Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s 700,000 fewer people in work right now than at the start of the pandemic. 63.1 per cent of jobs that have been lost were held by people under 25 years old, and a further quarter were held by those aged 25 to 34.

I’ve been reading a lot about the history of what has happened after pandemics recently. Much of it focuses on the young, and what they do after extended periods of restriction. Most of it predicts that they will claim freedom in new, unpredictable and radical ways.

So what happens when you fuse that kind of collective social response to being “cooped up” with the prevailing economic conditions of the period?

There’s an arresting section in Matthew D’Ancona’s new book on identity politics and culture wars that will be familiar to many in the sector that work with students. He describes visiting UK university campuses as a guest speaker on politics and culture, where he says that although he gets asked a lot of questions, if you’re doing your job, it should be you that is asking the questions, and learning as you go.

He argues that we are in the midst of a serious generational shift that is much more significant that the “routine changes in fashion, musical taste and youth idiom that takes place perhaps once a decade”, and describes the state they’re in in this state we’re in:

They are politically and socially engaged, alarmed by what they see as the intermittent chaos of modern life, its manifest social injustices, climate emergency, the insecure job market into which they will be venturing and a political system that is rigged, broken or both. They have a common intuition that the task of repair will be left to their generation – the present cohort of decision-makers being woefully unfit for purpose.

It’s familiar because for all the talk of “partnership” with students, there’s a tension in the air – between the handing down and transmission of values and knowledge to a new generation, and what the right response should be to that new generation choosing to assert its own values and ways of organising knowledge.

And nowhere is that tension more apparent than in the “debate” that surrounds free speech within universities.

Trigger happy

While the themes are almost timeless, the memes identified to demonstrate the existence of a problem with academic freedom and freedom of speech within universities endlessly shapeshift.

One minute we’re six months into a long run of moral panic stories about trigger warnings. But when their supposed use and prevalence is debunked, it’s something else – bans on costumes, eye-rolling over “safe spaces”, bans on books or even the scrapping of sheet music.

The most obvious example of this is “no platforming”. There was a time when the complaint was that speakers were being routinely formally banned from campuses. Then when that couldn’t be proved, the meaning of the phrase got broadened to include the way in which the regulation of events supposedly restricted speech. When that turned out to be bunkum, it morphed into some students at some point voicing some objection to a speaker’s views.

And then when that couldn’t be demonstrated either, we were left with the “chilling effect” of the “unseen iceberg” of a censorious campus culture. I believe it, therefore it’s true, therefore others believe it, therefore it’s more true – your classic illusory truth effect.

It’s possible that I’m also a victim of a reverse illusory truth effect. I may well be so institutionalised into a woke, leftist, higher education culture (a students’ unionish branch of that higher education culture at that) that I can’t see when real threats to free speech are taking place under my own nose.

So while I’ve been trapped in the attic this year, I’ve been attempting to do quite a bit of “leaning in” to the debate – not, as one critic(al friend) put it, to “given them a inch while they take your mile”, but more to put my perceptions to the test and see if there’s anything I can learn about how we might try to start to solve a problem that feels like it’s becoming ever more polarised and fraught.

Wood for the beez

I do a lot of skim reading for Wonkhe, but one strand of my attempt at this lean-in has been to try to read some of the commentary properly. This Daily Mail op-ed from Louis “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” de Bernières is as good an example as any. It starts out describing aspects of “cancel culture” – taking in no platforming, being triggered, safetyism and the like – and as with many pieces like this, can’t seem to hide its distaste for the young.

In the early 90s, de Bernières was selected as one of the “20 Best of Young British Novelists” by Granta magazine. Now he worries that he’s lived through the “best time in our cultural history”, thinks he was “set up for freedom” by his parents’ generation, and will die just in time not to see us spiral back down again “into a stultifying intellectual and moral captivity”.

And who’s to blame for this? Universities of course. Older people in publishing, of whom there are “no longer very many”, may have become “over-sensitive” to the passions of younger members of staff:

These have come through the humanities departments of universities that have, since the 1990s, been steadily taken over by petit bourgeois armchair revolutionaries who have never used a shovel in their lives.

