18 January 2022

Should universities be teaching a common ideological line?

 Arif Ahmed in Unherd writes:

Now imagine being a clever, white 18-year old, not at all racist and not at all privileged either, away from home for the first time, in a lecture or class in (say) sociology, or politics, or philosophy, where a lecturer asserts, perhaps quite aggressively, that white people are inherently racist. Your own experience screams that this is wrong. But do you challenge it? Of course not – after all, it may have, and could certainly be presented as having, the effect of “marginalising minority groups”; and your own institution has told you, through formal training and via its website, that this is racism and we must all stand up to it.

So you keep quiet. So does everyone else; and the lie spreads. Repeat for white privilege, or immigration, or religion; perhaps also, given similar training and encouragement, for abortion, or the trans debate, or… Repeat for a thousand students a day, every day, for the whole term. There is in Shia Islam the most useful concept of Ketman. It is the practice of concealing or denying your true beliefs in the face of religious persecution. At best our hypothetical student spends her university career – possibly, the way things are going, the rest of her life – practising a secular form of Ketman. Or worse: habitual self-censorship of her outer voice suffocates the inner one too; she starts to believe what she is parroting; she denounces others as racists, or transphobes or whatever; and then after three or four years, starts working for a publisher, or a media outlet, or a big corporation...

Ahmed is a Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and as you might assume from his name, is hardly claiming Britain is without racism given his own experience...

Genuine racism and racial discrimination do exist – there is less now than 30 years ago, but you still notice it. You notice or hear about slurs, pointed comments, racist graffiti or physical violence; you notice being overlooked.

I remember looking for a room to rent when I first started working in London. All my white friends had found one pretty quickly. But for some reason, whenever I showed up to see one it had “just been taken”. I’ll never know how much of this was racism in my own case; but I do hear, and I have no reason to doubt, that similar things happen today.

And hardly anyone thinks this is "ok" or rational or moral. It continues to shock me when I hear of racism because I almost never experience it myself. However, simply expressing vehement opposition to racism and wanting people to be treated as individual, on their merits, is regarded by the post-modernist collectivist anti-racist lobby as being "racist". There is only one way to tackle racism, and that is to buy into the whole post-modernist structuralist philosophy that analyses the world into competing, zero-sum intersecting groups of people, with the dominant powerful group being the "white heterosexual CIS-gendered men" who have laws, organisations, institutions, beliefs, structures and systems designed to privilege them over people of different races, gender, sexuality etc.  Structuralism states that power seeks to replicate and sustain itself, so racism exists because that powerful group, of oppressors, needs racism to exist.  Of course capitalism is seen as being a part of this, as is liberal democracy, as is every single philosophy that counters structuralism, because naturally, the inherent characteristic of humanity is that people with power, hold onto it, and try to exclude others, because they fear the loss of power.

To the post-modernist structuralists (of which Critical Theory is a subset), "anti-racism" cannot mean a classical liberal or libertarian view, such as Ayn Rand's description of racism as the "lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism".

That position is, with direct parallels to the Marxist-Leninist position around class, that who is expressing opinions is almost more important than what opinion is being expressed.

Marxist Leninists regarded that if one of your parents had owned a business or land, then you were obviously not of the working class, so your opinions not only did not count, but were by definition tainted by not having enough "class consciousness". Your life was one inherited from an oppressor, so you not only could not be allowed to be near power, but you needed to atone for your inherited privilege, so regardless of your skills, merit or capability, you had to be at best demoted (USSR), at worst silenced or eliminated (Democratic Kampuchea).  Post-modernist "anti-racists" use exactly the same philosophical stereotyping based on race.  If you are "white", your opinions are automatically to be thought of as suspect as best, you are deemed to be privileged and it's probably best if you just keep quiet, because when you DO express an opinion, it is assumed you want to assert your privilege, and you want to silent the truly race conscious.  

Note also both Marxist-Leninists and post-modernist "anti-racists" give only a cursory pass to those of the preferred groups (working class or ethnic minorities) as long as they tout the "correct line".  Working class people questioning Marxism-Leninism are at best misguided and needing re-education, at worst traitors working alongside class enemies. Similarly, racial minorities questioning "anti-racism" either need re-education, or are treated as "Uncle Toms". 

