BY STEPHEN PAX LEONARD
Writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde spoke of the ‘Oxford manner’. It was all fine and good to come down with a decent class of degree and take your Blue in water polo, but what really mattered to him was whether a graduate who had been ‘granted leave to supplicate’ had an appreciation of the ‘Oxford manner’ in discussions, debate and in their general conduct. According to Stephen Fry, what Wilde meant by this was the ability to ‘play gracefully with ideas’, to listen to and nourish different points of views in a measured, respectful way.
If only more of us today had something resembling an Oxford manner, we would surely not be entrenched in this quasi-civil war that is being fought between two radically opposing camps of keyboard warriors in their pursuit of digital identity politics sometimes known as the ‘culture wars’. Oscar Wilde’s comments come to mind this week as we hear of the case of Dr Gopal, a Reader in the English Faculty at Cambridge University who tweeted repeatedly that ‘white lives don’t matter’, ‘abolish whiteness’ and other such nonsense. Judging by the comments she has made in recent years, Dr Gopal is, one suspects, something of an extremist and thus represents a very questionable appointment. Following her comments, there unsurprisingly ensued an online petition to have her removed from her post. The petition soon gathered tens of thousands of signatures. As somebody who has been outspoken about the freedom of speech in toto, I was not one of those signatories. Her comments were provocative, but they were more obviously fatuous and stupid. Like all fatuous comments, they should have been ignored. If we wish to have freedom of speech for all, that is surely how it must work.
The problem was not what one might perceive as the racism of Dr Gopal’s anti-racism. The problem is that Cambridge University rushed to Dr Gopal’s defence, telling us that they ‘defend the rights of its academics to express their own lawful opinions’, no matter how controversial. This is despite the fact that her comments surely contravene the University of Cambridge social media guidelines which state that ‘digital communications by staff should be professional and respectful at all times’.
British universities are tying themselves in knots with their contradictions. We know from recent experience that universities such as Cambridge do not infact defend the rights of its academics to express their views no matter how objectionable. Dr Noah Carl lost his job at St Edmund’s (admittedly a College, not a University decision) and Dr Jordan Peterson’s Visiting Fellowship was rescinded. In the case of Dr Carl, the College terminated his employment only after the outrage mob deemed his research politically incorrect. The Fellows who had previously scrutinised his research in the appointment process and found it worthy of a Fellowship got off Scot free. In the case of the latter, Dr Peterson’s Fellowship was rescinded because he unknowingly had a selfie taken with somebody who was wearing what was perceived to be an Islamophobic T-shirt. Everybody knows of course that was not the real reason. The real reason was at each turn Dr Peterson has challenged the illiberal groupthink and we can’t allow dissenters amongst the herd.
None of this comes as a surprise of course. A great ideological chasm has opened up in the English speaking world between the illiberal ‘liberal’ non-binary (albeit very binary in their political views) Left and non-radicals. British universities (possibly with the exception of the University of Buckingham which is private) have thrown their hat in with the radicals, the AntiFa and other activists. The regrettable outcome is that a British university education is very unlikely to induce students to play gracefully with ideas, and is more likely to result in closed systems of groupthink which Oscar Wilde, a liberal, would have surely disagreed with.
With each such episode, world class universities throw their weight behind the so-called anti-racist mobsters, and therefore we should presumably expect to see their respective reputations to slide. People beyond academia are alarmed at the actions universities are taking (or sometimes not taking), and some kind of backlash is likely to ensue. University administrators will only realise siding with (let alone appointing) iconoclasts was a bad move when it is too late and benefactors start withdrawing their donations en masse.
Most British universities have been corporatised now. They are businesses like any other just with ironically absurd discrimination policies such as charging some Overseas students nearly nine times as much as Home students for tuition fees. With Covid 19, this blatant discrimination is now coming back to bite leaving some universities not viable financially in the short-term at least. I spent over ten years in Oxbridge as a student and lecturer. If I were there today in the midst of this ideological mud-slinging match, I would be doing my utmost to persuade students to ‘play gracefully’ with ideas. To go about this, I would suggest a multi-dimensional approach to students: (1) try not form opinions on the back of social media alone as these platforms are only effective if they serve to amplify the discord; (2) listen to a variety of opinions and read as widely as possible about the relevant topic; (3) if an opinion has the backing of a mob (irrespective of the mob’s political slant), it is unlikely to be a sound one (4) make up your own mind about things, and stick to your opinions even if they seem unfashionable. We need to stop embracing labels, hashtags and movements, and instead put ‘ideas’ again at the centre of our public culture. In the meantime, the racist anti-racists such as Dr Gopal are not just being defended by the likes of Cambridge University. It would seem they are being encouraged and given their unconditional backing. Yesterday morning she was promoted to a full Professorial Chair making it more or less impossible for her to be removed.
Stephen Pax Leonard is a writer, linguist, traveller.