An academic’s response to the Vice-Chancellor
The following open letter to the university Vice-Chancellor was sent to The Badger. We are happy to publish it as indeed we are always happy to publish letters written by students and staff which are sent to our Letters section, whether they be about content in the publication or wider issues. The letters which we publish do not reflect the editorial views of The Badger, which does not have an editorial stance: instead, as a student newspaper, The Badger serves as a platform for the individual views of our contributors.
The following letter is a response to Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell’s email of February 22 titled “respecting different opinions and voices”. The email itself was a response to an opinion piece written by a Sussex student in The Telegraph on February 21.
“On not respecting all opinions”: a response to Adam Tickell’s email entitled “On respecting all opinions”
Adam Tickell has communicated his willingness to celebrate critical enquiry and the capacity to challenge. That is the only thing I can agree with in his email, and so I take up his invitation to critique and challenge the remainder of the text. I address his points in the order he makes them.
Does “right-wing” denote racism and homophobia sufficiently strongly to justify the equivalence implied in the title of the (optional, extra-curricular) seminar held last week?
Racism and homophobia do exist across the political spectrum. But that is as uninformative and unhelpful as saying that implicit bias exists across the political spectrum. Racism and homophobia are everywhere, that’s what it means to say they’re structural. However, they concentrate and thrive within ideologies in which they find points of moral and political agreement. In their most worrying forms, racism and homophobia are not contingent features of individual people, but are ideological positions which are more readily accommodated within particular political camps. Conservative ideologies, in their social manifestation, often have strong historical and current associations with racism and homophobia. That is because conservative political ideologies, by their very definition, uphold traditional social institutions. And traditional social institutions are our closest link to histories of sexism and racism.
We must not simply value and embrace difference for the sake of difference. That is to put the cart before the horse. To permit opinions which entrench oppressive views and thereby prevent the expression of other opinions would be morally self-defeating! If a student expresses a racist view in my class, I explain to the student why they are wrong (usually on both factual and moral grounds). I thereby make it clear that certain views are not welcome in my classroom. You might say it’s a way of shutting down difference. Does that student feel less able to express similar views in future? Maybe. Hopefully they will think a little harder, and make better arguments in future. But perhaps they will just sulk and not speak again. Either way, I deliberately make clear that their “difference” is not welcome, because I have other students in my class whose protection is a greater moral duty.
I feel it is more appropriate to speak directly of colonialism, and the damaging causal role our country has played, and continues to play, in the production of violence and authoritarianism in the Middle East. There is so much dehistoricizing and evasion of responsibility on this point, and I find Tickell’s phrasing (“historic ties”) to be far too equivocal on a matter of grave importance.
Tolerance and diversity do apply to everyone, but not in every sphere. That is simply not what they are for. We must be tolerant of people of all genders, sexualities, races, religions, as equal members of our society. However, we may criticise any political view; in that domain, there is no automatic duty toward tolerance or diversity. Political views are not protected characteristics. We must accept diversity across protected characteristics, in recognition of the prevalence of structural oppression along those axes. But we need not, for example, accept a diversity of views on whether or not the Holocaust occurred. That would be ridiculous and harmful.
I think it would be fairer for Tickell to state explicitly what he considers to be upsetting about the language of the phrase ‘Israel Apartheid Week.’ The state of Israel enacts apartheid against Palestinians. That’s a political fact, and an upsetting one, to be sure. So too is the fact of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, which is why the UN has declared it a violation of international law. We can argue over why Israel conducts itself in this way, but we cannot argue that it does not without running up against a very convincing body of credible evidence. I am deeply concerned if we are not able to criticise the actions of states, especially given that we have students in our community who have been directly affected by such actions. I am not entirely clear on what Tickell means by “religious […] opinions about the politics of the Middle East” but such a phrase strikes me as a way of placing particular political opinions beyond critique.
Respecting different opinions cannot be our guiding mission, for it commits us to a relativism under which all manner of horrors could occur. We should instead do whatever promotes justice within our communities. That requires us to challenge, and discredit, large-scale ideologies that threaten women, people of colour, disabled people, and people of non-normative sexualities, sexes, and genders. It does not require us to protect right-wing individuals or groups. Rather, it compels us to challenge them to whatever extent they infringe upon the human rights of those just mentioned. And, taking operational definitions of “right-wing” from the most powerful movements in the West at this present moment, (which seems to be the most context-relevant, reified way of defining the term) it is obvious not only that Jan Selby was perfectly justified in naming the seminar in the way he did, but that he deserves the respect and support of our community for his bravery and commitment in having organised such a seminar in the first place.
Lecturer in Ethics, Brighton & Sussex Medical School