As a sociologist, I am no stranger to “scare quotes” (see photo above). I spent much of my post-PhD life researching and teaching about moral panics: “teenage motherhood”, “stranger danger”, “satanic abuse”, health scares and so on. I am also well-used to using scare quotes around concepts such as “race” or “parenting” to indicate a critical distance from the concept itself and an intent to explore its origins and development. In the case of “parenting”, this was a neologism which only came into being in the 1970s and so it seemed important to treat the emergence of the word itself as an object of sociological inquiry.
That scare quotes appear not just around neologisms such as “cancel culture” and “woke” today, but also around much more established concepts such as “freedom” is therefore curious to me. Critics of free speech advocates today deride their foe with the term “freeze peach”, as though freedom of speech is no more than an empty slogan, weaponised by their political opponents. And so this week’s discussions about freedom of speech have been fascinating. This Guardian article, written in response to the government’s proposals on academic free speech is particularly interesting. The author, an academic at SOAS, University of London argues that “Ratcheting up a moral panic about universities will hinder, not help, efforts to manage difficult discussions on campus” and recommends the adoption of “procedural values” to “defuse potential flash points” and build a “community of inquiry”.
Professor Scott-Baumann says that it is “necessary to accept bravely the need to debate and disagree upon matters of urgent importance to young people” but that issues such as climate change, migration, race, gender and identity are “dynamite”.
There is a lot of focus at the moment on ‘improving the quality’ of debate, on ‘teaching people to disagree’ and extolling the benefits of ‘viewpoint diversity’. While there is some merit in these aspirations, too often, these arguments are used by those who profess to value freedom of speech but are, in truth, more scared of it than thrilled by it.
While I take seriously the argument that government action could lead ultimately to greater restrictions on speech, I don’t think the narrowing of acceptable thought and speech on campus is a ‘moral panic’. It is real. I’ve seen its many manifestations with my own eyes over 20 years in academia: students too inhibited to speak in seminars because they know they don’t yet have the ‘right’ vocabulary or opinions; academics assuming that all colleagues agree with them and that students must be made to agree with them (especially working class students); academics being attacked by fellow academics, barred from speaking, discredited and maligned; a lack of intellectual curiosity about anything other than ‘marginalised groups’ and a lack of imagination in exploring social phenomenon in any way other than through an extremely simplistic ‘social justice’ lens.
I left academia last year in part because my section of the academy, social sciences, was in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. Applying for lectureships in sociology, it became increasingly difficult to find posts that did not require the applicant to slot neatly within ever-narrower, funding-friendly areas of research or provide teaching shaped by craven attempts to attract students with a painfully ‘radical’ marketing pitch. Some sociology courses look more designed to train ‘social activists’ (more likely bureaucrats) than genuinely independent thinkers who know something.
Unlike some, I don’t think this is the result of a radical left-wing capture of the institutions so much as a desperation on the part of university bureaucrats for any idea which looks like it has a bit of heart or moral authority to it. Pitching an expensive degree to young people as not only a career necessity but as an opportunity to fight against the injustices of racism, sexism, or many ‘phobias offers the immediate and emotive kudos that the development of knowledge for its own sake, as part of the grand human project, has failed to sustain.
But is the lack of intellectual curiosity about the world as it is that really killed academia for me. I was at a large academic conference on the day of the EU-Referendum result and the atmosphere beyond a couple of Brexit-voting mates and the odd EU-sceptic leftwing colleague from Belgium or Norway, was like a cringeworthy mash-up of the middle-aged response to the deaths of David Bowie and Princess Diana. Two days later, one academic emailed me privately to say she had been screamed at in a university corridor by a German colleague who knew which way she had voted. I went to talk to a colleague who had written to the Guardian about the problem of ‘low information voters’ and the need for academics to step-up and become purveyors of ‘truth’, but was greeted not by any interest in understanding the Brexit case for democracy but with a doleful (weepy) state of horrified estrangement from her fellow residents of Kent beyond the university enclave of Canterbury. At an academic conference of political scientists, held immediately post-Brexit referendum, a five-strong panel discussing the result could not muster up a single person who was even remotely interested in why the 52% voted the way they did, let alone be prepared to defend their vote. In the entire lecture hall of about 60 political scientists, I was the only person to defend the result as an encouraging exercise in democracy and not a single person spoke to me afterwards in a spirit of intellectual openness.
And so, I am afraid that the anti-democratic inclinations of too many academics and student union officers, their repulsion at their fellow citizens, means that I simply don’t believe them when they profess their deep commitment to free speech (as some did in a recent report by the university bureaucrat training platform WONKHE). And I don’t trust them to defend academic freedom or the freedom of speech of students because their fear of intellectually free exploration and democratic discussion outweighs their desire to be genuinely progressive.
And so, when I read that Professor Scott-Baumann favours ‘procedural values’ over the government’s proposals to strengthen individual rights, upheld by law, I’m afraid I reluctantly side with the government, at least in the words it has put on paper. Scott-Baumann’s call for ‘training and rules’ for discussion are far worse than the law, which at least operates least at arms-length and is formally required to manifest principles of equality and objectivity. Give me a government ‘champion’ of the principle of free speech over a crew of academics and student officials appointing themselves the arbiters of polite speech any day of the week. Even better, let’s support young people to become properly independent ‘free speech champions‘ – making the case for intellectual curiosity and bravery, not just as a right, but as a thrilling endeavour.