Whatever else they may be accused of, British students are not apathetic. On social media and online petition sites, they campaign for social causes and fight for equality. Every so often, though, this activism takes a more sinister form. Last month, Dr Neil Thin, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, became the latest target of youth-driven cancel culture. BlackEd, a student-led anti-racism group, posted three of Thin’s tweets on Instagram, labelling them Exhibit A (along with a photo of a different professor, who had given a BBC interview on the Syrian conflict, which they label Exhibit B). In the caption, BlackEd asserts that “these tweets … show … that there is a good number of ignorant staff members that need anti-racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, islamophobic, and ableist training … [Neil Thin’s tweets] are extremely problematic and could be triggering for some.” On corresponding Facebook posts, BlackEd also labels Thin’s views “problematic,” describes them as making his students feel “unsafe,” and proposes that “collective action must be taken” against him.
Neil Thin does not match the usual ideological profile of a lecture-hall bigot, nor do his tweets seem to support this accusation. The students’ charge of transphobia rests on Thin’s having shared an article from this magazine defending J. K. Rowling’s stance on gender—and adding the comment, “How can it be controversial to argue for sex-based rights and for open, considerate debate on tricky moral issues?” The charge of homophobia seems completely random, since none of Thin’s posts relate to sexual orientation. It seems that accusations of one kind of discrimination must now be reflexively accompanied by allegations of every other imaginable kind.
The charge of racism rests on Thin’s expression of concern over “segregation” at a campus event called Resisting Whiteness, which featured a seating area reserved for students of colour. He strongly objects to the portrayal of ethnic minority students as “traumatised and rather helpless victims,” and cautions that “overgeneralising” about disadvantages is not productive. His pleas to discard the divisive language of Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter—and to aim instead for what he calls a “socially harmonious, post-racial world”—are apparently enough to get him labelled, without a hint of irony, as “the epitome of white supremacy.”
In response to the objections to Thin’s tweets, Dr Lotte Hoek, the head of the University of Edinburgh’s department of social anthropology, told students that Thin would face investigation and possible disciplinary action. He is currently suspended, his distinguished 34-year career at the university under threat.
Increasingly, the “tricky moral issues” to which Thin refers in his tweet cannot be treated with the nuance they require. The rise of the term microaggression points to how speech that is seen as offensive is now often framed as violent. It also reveals a recalibration of what counts as giving offence—and what it is now reasonable to take offence at. This now includes: speech that mentions offensive words in order to describe them as offensive; slips of the tongue that resemble offensive words; and speech, regardless of its content, that the listener believes was prompted by an intent or viewpoint that she finds offensive. The listener’s interpretation is rendered incontrovertible, and dissenting views are irrelevant. As a result, constructive debate is avoided within university communities—the very environments in which such debate is most needed. Educators are unlikely to feel free to express heterodox opinions when they risk having their careers cut short and their names besmirched in response.
At the end of April, Dr Michael Spence, the president and provost of University College London, spoke out about the pernicious effects of restricting diversity of thought on campus, emphasising that universities have a duty to “model and teach students how to disagree well across some really quite profound barriers of disagreement … Not making an enemy of other people, trying to work out where there is common ground—these are core intellectual skills that I think universities have a fundamental role in teaching.”
It would be absurd to require everyone we meet to exactly mirror our beliefs: friendships can be forged over spirited differences of opinion, and there is nothing wrong with trying to bring others round to one’s own point of view. An irony of Thin’s case is that his attackers probably agree with him on several issues. For instance, both Thin and BlackEd have advocated a move towards multicultural reading lists, and away from what they both might characterise as outdated, myopic or Eurocentric approaches to education. They apparently differ only over what to call this strategy. BlackEd see it as a form of decolonisation. They labelled one of Thin’s tweets problematic because he advocated framing this instead as diversification—on the ground that decolonisation is tinged with ”racialised talk of guilt, resentment, and reparation.” To BlackEd, Thin’s rejection of Critical Race Theory terminology apparently marks him out as a bigot, however similar their goals may be.
