In December 2020, academics at Cambridge voted to amend a new university policy on freedom of speech. The original proposal, submitted in March, asked academic staff to be “respectful” of arguments and positions with which they disagreed. The Cambridge dons were not amused.
Like the right to call yourself a Cambridge lecturer, respect must be earned – and like love or hate, it must be willed freely, not commanded by others. Cambridge University seemed to have confused its free speech policy for its expectations of decorum. It’s fine to ask academics to be courteous to one another, but they cannot be compelled to be receptive to intellectual stupidity.
Some arguments deserve little or no respect because they are irrational, immoral or factually incorrect – a vague request for respect suggests that such ideas deserve credence, but academics proudly guard their disciplines against falsehoods and bad scholarship. It is part of their job to point out bad ideas and to get rid of them.
A group of lecturers, led by the philosopher Arif Ahmed, pushed for an amendment. Academics should instead “tolerate” differing views. This achieved the original proposal’s goal of encouraging academics to be open-minded and permit different ideas without the compulsion to give all ideas, bad ones included, the time of day. Toleration protects academics’ rights to “ridicule and parody” which “can be as effective as argument and analysis” in provoking reflection and critical analysis.
Liberalism “is the foundation on which modern academic life is built,” wrote Ross Anderson, a Cambridge academic. Toleration is not just a key tenet of modern liberalism, but a value of huge importance in the history of universities. The history of universities is one of long, costly battles for tolerance – a struggle for academics to be free of censorship from the church, the state, the market and the mob. “If we are to uphold the liberal culture that we have not just embraced but developed over several centuries,” he continued, Cambridge dons surely had to replace “respect” with “tolerance”.
One rule for all
To some, Cambridge’s decision marks an important moment in the culture wars. If you take the view that academic freedom and intellectual inquiry at universities up and down the country are floundering under the pressures of political correctness and left-wing dogma, you should be relieved that the people at one of our finest institutions were brave enough to stick up for themselves and for free speech.
However, many universities have little or no bother with these problems. At these institutions, academic life flourishes and “cancel culture” is something about which lecturers hear only on talkRADIO or read in the opinion section of the Daily Telegraph.
It’s not that these institutions are more or less tolerant (or respectful) than Cambridge. Rather, there is simply no appetite for outrage. They manage to bring in hundreds, if not thousands, of speakers every year. When things do go wrong, they tend to go wrong within one of the twenty-four institutions that make up the Russell Group; universities a little lower down the rankings get on perfectly well and there are far fewer controversies on their campuses.
But others believe that if there’s a problem in the Russell Group, it must be a problem at every university. So, institutions where most students haven’t even heard of trigger warnings or microaggressions or where there are no campaigns to pull down statues should boldly pay tribute to free speech and dismiss political correctness.
Parliamentarians have pursued the matters of free speech and tolerance on campus with great interest. A condition of possible bailouts for universities in disastrous financial positions would be a much louder, prouder commitment to freedom of speech. And we may soon see a “free speech champion”, not unlike something conceived in 2019 by Policy Exchange, presiding over higher education.
Cambridge’s decision may be something to which the leaders of other universities hastily turn. But the debate at Cambridge was not a clear choice between freedom of speech and censorship. The architects of the original policy were confident that it would enhance, not diminish, free speech on campus. So does the amendment mean that Cambridge University is now a better place for free academic discussion? Should universities take inspiration from the original proposal, advocating respect, or from Arif Ahmed and the Cambridge rebels, calling for tolerance?
Looking for answers to these questions, we find two problems. The first concerns tolerance itself, a tricky concept to pin down. The second concerns the validity of the claim that tolerance is a liberal value; several modern scholars see a certain type of toleration, that of religion, as a careless invitation to the enemies of liberal society to strike it down. Liberals should be tolerant up to a point, it seems.
Liberal societies should be tolerant ones. They recognise that each member of the community may have his or her own beliefs and ideas that they may practise freely insofar as they do not interfere with others and their rights to the same. A liberal society permits disagreement and dissent, not to mention satire and mockery, penalising only those who impose their views on others.
Tolerance goes well with other liberal values – freedom of speech, of thought and of association are all things that cannot be possible if dissenting views are not tolerated. There must be both a state or government that tolerates different views and a social atmosphere that permits people to put forward ideas that break with the norm.
What are we to do when someone believes that another’s practices, thoughts or way of life are wrong? Presumably, in a tolerant society, we agree to disagree. But it is not as easy as that.
Who is the more intolerant – the baker who refuses to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds, or the state that compels the baker to serve anyone who enters his shop? The landlord with a “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” sign in his window, or the state that forces him to bring unwanted company into his home?