Of course Marxism-Leninism saw a few versions of its implementation, from Tito's relatively liberal approach (which allowed some civil society and localised debate and engagement) through to Pol Pot's absolutist totalitarian eliminationism (whereby anyone deemed to potentially be risking ideological dissent was eliminated). The stage of post-modernist anti-racism is not quite there yet, as white people (don't forget they are all treated as uniform, although the experiences of just about any white migrants from non-Anglophone backgrounds are hardly without racism) can be re-educated to have race consciousness and be aware of their privilege (which absolutely exists in certain contexts, but is far from universal and far from as simplistic as is touted), and learn to keep quiet and not oppose the now predominant academic and increasing dominant media and corporate ideology.

Ahmed notes that for all of the prioritisation of opposition to racism, universities are remarkably silent on a whole host of other worthy causes to oppose but why?

Racism is bad, but so is much else. And yet our soi-disant “anti-racist” universities rarely if ever call themselves “anti-genocide” or “anti-corruption” or “anti-censorship” or (for that matter) “anti-corporate-bullshit”. In summer 2020, you could hardly move for universities making fatuous assertions of “solidarity” with victims of racism. But you won’t find similarly prominent (and probably not any) support, from the same sources, for free speech in Hong Kong or for the non-extermination of the Uyghurs. But then upsetting China might affect your bottom line.

Of course Ahmed is writing from the UK, which statistically sees the worst performing group being white working class boys (three identities there) and the best performing being Chinese boys and girls, followed by ethnic Indians. The idea that institutional racism is the number one cause hindering social mobility in the UK seems questionable at least. In the US, the shadow of legally mandated discrimination towards African-Americans continues to be large, but it's far from clear that university mandated ideological uniformity assists in addressing this. Similarly in NZ, there is an obvious gap in outcomes between Māori and non-Māori education, health and incomes, which clearly is in part a legacy of past discrimination, but again if there is a goal to address issues that particularly affect people from some communities, then how does ideological conformity help address that?

Ahmed believes that there needs to be an ideological purging of universities engaging in ideological training. 

The obvious solution is the immediate and permanent scrapping of any kind of politically or ideologically oriented training or induction. It has no place in a university.

Then, enforce explicit institutional neutrality. In February 1967, the President of Chicago University appointed law professor Harry Kalven Jr to chair a committee tasked with preparing a “statement on the University’s role in political and social action”. The upshot was the Kalven Report, which stated in the clearest possible terms both the essential function of the University and the essential requirement for political neutrality that followed:

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society… A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community… It cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy.

These words should be installed in 10-foot high neon in the office of every Vice-Chancellor in the country. And their universities should commit, publicly and non-negotiably, never to take a corporate stance, in any direction, on any political or social question. 

It's become de riguer among most leftwing/social activist circles to treat phrases like "diversity of views" as "providing a platform for Nazis", which is a red herring specifically designed to shut down debate or inquiry. After all, if there were only two points of views, the "correct" one and "being a Nazi", it isn't hard to see most people thinking it's best to avoid the latter, but it's dishonest, disingenuous and repugnant to treat queries of an ideological position as being akin to genocidal racial supremacy. However, post-modernist "anti-racists" continue to play the game of the Orwellian Marxist-Leninists who treated every opponent as if they were the worst possible people in the world, when in fact that was exactly what they were.

Te Pāti Māori list MP Debbie Ngarewa-Packer's line that you're either Tangata Whenua, Tangata Tiriti or a racist is a reflection of this. You're either racially (and ideologically) correct, ideologically correct or you're irredeemable. 

This reductive approach suits ideological tyrants who don't want to debate or discuss the merits of their position, which they see as philosophically moral and just, and any derogation from that line as being immoral or unjust. Why debate and discuss what is obviously right and just, unless the person debating is at best wrong, or at worst just wanting to oppress people?

It's an authoritarian philosophy that tolerates no dissent, it may tolerate questions for clarification, but anything beyond that is a leap from the just and righteous into the unjust and intolerable.  

Universities should let a "thousand-flowers" bloom, and should promote robust and resilient discussion and debate. If not, then they really are just sheep factories, like the universities seen in totalitarian countries, whereby ideology comes before inquiry. Universities should be places where people who are radical activists across the political spectrum, whether by identity, class, liberalism, the many strands of Marxism, but also religiously based philosophies, can speak, can collaborate and express themselves, and also be ready for responses to their beliefs and positions. 

The big question is who politically will stand up for universities being universal for the sake of students and the public, who own them? 

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