06 July 2008

Mainstream voices only, please



Last month the Israeli ambassador, Ron Prosor, complained that Britain "has become a hotbed for radical anti-Israeli views".

Academics, who are supposedly society's guardians of knowledge, objectivity and informed debate, have seen their union held hostage by radical factions, armed with political agendas and personal interests. British academia has built its reputation on freedom of expression and the pluralistic exchange of ideas. Alarmingly, these values are under threat in an institution that should be safeguarding them ...
Prosor alleged that discrimination is being practised. For example, he says, "two Israeli academics were ousted from the editorial board of a journal", and an Israeli postgraduate "was refused doctoral supervision because he had served in the Israeli army." He castigates British academia for preferring crude positioning to thoughtful analysis.
Over-simplifications, half-truths and lies have been swallowed as reality and disseminated as truth ... A climate of hatred is fomented on campuses. The complexities of the situation are overlooked ... Double standards are rife.
This all sounds sadly familiar. Any academic topic which deals with something regarded as being of political interest is now subject to heavy filtering in favour of fashionable perspectives. And the number of areas which are politicised is expanding. This is partly as a result of the viewpoint — increasingly dominant in academia — that everything should be regarded as political.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell felt moved to reply — perhaps because it is now the government which we are expected to consider responsible for ensuring that universities reflect appropriate values? Rammell rejected Prosor's charges of academic bias, though his arguments seem rather feeble.
Universities have a vital role to play in challenging those views that we may regard as uncomfortable or distasteful and, where such views do exist, it is the responsibility of staff and students to isolate the very small minority who promote extremism ... We recently published updated guidance to all higher education institutions ...
"Updated guidance" — on how to preserve academic freedom in the face of forces seeking to stifle debate? No.
... updated guidance to all higher education institutions on how to promote shared values, break down segregation and increase cohesion on our campuses.
In other words, on how to promote those (ideologically correct) values which the il-liberal elite regard as dominant, and hence those which it is considered appropriate that all should share.

"Key Objective Number 1" for higher education institutions, according to the updated guidance, turns out to be as follows (emphasis mine).
1. To promote and reinforce shared values; to create space for free and open debate; and to listen to and support mainstream voices.
Ah, mainstream voices. That is of course what contemporary academia ought to be about, according to the prevailing ethos: the promotion of those viewpoints which happen to be currently dominant (even if some of them carry obligatory pseudo-radical labels such as 'dissent' or 'challenge'), and the marginalisation or exclusion of those which are genuinely dissenting. Voices expressing the dominant viewpoint will be permitted to talk amongst themselves, creating the illusion of 'debate'.

So the supposed promotion of academic neutrality touted by our Higher Education Minister turns out to be fictional. Can Rammell at least maintain the pretence for the purposes of his statement? Sadly, not even that, since he cannot resist using it to prove that he himself has the ideologically correct take on the specific topic in hand (Israel).
Israel and the occupied territories contain both progressives and reactionaries, and the problem with boycotts is that they make the job of progressives much more difficult and entrench the position of the reactionaries.
So, boycotts are bad because "they make the job of progressives much more difficult". What is Mr Prosor supposed to think about this? That if it happened to be the other way round, i.e. that they entrenched the position of 'progressives' and made the job of 'reactionaries' more difficult, discriminating against Israeli academics would be acceptable?

A mediocracy, having little time for the concept of principles, needs to be reminded of the utilitarian benefits of something like 'free speech' if it is to be retained at all. And, for a good little mediocrat, the only benefit worth considering is: the promotion of approved perspectives.