Students in the UK and beyond should be, not only permitted, but encouraged to disagree with their lecturers. One of the most liberating elements of the transition from school to university is the move away from addressing teachers as Mrs or Mr, and towards something closer to social and intellectual equality: since Thin is a university educator, students are free to criticise and rebut his views. Yet, while some have tried to open a dialogue with him, quite a few have chosen instead to communicate their disagreement indirectly and anonymously—through social media shaming or an open letter to the social anthropology department. Such accusations are more difficult to engage with—and may have more capacity to intimidate.
Although no one should be required to support any academic’s positions, we must support the academic’s right to hold them. The inhabitants of a university, whatever their age or status, should be united by a curiosity to learn, and a desire to listen to interpretations and theories that diverge from their own. Close student-lecturer bonds are rarer now than in previous decades. This may be partly due to the expansion of university communities—which can make the educational experience feel less personalised—and partly due to a heightened awareness that getting too close may be construed as sexual impropriety. But perhaps it is also partly due to the propensity of many younger people to consider dangerous certain kinds of speech that many older people may have long seen as an ordinary part of the free exchange of ideas. This difference results, not in healthy scepticism and reasoned debate, but in a climate of mistrust and suspicion that gets in the way of education. Both students and educators have become more hesitant to explore nuances and differences of opinion—though often for different reasons: many people are prone, in their teens and early twenties, to be very sure about the truth of their beliefs, and the prevalence today of online echo chambers and identity politics may have it even more difficult for them to question those beliefs. As for educators, although they occupy an apparently more powerful, privileged role, they may hesitate to engage in debate for fear that they will be brought down by an angry group of students.
Still, it would be reductive to couch these issues merely in terms of the culture war. The relationship between students and academics is not straightforwardly adversarial. For example, Neil Thin has received support from many of his students, past and present. Writing in the Times, Dr Anne Jepson, a student of his in the 1990s, characterises the campaigns against Thin and others as “vindictive attacks on reasonable, thoughtful, fiercely intelligent and kind individuals by the entitled, but not very bright, lecture-hall fillers.” Plenty of Thin’s detractors are presumably intelligent students who apply themselves diligently to learning school subjects. The problem is their unwillingness to entertain ideas contrary to their own, and their belief that disagreement is a threat.
An open letter that Neil Thin’s students wrote criticising his views says, “This is not an attempted ‘cancellation’ or a denial of freedom of speech … nor do we wish to attack Neil’s character.” The BlackEd Instagram story carries no such disclaimers—making even easier for people to respond by calling him a “scum bag,” a “despicable man,” “disgusting,” “openly racist” and (without any substantiation) a “rape apologist” and “racism denier.” None of the accusations take issue with the facts or logic of his statements.
In 2019, law students at the University of Oxford launched a petition that garnered over 700 signatures, calling for Catholic law professor John Finnis to be removed from all teaching duties, based on what they described as Finnis’ “long record of extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people”—particularly those in the LGBT community. The petition did not suggest that he had specifically targeted members of the university community. Some of the views the petition attributed to Finnis were actually his quotations of Plato’s position on homosexuality. In response, Finnis maintained that his views were as conservative with respect to heterosexual pre- and extramarital sex as they were with respect to homosexual sex. Oxford backed his right to express these views—within the context of “vigorous academic debate”—and kept him in his post. If the students had valued viewpoint diversity, they would have engaged him in critical discussion and questioned his beliefs, but they would have stood up for his academic freedom—no matter how profound their personal disagreement with his work.
