Can Cambridge University just listen to their student body and stop letting in unethical, unacademic right-wing speakers, like, now please?
It’s not that hard
In the past few months, the University of Cambridge has become involved in some pretty public controversies concerning their legitimisation of dangerous alt-right views. Last year, St Edmund's college faced backlash for giving a fellowship to Noah Carl, who had previously been criticised for attending the London Conference in Intelligence, and for promoting pseudoscientific views on the relationship between race and intelligence, a point of discussion with dangerously radical implications which really shouldn’t be debated in the 21st century.
He recently had his fellowship revoked, with the University citing ‘poor scholarship’, which should have been unsurprising to whoever made the decision to appoint him if they’d bother to look at his past work. The University apologised for the fact that his work could be used as a platform to promote extremist views, which has included a study claiming that stereotypes of immigrants are ‘largely accurate’.
Then followed the controversy of Jordan Peterson, who was appointed a research fellowship at the University’s divinity faculty. Allowing him to come and talk about the book of Exodus may seem harmless, until you consider that his other political rhetoric has frequently played into modern debates on identity politics, including his claims that discussion of white privilege is racist, and that feminism is causing a crisis and attack of masculinity. As this Tab article points out, he has also been accused of promoting online harassment, and of sexually harassing women, among many other controversies.
Like Noah Carl, Peterson had his offer for a fellowship revoked, with a spokesperson for the University claiming that there was no place for someone who could not uphold the ‘inclusive environment’ here. But there seems to be a discrepancy between the University appointing such people as a commitment to ‘diverse’ opinions and then subsequently removing them from such positions after facing inevitable backlash from students who are tired of having to constantly fight for staff who show basic levels of tolerance and rationality.
Many argue that the track records of Carl and Peterson are irrelevant, and that the focus should be on the work they intend to do at the University, rather than their social and political beliefs. But the public scandals both have been embroiled in – with Peterson even being photographed next to a man in a T-shirt proclaiming ‘proud Islamophobe’ – speak volumes about how they would be unsuited to work in the diverse environment the University claims to promote.
And the story doesn’t end there. Because just last week, the University came under fire for agreeing to host a talk at the Alison Richards building by the pathetically titled group ‘Justice for Men and Boys’, which claims that men are treated as ‘subhuman’ and are ‘relentlessly disadvantaged’ by the modern education system. This weird narrative may seem harmless, even if ridiculously embarrassing, but the briefest of looks at their websites shows the dangerous ideologies they promote. One article linked on there, entitled ’13 reasons why women lie about rape’, uses anecdotes to create sweeping generalisations such as that women will do so ‘when they fail their school exams’, a transparent attempt to discredit social movements promoting openness about sexual assaults by presenting women as inherently manipulative and deceitful. Others have even raised concerns about facing harassment from the group, based on their controversial and aggressive social media presence.
There is of course a substantial argument to be made that the University should continue letting people like Noah Carl, Jordan Peterson, and J4MB speak, as failure to do so would be an infringement on the principle of free speech. But an institution as prestigious as Cambridge has a huge responsibility and allowing such groups to speak here runs the terrifying risk of legitimising their prejudiced attitudes.
The underlying principle should therefore be that the University needs to consider the ethical dangers that come from any such extreme views and take care to avoid endorsing hateful speech in any form.
Surely the Cambridge Union does a suitable job of providing a diverse range of controversial opinions, without these views having to be legitimised academically by speakers visiting and working at the University itself.
But the constant backlash from the student body, and even the national press, doesn’t seem to be enough to make the University think more carefully before offering positions and platforms such morally dubious political voices. It makes you wonder how many scandals it will take before they learn their lesson, and calls into question whether the student body can trust those with decision making power within the university to properly promote a safe and tolerant environment.
‘Free speech’ is undeniably an important concept. But there’s an important distinction to be made between allowing people to share divisive views and handing them a microphone, an audience, and a research fellowship, all so they can continue to perpetuate hatred, pseudoscience and dangerous agendas.
So this article is a call for the University to please just stop giving sexist, racist, and homophobic public figures and questionable social movements a platform. Let them speak freely on the streets of Cambridge if they really want to, but not in our colleges and lecture theatres.
Cover photo: Fiona McNally
Photo: Ben Harris / Main gate, St Edmund's College / CC BY-SA 2.0