The virtue of disagreement

Today’s topic I cannot avoid, really, as it is uppermost in my mind, on a matter which has troubled me since I first heard of it last June, and of which I later had first hand experience online. Most broadly expressed, it is the stifling of debate in the modern university. What causes it to be uppermost in my mind is my coming across a very short clip concerning merely the most recent manifestation of this fad, which is the question of whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes which stands over a doorway to Oriel College, Oxford should be removed on the grounds that he was a racist and an imperialist. Let us leave aside the question itself, for a moment. As a question it is not unworthy of consideration, and the enormous problems which such a precedent would set if it were carried out do not, of themselves, mean that it should not be addressed. But this piece is about the way in which the question is being addressed, and others like it.

First, the clip. It is of two people ‘of colour’. One is a young student, presumably between 18 and 21, a black South African. The other is an older woman, supposedly a barrister, and apparently of Indian descent. He begins to speak about not wishing to be part of ‘the colonial project’ when the woman interjects that he is the reverse of the colonial project, that he is an African (presumably a Rhodes scholar, though that is not made clear in the clip) who has come from Africa and is reaping the rewards of Western education, and of the Rhodes bequest. He pauses in his deliberations and asks her at some length not to interrupt him ‘if that works for you’. He then continues to drone on in an incomprehensible way. It is a very brief clip, and it isn’t clear why Channel 4 decided to post this part, rather than any other.

This is a young man who is used to the concept of the ‘safe space’ – that he is to be allowed to express his views, for that is what freedom of speech is about, but that he is to be insulated and protected from all views which are offensive to him, or indeed, which oppose his. He does not feel he has a duty to address the point which his interlocutor has made, nor realise the extent to which it undermines his position.

The most obvious fear is that the poor love will not actually be able to function in a space which is not so fawningly nurturing, but of much greater concern is the fear that ridiculous ideas are being allowed to flourish and gain currency simply because they are not being suitably challenged by the simple expedient of knocking them down.

The comments on this particular clip (it is on YouTube) are perhaps the most distressing part (for me). Of course it descends into the usual troll wars that un-moderated comment sections inevitably become, but the racist card is used extensively against anyone who wishes to speak up for the narrative (unfashionable no doubt, but certainly not comprehensively dismissed) that black Africans, though dominated and enslaved by Europeans, have benefited in various ways from colonial rule. The ‘old woman’ is criticised for interrupting and ‘silencing’ him instead of letting him express himself. The ‘old woman’ comment is then described as misogynistic, without it being observed (for this never is observed) that it is ageist as well.

My own experience of this kind of treatment occurred in the summer, after a comparatively cheerful facebook exchange about ‘cultural appropriation’ another chimera of the left whose cry-babies are annoying me. A former (male) pupil at the school at which I teach had challenged another (female) about the validity of the concept of cultural appropriation, and had made several sound points, which she had also countered in interesting ways. I enjoyed the exchange and said so, having gently participated in it, largely on the boy’s side.

The girl posted that she wished she was a privileged white male so that everyone took them seriously. Now, this was clearly ridiculous for several reasons. First, she hadn’t been belittled, nor failed to make her point – she had conducted her side of the argument with dignity. The fact that in the end, she hadn’t convinced us was no reason to fling any toys out of her pram. Second, nothing about the exchange had been about gender. And third, though the wish was meant ironically, on the face of it, she was wishing that she were herself a participant of the privileges which she was criticising with that irony. Take the irony at face value, and it would of course undermine itself.

I asked why she felt that, and another of her friends (also a former student at the school) interjected with a volley asserting that all girls at that school always felt belittled, undermined, rejected and silenced as ‘silly little girls’. Since my own daughter was a contemporary and had no such experience, I had the temerity to ask her how she could possibly know what all girls thought. In the subsequent exchange I was accused of ‘silencing women’s voices’. I was doing nothing of the kind. It was facebook, and I had no power to remove the comments even if I had wanted to, which I emphatically did not. In fact, all I was doing was not blindly accepting those voices, nor the truth of what they were saying.

This is an important distinction. People have a right to place their opinions and other ways of expressing themselves in a public forum. Other people have the right, to challenge them and criticise. This is what free speech means. I understood that in this exchange, I was merely being criticised, not silenced. Those arguing with me, however, did not do so with the restraint and courtesy that has tended to characterise academic debate and dispute, but with a fervour laced with vitriol that is more about a ‘flame war’ than anything that ought to pass muster in the Oxford Union. It was if they believed that my opinions, powerless as they are, and based on my experience of a life of privilege, were some kind of de facto threat, simply by being expressed.

This, I suggest is what happens, when your debating society forbids debate.


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