05 January 2018

The ‘wrong’ questions

The government is threatening to impose penalties on universities which fail to uphold free speech. Critics argue that the real culprits are student unions rather than universities per se. But do the attitudes of students reflect the ideological bias of their tutors?

If someone had wanted to expose the less visible biases of academics – which may buttress the more blatant ones of student unions – they could hardly have done better than propose a research project on the British Empire. The topic seems to press some of the most sensitive buttons of the intellectual elite.

The Ethics and Empire project, being run by the University of Oxford’s McDonald Centre and led by theology professor Nigel Biggar, claims to be looking at the issue of empire in a less negative way than is usual. This, apparently, is like a red rag to a bull.

The project has generated open letters of indignation from (so far) two groups of academic historians. The letters are aggressively disapproving, and complain that Oxford should not be supporting this kind of research. The first letter is from scholars within Oxford itself – demonstrating that the place is no stranger to political correctness.

“We write to ...

express our opposition to [...] the agenda pursued in [the] recently announced project entitled “Ethics and Empire”
the Oxford scholars say, and go on to hurl a range of hostile epithets including: discredited, bad history, politically naive, swaggering, absurd, caricature, nonsense, useless, polemical, simplistic. The project is said to “ask the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes”.

According to student newspaper Cherwell, the University has responded by confirming its support for the project.

[...] an Oxford spokesperson has now [stated] that the University supports “academic freedom of speech”, and that the history of empire is a “complex topic” that must be considered “from a variety of perspectives”.

They said: “This is a valid, evidence-led academic project and Professor Biggar, who is an internationally-recognised authority on the ethics of empire, is an entirely suitable person to lead it.”
However, Cherwell seems to be the only source for this alleged support, and the spokesperson is not identified.

The signatories to the letters clearly do not like the sound of the project. They express both professional and moral reservations. Curiously, they seem to believe it is right to turn those reservations into a collective public attack.

Perhaps the project’s aim is simplistic, but surely no more so than countless other research projects. And perhaps the approach is at odds with orthodoxy, but so what? Neither of these criticisms are grounds for public denouncement, by people who sound as if they are speaking on behalf of an entire profession.

The Oxford open letter attacks the empire project by invoking (among other things) ideals of scholarship, criticalness, and openness. It accuses its target of complacency, and of making simplistic moral assessments. These accusations smack of hypocrisy. The signatories have themselves allowed simple-minded moral assessment to displace objective enquiry. If they were genuinely interested in “open, critical engagement” they would refrain from stirring up trouble against fellow academics. They would avoid themselves sounding complacent and arrogant about the correctness of their orthodoxy. And they would think twice before making inflammatory statements such as:

For many of us, and more importantly for our students, [Professor Biggar’s views] reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past.
To threaten that the project reinforces unacceptable attitudes towards inequality seems simple-minded. In any case, the possibility that proposed research might strengthen views that are regarded as ethically dubious should not be cause for denouncement. The signatories to the two letters appear to be unaware of this basic principle of academic enquiry. (Genuine enquiry, that is, as distinct from search for data supportive of a preferred viewpoint.)

Consider the following two alternative positions.

A) Enquiry and debate should be respected, even if one disapproves of the viewpoint or approach adopted.

B) It is right to organise protest against research or speech which adopts viewpoints that are regarded by some as offensive.

Which of these two positions are students of the Oxford scholars more likely to internalise, following their open letter? If B, what will this mean for the likely impartiality of social science research when individuals who are now undergraduates become dons? Or, indeed, for free speech at Oxford, which already seems to be compromised?

* * *

Disciplines such as history, in which interpretation is more important than raw data, are prone to ideological capture. Following such capture, they are liable to become intellectual closed shops. Eventually, the only accredited people in such disciplines are unquestioning supporters of orthodoxy, since they are the only ones permitted to pass the relevant ideological tests (though there may always be a few freak exceptions to the rule).

What can be done once that has happened to a faculty or an institution? One course sometimes proposed is for an external agency to attempt to enforce fair access for dissident ideas.

Another possibility is to support projects by outsiders which, while not necessarily conforming to the standards of the orthodoxy – and largely ignored by it – at least let in a bit of fresh air.

Of the two options, the second seems preferable.