I spend a lot of time with student leaders as part of Wonkhe SUs, so I bristle at the unnecessary dig, but plough on. Maybe there are kernels of truth in the lack of regard for freedom of speech, or a culture that is quick to condemn and cancel.

Naturally, once he’s done wondering if he’s out of touch (no, it’s the children who are wrong), he moves into a critique of “cultural theory”. It’s all there – a pop at “intersectionality”, a whole section on “cultural appropriation” and the “privileging of minorities at the expense of the mainstream culture that has allegedly oppressed them”. Ah yes, a mention of “oppression olympics”. Tick.

I try, again, to understand what this must all feel like – maybe everything changing this rapidly with a chorus of voices telling you that you’re one of the bad guys after all deserves real analysis. But every time I do this, in good faith, something pops up that’s so jarring and insultingly contradictory that I end up throwing my hands in the air. At one point, complaining about the illusory truth of structural oppression, he says:

The more you can’t find it, the more it’s there, of course. That’s how deeply ‘structural’ and ‘systemic’ it is.”

Then a dozen paragraphs on, and without a hint of irony or self-doubt, he says:

It’s true that it’s massively harder for a black person to get a good job than an equivalently qualified white person, but you don’t do anyone any favours at all if you persuade people that it’s actually impossible, and that any person of another race who is being nice to you, actually despises you.”

So if it isn’t structural or systemic I assume he thinks it’s because black people are their own worst enemy and aren’t grateful enough when someone who’s white is nice to them and that’s why they don’t get the jobs or… I give up.

Elsewhere on the Mail’s site, Piers Morgan is complaining about how we was treated by his colleague in the aftermath of the Harry and Meghan interview:

Alex Beresford, GMB’s occasional stand-in weatherman, messaged me saying I needed to better understand Meghan Markle’s racism claims from the perspective of mixed-race people like himself.

Stay in your lane, Alex.

I don’t mind outside guests trying to make a name for themselves by whacking me like this, but I wasn’t going to sit there and take it from one of my own team, especially someone who I’ve gone out of my way to help whenever he’s asked me for advice about his career.

You can’t say anything these days.

Buckingham the trend

It’s not all Daily Mail articles. One aspect of the lean-in has involved popping along to events like this on “Academic freedom under threat”, which mercifully thanks to the lockdown didn’t involve that £35 cab ride you have to fork out for from Milton Keynes station to the academic theme park that is the University of Buckingham.

As you can see, there was a stellar cast of big names on the “other side” of the issues to that where I would usually be or feel comfortable at – people like Kathleen Stock, Eric Kaufmann, Douglas Murray and Spiked! stalwart Dennis Hayes.

It wasn’t exactly a balanced affair – but, I say to myself, there’s nothing wrong with an event like this because not everything has to be a “debate”. It was also run under the Chatham house rule which is also fine – there’s nothing wrong, I remind myself, with people feeling they can express views or raise issues outside the bright glare of instant accountability – although it does mean that this isn’t a blog peppered with screenshots or direct quotes.

But by 5pm I was struck by the extent to which I wasn’t actually very challenged, or surprised, or made to think, or made to feel uncomfortable. It was the same stuff I’ve been reading from libertarians for decades. I was genuinely disappointed – because I didn’t learn much. That’s not a problem per se – again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “that side” of the culture war having a day of intellectual carbs and comfort food in the absence of real conference carbs and comfort food. But it was disappointing still.

Lots of the event consisted of age old safetyism / anti regulation RCP/Spiked! libertarian tropes, a wedge of socially conservative “good old days” tales (from when we weren’t held to account for our behaviours) and a dash of gender critical feminism. In other words – the contemporary Venn diagram that’s causing much of the furore we see in the media.

Like when I’m reading the Mail, some will argue that I was wasting my time, and that all these people are arguing from a bad faith position. I get that – and there are moments (like when I’m reading Kaufman’s “research”) when I agree. But I do think there’s good faith actors there too who are worried about something genuine, or concerned about where “this” might all “lead”. And is it easier for me to “lean in” because I’m a white, straight, centrist dad? Almost certainly.

