What a relief it was last week to hear Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex on the Today program, defend the “absolute right to say and believe what they think” of his staff last week . It’s a depressing sign of the times that even this most basic defense of academic freedom seems unusual.
Tickell’s intervention may be too small, too late, but it should be a much needed wake-up call for his spineless colleagues. It follows a campaign of intimidation against Professor Kathleen Stock, a speaker who has published extensively on the philosophy of aesthetics, fiction and the imagination. Yet his views on gender theory have led to horrific events which now involve the police. Stickers calling her âtransphobic —â have surfaced in her workplace. An Instagram account called âAnti Terf Sussexâ was created, with the request âFire Kathleen Stock. Otherwise you will see us around. Masked protesters lit flares and waved “Stock out” banners. She has been subjected to this kind of harassment for at least two years. Whatever your take on the trans debate, does anyone think a respected scholar should be treated this way?
Stock is just one of many under threat, but many universities have apparently been silenced. It is no coincidence that the most targeted people tend to be women with “gender critical” views – who, along with most of the population, believe that sex is a biological reality. By refusing to bow to the idea that gender is simply a sentiment that can be changed through self-declaration, they are vilified as “transphobic” and relentlessly intimidated.
In the Stock book Materialistic girls, she reiterates that trans people deserve to be safe and “visible in all of society without shame or stigma.” including being trans â. (As a lesbian, Stock probably knows a lot about discrimination.) She sees her role not to convince students of her own beliefs but to encourage open discussion – a point of view all academics should share.
However, this very attitude seems threatened. What’s shocking about Stock (and cases like Selina Todd at Oxford University and Rosa Freeman in Reading) is the utter failure of their unions to defend them – and the complicity of their colleagues to denounce them. No wonder Stock told me the lockdown brought some relief to his extremely toxic work environment. Who, exactly, is protected here? If a woman’s opinions make people in another building feel “in danger” when that woman is visibly intimidated, then what does “security” mean?
The lack of a platform, the disincentive, sheer animosity towards anyone who challenges the dominant narrative – all of these are the antithesis of education. The government, recognizing the threat, proposed the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill. The left called it a cynical attempt to promote conservative thinking.
it is not so simple. Polls show that students of many political persuasions feel incapable of expressing their opinions. The combination of universities seeking to appease students in a market where they are seen as “consumers” – with “safe spaces” and other ideas drawn from American campuses, has created an unreal world where no student can be. disturbed by a sight that bursts their bubble. Legislation is a brutal and unsatisfactory instrument. It is this culture of “without debate” and the self-censorship that goes with it that must change.
Closing the discussion in the name of âinclusionâ only produces silence and mediocre intellectual work. Universities have a moral duty to defend academic freedom and dissenting thought or we find ourselves without freedom or thought at all, held to ransom by those whose tactics are those of thoughtless thugs.