Free speech for dodgy dons, too

Cambridge students calling for a supervisor to resign over his political views need a lecture on academic freedom.

Tom Bailey

Topics Free Speech

‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’, proclaimed the seventeenth-century poet John Milton. To some of my fellow students in the UK, however, it seems this fundamental liberty shouldn’t extend to academics who hold views they dislike.

Last week, Cambridge University students protested against economics supervisor Martin Sewell, who has penned a number of articles on his personal website concerning race, equality between men and women, and eugenics. The dodgy nature of the don’s views on these subjects is fairly clear. For example, in one post Sewell claims: ‘The most likely reason for the high incidence of black crime is blacks’ lower intelligence and greater impulsivity, which themselves are probably biological in origin.’ This is hardly an original claim, and one which has been debunked many times. As well as descriptions of female immigrants appearing to men as ‘exotic fruit’, students have also taken exception to his claims about eugenics, which he says are ‘actually highly desirable: eugenics can help eliminate genetic diseases, reduce personality disorders and increase intelligence via human biotechnology. Time to reconsider.’

Far more problematic than his views, some of which are certainly highly questionable, is the response from the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU). A CUSU representative argued that Sewell is an individual who ‘cannot remain as a supervisor for Cambridge students’. Sewell himself teaches and researches economics, specialising in land economy. How exactly his views on race, eugenics and sexual equality should impact upon this field of research is not made clear. However, even if they did relate to his specific field of research and teaching, his views should be of no significance. Such veiled calls for the man’s dismissal flies in the face of academic freedom.

Universities should be a place where no idea is sacred, where even the most widely-accepted ideas are subjected to intense scrutiny. Academic institutions such as Cambridge should be a place where all controversial viewpoints can be uttered and debated. Without the unrestrained ability to think the unthinkable, and argue the unarguable, academic freedom simply doesn’t exist. This freedom, after all, is how the boundaries of knowledge are pushed forward. Without the ability to slaughter intellectual sacred cows, no advance in ideas or thinking would have ever been possible.

Suggesting that a man with reprehensible views is not fit to teach also betrays CUSU’s patronising view towards the Cambridge student body. The union’s statement shows that it seems to view students as fragile and vulnerable, unable to be exposed to such nasty people as Sewell lest these manipulable weaklings turn into racist, sexist, proto-fascist drones. Surely CUSU should instead see the students it represents as capable, bright and resilient young people ready, able and willing to challenge such views and ideas.

Students who encounter Sewell, or other academics who have disagreeable views, during their studies are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about his work and articles. As repugnant as these views may be, students are adults and do not need student-union bureaucrats, or anyone else, protecting them from the ideas of what they deem to be ‘unacceptable’ individuals.

The CUSU claims that, ‘Cambridge is a diverse, multicultural community which stands against – and, indeed, refutes – everything [Sewell] stands for’. If the union really did have the confidence that it could refute the ideas and views of Sewell, it would not claim he is unable to maintain his position at Cambridge.

Rather than trying to banish Sewell, these censorious students should have sufficient faith in their own views on race and sexual equality that they can win the argument with fellow students and dodgy dons alike.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London.

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Topics Free Speech


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