One thing I did find very interesting is that like in the de Bernières piece, some of the speakers argued that a culture of victimhood spreads – that it becomes so “cool” to complain about being oppressed that being oppressed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in and of itself.

That might be true – but I could detect it among the speakers too. It’s clearly “cool” on that “side” of the debate to feel a victim of all this, and that also becomes true because it feels true. It’s your classic illusory truth effect, and is particularly ironic because of that allegation that those who are “woke” have a tendency to indulge in “oppression olympics”.

Here, there and everywhere

By the end of the day, there was something else and arguably more important scribbled repeatedly in my notebook. One of the recurring sub-themes – mentioned only ever in passing but time and time again by speakers and participants – was popularity, the internet and social media. And I can’t help but think that something significant and profound has happened *there* that I keep seeing people trying to control *here*.

It is certainly true that what I say, do or present online reaches many many people instantly than it would have in the past, can reach others very directly, can’t easily be moderated and can’t be easily erased – and that does (believe it or not) mean I am much more conscious of how I appear or what I say online than I would be, say, in the pub. I self-censor.

It’s also true that that stuff travels very fast thanks to the technology, and that it’s harder to “learn” in that environment or “make mistakes”. The public glare of accountability makes climbing down or changing your mind successfully harder than ever before.

These issues – of personal reputation and the popularity or otherwise of what I say and do – are fascinating. And they’re not just personal – they are organisational and institutional too.

One frustrating thread of thinking, for example, assumes that if we dialled down consumerism and marketisation, then concerns about personal or institutional reputation would fade and speech on campus would be more free. Have these people never watched Chernobyl?

There’s a better thread of thinking that argues that because of the phenomenon described above, the “walls of the seminar room” are more permeable than they were in the past – and that makes sustaining and maintaining an academic environment where students can explore, take risks and learn much harder. Once a set of views or ideas becomes more or less popular generally, it becomes harder for both academics and students to try out others, because of the tech.

I might buy all of that. But not only is the social media genie not going back in the bottle, we can’t ignore how much those environments that were once more private used to also harbour and normalise types of abuse, and shut people out who didn’t fit.

Weapons grade

There are no easy answers to quite profound changes in the way we relate to each other. But – and I know I’m at risk of massive whataboutery here – this isn’t a problem that can be fixed within higher education, and nor can higher education return to some imagined golden era where it was separate from or hidden from wider society.

For me, half of the problem with the “debate” is that the particular function of academic higher education, and the self-regard that people who work in it have for its lofty functions means people can get away without engaging in this stuff properly. Because of course higher education should be different, or special, or protected, or operate to special rules and so on and so on. Because it’s higher education.

That idea of the academy as a “protected space” for free speech leads us down daft paths – trying, for example, to argue that the espousal of any view on campus that’s lawful off-campus should be allowed. Is your position that a university should not be able to discipline a member of staff for anything they say – however vile or unpleasant or oppressive – unless they are convicted of a criminal offence? It’s not mine.

To fix all of this, some suggest that higher education, and particularly the seminar room, should be more like that conference at Buckingham – a safe space where the walls are sealed back up to allow people to think and learn before they (re)-enter the realities of the world. There’s a magical attraction of that in a way – of the same sort that you might experience on a sunny day trip to Buckingham itself, all those miles from the modernity of Milton Keynes station.

But isn’t it just nostalgia – for the days when a tiny number of people went into higher education to learn how to think, debate, reason and run the world with their heads, while the rest of us left school at fourteen to do things for them with our hands? Shouldn’t we just see the free speech debate for what it really is – a deep seated-fear that for all the “debate” of the elites in the past, it was the same people from the same backgrounds holding the same debates who ended up in the same jobs thinking the same way who now fear losing what they think they earned but in fact inherited?

Or do I need to lean in even further?

Safe space policy

I thought this report from the Law Commission on Abusive and Offensive Online Communications might help – it’s full not of quotes about the purpose of the academy, but of interesting insight into the practicalities of the realities we face in this space.