Another problem is the practice of taking people’s statements out of context and framing them in a way that makes them look like slurs. This past March, Adam Habib, the director of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, used the N-word whilst on a video call with a student, which sparked a petition—eventually signed by almost 8,000 people—calling for his dismissal on the grounds that this was racist conduct. He stepped aside from his role pending an investigation, and resumed his duties earlier this month, after being cleared of the accusation. Habib had used the word during a discussion concerning university policy against its usage, in which he had stressed that calling another student by that term is always unacceptable, and is grounds for disciplinary proceedings. Did he have to pronounce the word to get his point across? No, but that isn’t to say that he used it gratuitously—and he was certainly not using the term to refer to anyone, or with the intention of causing harm. Habib was arguably naive in not recognising the cultural difference between the UK and his native South Africa when it comes to verbalising racial slurs, so it was sensible of him to apologise in response to complaints, but he should never have come so close to being sacked.
Many young people in Britain have been wary of arguments supporting academic freedom, and particularly of the proposals put forward by the UK government this year regarding free speech on campus. This wariness may be partly explained by a particularly strong distaste for the current Conservative government, and by what may have struck some of them as an authoritarian approach, including proposals of sanctions and fines for no-platforming speakers. Change that is initiated by the universities themselves is likely to be more effective than legislation. Universities must draw up clear, tolerant guidelines for freedom of expression that do not conflict with diversity policies, which, Oxford professor Selina Todd argues, have too often been allowed to override free speech protections. Plenty of students care about free speech. But, increasingly, universities are merely erecting facades of support for demographic or ideological diversity, rather than properly engaging with the issue. In cynically seeking to please everyone, they risk alienating all sides. And why should a university defend an employee’s right to free expression in an atmosphere in which doing so could result in damage to the university’s reputation and finances? We must more vocally lobby our places of learning to persuade them to enact change.
The University of Edinburgh’s website includes a statement of its policy on free speech, updated last autumn, which says that it “is committed to upholding freedom of expression and academic freedom, and facilitating an environment where all are able to inquire, study, and debate.” The policy also says that debates must be conducted on the basis of mutual respect, “even where some may find those ideas offensive or immoral,” and that “a commitment to freedom of expression includes facilitating debate that others wish to restrict or obstruct.” It then emphasises, in boldface type: “Without the guarantee of freedom of expression, and the broader freedom of inquiry this protects, the university’s vital contribution to new forms of knowledge and understanding—academic freedom—would be compromised.”
If the university’s officials had adhered to the policy articulated in that statement, they would have strongly supported Thin earlier this year, and dismissed the attacks of his accusers without hesitation. The environment that the university purports to be committed to creating, one “where all are able to inquire, study, and debate,” is under threat from their failure to support Thin; it is not under threat as a result of Thin’s tweets. BlackEd’s demand that Edinburgh ”needs to make stricter guidelines on the comments staff can make if they openly affiliate themselves with the university,” should send chills down the spine of anyone who values personal liberty—on or off campus. Given how quickly the university seems to have bowed in response to the slightest nudge from student protest in recent times, there is no guarantee that they will voluntarily adhere to the academic freedom principles they’ve articulated.
UK students’ complaints against their universities reached a record high in 2020, and were ten percent higher than in 2019. Many students have said that, when they have tried to make formal complaints through regular channels, they have been routinely ignored. This may have led them to feel that online petitions, open letters and social media posts are the only ways they can get their universities to listen to their concerns about professors’ views. If true, this suggests that the universities themselves bear some responsibility for the public nature of the onslaught against Thin and other academics. The students can be seen as young, disenfranchised individuals who have had upsetting experiences, and are acting out of frustration with university officials whom they feel have not done enough to respond to their concerns and distress.
The past fourteen months of the pandemic have been at best dull and at worst deeply traumatic for this generation of students—at a time when many of them are seeking a sense of purpose in their lives. Universities could better serve them by making it a priority to help them expand their intellectual horizons. To discover new ideas and to have one’s assumptions challenged can be an exhilarating experience. Our educators are not infallible—nor, one assumes, do they want to be seen as such—but they are worth listening to, even when their views seem foreign to one’s own. Academic freedom is essential to a healthy and stimulating learning environment. If British universities do more to emphasise their support for this principle, more of their students may discover the myriad joys of civil, reasoned disagreement.