Examples like these, short and sweet as they are, have led to extensive debates about tolerance, its limitations and how, as the religious right often argues, several freedoms clash. Peter Tatchell, the veteran LGBTQ rights campaigner, famously changed his mind about the issue, electing to side with the bakers’ freedom of conscience.
More than one approach
Universities are under pressure to profess their love for free speech and their disdain for “wokeness”. They needn’t worry about grappling with the concept of tolerance, as Arif Ahmed can tell us “exactly what ‘tolerance’ means.” Academic staff should show:
willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them’.”
Impudent as it might be to question a Cambridge philosopher, I dare say it’s that simple. Ahmed’s account of tolerance is a popular one, but there are at least four ways to do it, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Toleration requires there to be a belief that is, in the view of the tolerator, “objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad.” That much is clear. But your conception of toleration will tell you what you do with such objectionable beliefs.
In some conceptions, it is about peaceful coexistence. The SEP’s first conception imagines a single state with minorities. The dominant party – the monarch, the state – might permit minorities, or dissenting voices, to exist. One does not interfere with the other provided each recognises the other’s size and influence. In a plurality of parties the SEP’s second conception, all recognise a difference of opinion, but agree not to interfere in each other’s affairs about it.
In other accounts, toleration leads to respect. Despite having different opinions, the SEP writes in its third conception,
citizens recognise one another as moral-political equals in the sense that their common framework of social life should… be guided by norms that parties can accept.”
You believe morality comes from God, I believe morality comes from reason, but both of us believe that each has rights and moral worth as citizens living in a free society. We may disagree, loudly and angrily, but neither of us wants the other to be persecuted or ostracised for coming to a different view.
The SEP’s fourth conception of toleration involves the assignment of “ethical esteem” to one another’s beliefs; not just respecting each other and how they come to their own views, “taking them to be ethically valuable conceptions that—even though different from one’s own—are in some way ethically attractive and held with good reasons.”
This conception seems to resemble the initial proposal at Cambridge, which asked academics to be respectful of others’ opinion and mindful of the existence of diverse views and ideas. Clearly, Arif Ahmed and his colleagues would object to this version of toleration. They would doubt that ethical esteem should go to believers of, say, militant Islamism or national socialism.
The authors of the original Cambridge proposal may well object to this comparison, but, as Ahmed pointed out, their proposal is so vague that it may well imply that all views, even racism, slavery and eugenics, should be respected. Alas, there aren’t always very fine people on both sides.
Don’t keep the faith
A key advantage of tolerance over respect, the Cambridge dons argued, is that tolerance permits the existence of different views without awarding them all the appreciation that they may not deserve. It would seem that the dons would prefer the earlier conceptions of toleration set out by the SEP, the ones that focus on non-interference and non-discrimination, over tolerance based on politely respecting others’ views.
In this line of thought, toleration is about refraining from intervening on matters that you find objectionable. This does not mean that you cannot speak out against things with which you disagree, as the Cambridge dons would remind us. Toleration is about permission rather than the avoidance of passing judgment.
But it is here that our idea of tolerance is again placed under huge strain, this time by liberals, the very people who are meant to see tolerance as a tenet of their politics.
According to several critics, many of them self-described liberals, modern, liberal society has became so infatuated with tolerance that it treats religion and all its branches with extraordinary reverence, to the point that religion’s detractors are often smeared as bigoted. But it is religion, these critics insist, that is intolerant. That’s putting the case mildly: the critics link religion to all manner of past and present atrocities and outrages, all over the world, from pogroms and genocides to terrorism and child abuse.
The critics plead with us to see that religious people receive various rights, privileges and exemptions for no good reason. Their faith and confidence in the truth of beliefs and theories of the world that have barely changed for thousands of years pose real threats to civilised society.
It’s tolerance that has led us to this predicament. “The very ideal of religious tolerance – born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God – is one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss,” wrote Sam Harris in his book The End of Faith. Tolerance, supposedly a key liberal value, has led us to give irrational beliefs a free pass so often that we put our society in danger. For the good of liberal society, we must do away with religion.
The New Atheists insist that we pull no punches in our criticisms: go ahead and accuse the Catholic church of “nurturing an army of child rapists” or insist that religion deserves our “ridicule and hatred and contempt”. Some would say that this militant atheism, in which religious moderation is only a few steps away from fundamentalism and even religious terror, veers towards intolerance and is not compatible with liberalism.
But the New Atheists would reply that, if you want to find intolerance, try saying something critical about faith in certain religious societies in the world today. You might find yourself behind bars, missing limbs or due for execution.
We’re all friends here
If you conceive of toleration as mode of permission, then there is nothing intolerant about writing, in the words of one of Harris’s reviewers, a “sustained nuclear assault” against religion, or indeed any other belief. Tolerance here protects the right to believe in objectionable things, not protecting the beliefs themselves.