In (imagined) Case Study 8, Marina (@Marina98) is a student, and also an active participant in Conservative politics. She is strongly opposed to social welfare, and writes regularly in favour of “personal responsibility” rather than “government handouts”. Marina’s views infuriate Joseph, who is also active on a left-wing web forum. He decides he wants to silence Marina as he considers her views damaging to society.

After setting out the reasons for his opposition to Marina, he posts the following on the forum:

Her views are intolerable and we need to shut her down. Let’s send @Marina98 one of the following:

No one wants to hear your entitled bullshit you heartless bitch”

I hope you end up in the gutter one day so we can stomp you down”

You know exactly where you can shove your fucking privilege”

This leads to hundreds of abusive messages flooding both Marina’s Twitter account and her other social media platforms. Marina is so startled and scared by this wave of abuse that she shuts down all her social media accounts, and withdraws from all involvement in politics.

This is obviously a bad thing all round. Those on the right would argue “oppression”, and those on the left ought at least to see the lack of humanity and counterproductive nature of the situation. It’s an issue highlighted in this paint-by-numbers Adam Smith Institute speech from Liam Fox. It too touches on campus culture and no platforming, and runs the usual argument – that the “mob mentality” stops progress and prevents people from learning.

But what do you do about it? The Law Commission report notes that while cumulatively the messages have had a devastating impact on Marina, it is not clear that the content of any one of these messages is of sufficient gravity that a charge could be pursued against the sender. The collective impact of these micro-harassments is devastating, but from each of the senders, they’re mimetic and micro.

More importantly, while I’ve no doubt that versions of the above scenario have happened and do happen, I just don’t believe that what’s described above happens generally. More often than not, unless we’re talking troll farms there is no “Joseph” issuing instructions – there’s just a lot of people with a lot of thumbs and a lot of perfectly legally holdable views, joining in.

The implication – during much of the day at Buckingham, in the Fox speech and in things like that DfE policy paper in February – is that the organised mob must be stopped. And if you can’t find the ringleader of the pile-on, or it turns out that it was all a bit organic, you should still hold the SU President or the head of department or the vice chancellor or Universities UK to account for not doing enough to prevent that mob.

It all sounds fine in a pre-internet, pre-social media age where all mass communication was filtered and where polite accountability could be achieved by the development of standards to which those with the printing presses could be (but never were) held. Yet as private, conversational speech has become distributed mass public speech – playing out with a degree of lawlessness and manifesting in extremes of anonymity and notoriety – the hunt for “those responsible” gets harder and harder.

What do you do about anonymous troll accounts? What if someone is banned from doing something by a social media company but not by a university, and vice versa? What if much of the “mass” of messaging comes from those outside of the university, or universities in general?

Live finals

Maybe what’s really happened is that one generation has lost control of the ability to dictate to another who or what is popular, and who or what is acceptable. It’s the sadness and anger in the eyes of Simon Cowell during the last miserable episode of the last series of the X Factor, turned into an entire political and moral philosophy.

Your Liam Foxes and your Louis de Bernières would never know it, but the students I talk to are not stupid. When you listen as well as lecture, you learn that they worry deeply about where you draw the line between a natural, social and emancipatory process of collective evaluation of ideas on the one hand, and bullying, harm and harassment on the other.

But as Matthew d’Ancona points out, they’re unlikely to want to be lectured on how to handle that tension by a generation whose “free speech” meant Havel, Rushdie and Mandela when for them it means holocaust denial, torture porn and 8chan. They’re even less likely to take it from a generation that had housing ladders and social security and free education while they scrape together the rent on their box room by delivering takeaways.

Whether we give it to them willingly or not, students and the young will claim their freedom to work all of this out and draw the lines for themselves. That leaves the rest of us with a choice. Add it all up, and the words and the deeds of the powerful during the pandemic have sent a pretty clear message to students and young people – that they don’t matter, aren’t worthy of help or assistance, matter only for their money and are either “snowflakes” or enemies of freedom (of speech).

As we come out of the pandemic, the sector should pick a side, and send a clear signal both to and about its students. It’s time we made it socially normal to believe in them – to believe that despite their economic precarity, students are valuable to the country, communities and society, and that we need them more than ever to tell us what to do next.

2 responses to “Isn’t it time we believed in students?

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