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The "Ideological Totalism" of Higher Education Today

13/11/2015 11:07 GMT | Updated 11/11/2016 10:12 GMT

In recent months there has been a slew of interesting critiques of the move to censor free speech by students. From Lori Horvitz' "Life Doesn't Come with Trigger Warnings. Why Should Books," Mick Hume's "What's New About No-Platform Mania?", to Greg Lukianoff's and Jonathan Haidt's "The Coddling of the American Mind" we have witnessed a surge in criticism against student movements from the United States to the United Kingdom where such students are demanding trigger warnings for their coursework readings and are organising against any campus speaker whose views do not jive with their own. As an academic myself I have witnessed this move to turn students into "clients" over the past two decades with a surge in administrative bodies and salaries, quality control being the centre of of education, and the expectation that students resemble more and more investment portfolios where the ultimate goal is to produce greater numbers of degrees rather than guarantee an open platform of pedagogy and learning inside the classroom. Autonomy and power has been foisted away from faculty in the move to please the client who can complain to upper management if the professor dare displease the student. Now university education is about entertainment, pleasing the client. "May I take your order, sir?"

In short, we are witnessing a reversal in student politics beginning from the 1960s where students were fighting on the streets for civil liberties and the freedom of expression. Today such liberties are anathema to the National Union of Students in the UK which earlier this spring passed a policy banning white gay man from "appropriating black female culture" through motion 503: "'Dear White Gay Men: Stop Approprirating [sic] Black Women'." The ongoing debate at Yale University where Erika Christakis' email to students attempted to open up dialogue about appropriation, student agency and the risk of surrendering authority for personal choice over to the institution has ended up with students screaming at administrators, informing these administrators that it is their job to make them feel "comfortable." What today's students are missing, however, is the scholarly ethos that learning is more often than not uncomfortable, that difference is part of the learning (and living) process, and that aggressive control is not a constructive response to Christakis' observation: "American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition." In a surreal reversal of roles we have a university administrator posing one of the most important questions that students today need to hear and be, if necessary, uncomfortable with.

The act of demanding that the university interrupt free speech or that it ban certain types of speech or even Halloween costumes all point to a neoliberal trend in today's student body for which individual thought and communal dialogue must be curtailed by institutional dogmatism, guided by student group-volition which demands that the institution shut down all forms of perceived antagonistic speech. Recent events in the UK have mirrored this sort of control by various student bodies to censor and even harass those who express diverse--if not unpopular--views is being greeted with institutional queries, an opening of doors for those deemed "antagonistic," because in yet another reversal of recent historical patterns of resistance and control, it is the institution which is beginning to recognise bullying from the bottom up and responding to it.

Take for instance the recent faux banning of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. I say faux banning since Greer was never actually no-platformed--there was a petition circulated, started by Rachael Melhuish, the woman's officer of the students' union, demanding that that the university prevent Germain Greer's lecture entitled "Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century." The reason for this attempt to no-platform Greer was because of her views on transgender persons, a subject which had nothing to do with her proposed lecture. Yet the move to have Greer's talk cancelled continued and what was an attempt to no-platform and silence was represented by many as a factual no-platform. Greer is still due to speak next week and instead of taking seriously the threats made to this individual who simply expressed her desire for physical safety and not to "have things thrown" at her, Greer's detractors ridicule her and employ pointedly sexist and ageist language inverting the actual situation: that somehow Greer herself had created a no-platform narrative out of thin air. This is a convenient elision of the historical facts (yes, I am talking about reality here): namely, the numerous threats--both suggestive and explicit--made to and about Greer should she grace the halls of Cardiff University such as this tweet: "Germaine Greer the backward rednecked Aussie should go and die a Painful death!Very transphobic! It will all come out in the end she's trans."

Aside from insults and threats, the language directed at Greer reveals the true underbelly of this debate that has more to do with free speech and the social undertow of sexism and ageism that women today must still endure in the UK. What great irony that a woman who has spent her career fighting sexism is accused of creating her own oppression and the "drama" of her alleged no-platform. This reads like a 21st century twist of the old standard "She had it coming to her!" More ironic is that one columnist advises that Greer's detractors ought to "ask Greer a question, woman to woman," further repeating age-old tropes of sexism (ie. "man up," "like a woman," etc). All of feminist history is lost on those who are attempting to silence Greer's voice by negating the abuses done to her, all because her views of transgender persons--agree with her or not--are deemed not worthy of debate because, like the Yale students who claim that administration is to make them feel "comfortable," Greer's views make many feel uncomfortable. We must ask ourselves if it is acceptable to buttress misogyny and ageism all because we disagree with our interlocutor, even if our discomfort warrants glossing over and tacitly accepting sexist taunts all because we do not tolerate divergent points of view? Or, as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper points out: "The response to Greer and her alleged transphobia is just one example of a creeping trend among social justice activists of an identitarian persuasion: a tendency towards ideological totalism, the attempt to determine not only what policies and actions are acceptable, but what thoughts and beliefs are, too." And these attacks are being aimed in every direction, even outside academia, with a certain ahistoricity--most recently directed at Andy Warhol protégé, Jayne County, who wrote recently about attacks made on her for using the word "tranny."

Agree or disagree with Germaine Greer or Maryam Namazie, we are missing the forest for the trees if we are more disturbed about this "ideological totalism" (that the other must see me as I perceived myself), over the need to include all voices in a debate issues that affect us all quite equally. Should not a healthy society embrace rather than exclude difference in civil society?