But toleration conceived strictly as the freedom to hold views unimpinged says nothing about how those views should be expressed and whether there are any limits on how views can be critiqued. Is the freedom to hold a view in exchange for a daily barrage of relentless criticism in which your views might well be linked to moral backwardness, stupidity, terrorism or the end of civilisation a worthwhile trade?
I’m not “intolerant” of your belief in a winged horse. Please be tolerant of my right to tolerate your belief but call it stupid.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 15, 2013
Advocates of free speech often say that it is not enough to have a commitment to free speech and debate on paper, as many universities have – there must also be a healthy atmosphere where people can put forward unpopular views and engage in debate, not a hostile climate in which a thousand angry voices can demand and even achieve someone’s dismissal from their job for saying something wrong, even accidentally.
We often hear that students with right-leaning or conservative views are too afraid to say them out loud in their seminars. Not all conservative students believe this, and not all conservative responses to this problem are entirely sane, but let’s suppose that the claim is true.
Universities might say they are tolerant and welcoming, but, these students insist, in reality, debate on campus is not a fair fight, as the voices on the fringes are quickly stifled. When conservative students open their mouths, they are booed and hissed. The right to speak does not seem to be sufficient. There must either be more rules to deny the heckler his veto, or a stronger culture of debate where everyone has a chance to participate.
If we want to encourage healthier debate, is there a case for a little more hospitality on top of tolerance? If a tolerant approach is essentially an open invitation for the loudest voices to dominate the debate and drive newcomers away, would an injection of respect reduce some of the discursive inequities?
Some Cambridge dons might reply that universities are meant to be places where ideas and beliefs are destroyed. It might not be nice to have one’s core values and beliefs torn to shreds, but if you really don’t like it, university is not for you. And, as we noted earlier – politics aside, some ideas are just plain wrong. To make a Dawkensian point, geology does have a rather dominant presence on campus while flat-Earthism does not – because one is right and the other is absurd.
Progress of a kind
There are many interpretations of what happened at Cambridge. One sees it another try at achieving that liberal dream: a place in which all ideas and opinions can, at any time, be supposed or deposed, but all players and participants remain unscathed.
Pursuit of this vision existed long before today’s so-called culture wars. There has been some progress – academic tenure, for example, protects academics’ freedom to challenge orthodoxies without losing their jobs. (This works for senior contributors, but is of little help to the thousands of junior staff working on short-term or zero-hours contracts.) Indeed, swift resignations after unpopular comments is a hallmark of the current climate and one that needs to be addressed.
Toleration focused on non-intervention seems to be another step toward the dream of destroying opinions, not people and their careers. But whichever way you define toleration, entailed within is more than an absence of respect, but disrespect. Toleration is widely misunderstood as a simple approach of indifference: that we acknowledge that some people have different opinions to us. Toleration cannot make sense without the prior judgment that there is something objectionable.
We tolerate things we think are wrong, stupid, disgusting or crass. Inevitably this will apply to people and their practices; naturally, not everyone will like being tolerated. Some religious communities tolerate LGBTQ people, but the toleration is not always appreciated, as LGBTQ people know that some religious parents will still tell their children that LGBTQ sexualities, tolerated though they are, are immoral and wicked.
For all the debate about ideas and theories that we can have on campus, we will inevitably come to how they relate to people, identities and cultures. It would make sense to decide if there is some agreement, either built into your conception of tolerance or attached to it, on how far we tolerate arguments and views that pass judgment on people and their worth.
Perhaps there are some occasions in which a level of respect is due. The third definition of tolerance given by the SEP includes a degree of respect to others despite their differences of opinion. Arguably, this was the intention of the original draft of the proposal at Cambridge: for the dons to engage in as rigorous a debate as they liked, provided they never denigrated the humanity of our debating partners.
This is intolerable
Those in positions of power suspect universities to be hotbeds of censorship and illiberalism – they are under pressure to show their commitment to free speech and liberal values. Some might turn to Cambridge for an answer, but they will find that toleration is neither easy to define nor a cherished value of liberalism. Tolerance is hard to uphold with all its contradictions and paradoxes – and some think that liberalism has invited its own demise for the sake of tolerance.
On campus, it’s a tricky balance. Toleration based too much on respect and esteem puts academics in an awkward position, having to speak kindly about arguments that don’t make sense – but toleration based too much on permission without respect could lead to an unforgiving atmosphere in which potential newcomers to academic debate are thrown out.
It turns out that composing a robust policy on freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus requires a proper dissection of complicated concepts. Here, though, is where tolerance shines – everyone is welcome to chip in to the debate and no one is welcome to stop it. We just need to make sure that we convene it.