’s cover story brings together reflections on the 1968 student protests 50 years on, and is a reminder both of this tradition of debate and that academia has always been intensely political in the best possible sense.

As for those aphorisms, on second thoughts, perhaps their mutilation predates Twitter.

In a memorable scene from The Office, David Brent, the gauche middle manager on whom the comedy series centres, points to a plaque behind his desk quoting the singer Des’ree: “Money don’t make my world go round, I’m reaching out for higher ground”. One for the vice-chancellor’s loo wall, perhaps?

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