George Oppitz-Trotman, ‘Open letter concerning the Willetts Protest at Cambridge’

Dear Professor Goldhill,

I recently read your response to the occupation of Lady Mitchell Hall by the Cambridge Defend Education group, posted on the CRASSH website. In it, you mention that many people have since emailed you expressing their sense of shame that David Willetts was prevented from speaking; I have taken that as an invitation to email you with a different view.

I feel compelled to do so partly because your response represents an exercise of symbolic capital that – in the context of the campaign against current government policy – seems to me a thousand-fold more irresponsible than the students’ actions last week. Your comments demand that space be made for ‘other voices’, and I trust that you believe you are intervening on their behalf by condemning the protests. Implicit in that rationale must be your awareness that your voice is invested with a certain authority dependent partly, but of course not wholly, on your esteemed position within the University. You will not be insensitive to the irony I’m getting at: your defence of others’ voices demands all views be treated equally, but that very defence is predicated on the knowledge that some voices are more equal than others.

Students and colleagues will read your statement of condemnation not as an expression of fair-minded concern but as a work that defines what is politically acceptable for them within the institution you represent. As a junior researcher, I am more than aware that a degree of career risk attends direct criticism here – in fact it is precisely that sense of ill-defined discomfort which prompts me to write. You will excuse me if – as a consequence of this discomfort – I feel that the term ‘totalitarian’ was misapplied by your statement.

The pretence that there exists a public sphere in which heterodox voices can commingle productively also underpins the criticism of CDE itself. I find it bizarre that so many rational people believe that Willetts’ visit represented a chance for rational debate. His relations with the HE sector are in tatters, and his visit to Cambridge represents part of an attempt to conceal that fact. It was an advertisement – not an evaluative process. CRASSH seems to consider his talk on par with a speech made by a visiting academic holding controversial views. But Willetts was not there to announce that he had found previously undiscovered Homeric material in Shakespeare, or to discuss the pitfalls of game theory. He was there to make a vicious policy respectable. I would have been far more disturbed by the protests had the interrupted speaker been a Holocaust denier: because the Holocaust denier’s illegitimacy is already manifest by social consensus. Willetts is in power, not on the fringes. He holds out hope that his systematic destruction of the public university can be made to seem democratic and virtuous.

I want to suggest to you therefore that allowing him to speak would – in itself – have been a political act. We might have engaged him in rational debate for hour upon hour, but in this case doing so would have meant participating in a social event designed to stymie those very principles we would be so reasonably advocating.

After a decade in which politicians have invested so much capital in seeming to listen, engage in dialogue, consult and engage, it seems totally irresponsible not to recognize that giving them the opportunity to do so is to confront them on their terms. Any such engagement would be a priori ineffective. Do we want our protests to be effective? Or do we want to fill in petitions provided by government websites, write mild emails to managers, and generally shuffle around in the way our opponents assumed we would? Let us not go on tip-toes.

Nobody could accuse the CDE protesters of doing that – which in itself should give some of us pause for thought. I agree that the protest was disappointing in some ways; there were certainly things that might have been done differently. But let us not be condescending about those with the vigour to dramatize their opposition in a way which we – collectively as academics in Cambridge – have singularly failed to do. All these phrases of which moderate critics of CDE are so fond- ‘free speech’, ‘rational debate’, et cetera – can only be made to mean what we want them to mean when we understand them not as pure categories, but as contested, compromised, imperfect, and messy.

The protesting students’ actions were not the product of flawed and naive idealism. On the contrary, the protest seemed a wholly realistic and rational response to the nature of the event. Its critics, on the other hand, who are so glad to talk about practical considerations and realism about long-term prospects, are the real idealists. Their idealism manifests itself as a valorisation of free speech that is entirely abstract but at the same time totally unprincipled.

Yours sincerely,

Dr George Oppitz-Trotman


One response to “George Oppitz-Trotman, ‘Open letter concerning the Willetts Protest at Cambridge’

  1. Dear Professor Goldhill

    I would also like to add my voice to those supporting the CDE action last week and to condemn the response that you and others have made to it. I am one of around 50 academics from across the university who has signed the statement on the CDE website backing both the protest and the subsequent occupation of LMH. I was disquieted from the onset about the conceptualization of the CRASSH programme where you sought to distinguish the programme from what you described later in correspondence as ‘gestural politics’ and where you interpreted the split vote of no confidence in the policies of the present minister as a protest against such. I do not wish to be tedious in repeating the very pertinent challenges already made by others, but I did find myself musing on the significance of gestural politics in what I agree with you are ‘these vexing times.’

    You counterpose to what you describe as ‘gestural politics’ the whole weight of rational and formal, institutionalized debate, despite your own pessimism about the possibility of actually getting the government to listen to whatever those hoped-for sharp, brief questions might have thrown up. Many who objected to the protest and the occupation have taken up this polarization in discussing the value of free speech and the importance to Cambridge University’s reputation of upholding this principle – as we can see also in the statement from the University Council. However, I would like to say a word in defence of that ‘boo’ phrase – gestural politics: there comes a time when the educational aim of getting “people who would not come to a student or CACHE meeting” (why not?) to hear robust and other views in order to decide what they thought, has run its course. ‘Gestures’ – in which the body and the voice are utilised, as in taking over a space, shouting – are powerful means of communicating affirmation and solidarity with an alternative and often disavowed viewpoint and, for that reason, are powerful means of expressing dissent, especially when access to the institutional means of expressing views is denied. Transgressive gestures thus reflect the battleground over which divergent visions of social and political order are fought. I understand your objection to the transgressive disruption of the polite, rationalistic world of debate and intellectual consideration of the merits of different points of argument; and indeed, I adhere to such in the normal course of discussion. However, the time is not normal, the crisis is real and present, and the need for robust dissent is urgent. Only David Willetts’ speech, of all the talks in the series, was prevented because only he is impervious to exactly the kind of genuine intention to learn and develop ideas that we all believe, I think, is the ground of our intellectual being and our reasons for devoting ourselves to academic life. If anyone was doing ‘gestural politics’ that night, in the pejorative sense, it was David Willetts himself. This is not to intend an ad hominem attack on David Willetts himself. There is no way in which he, as ministerial representative of government policy, could be expected to deviate from the ideological opportunism that the debt crisis has afforded to ram through an HE policy that was no part of either Coalition party’s manifesto, and to diminish the public sphere, by introducing privatized and marketised policies that allow new markets to be provided for capital over-accumulation.

    The students’ own breach of the gestural codes attached to attending a lecture and follow up questions and answers should be understood – as it has been historically – as the refusal to show deference to a institutional claim to this being the ‘proper’ way to discuss the idea of a university, and their adoption of ‘unacceptable’ behaviour as an attempt to reassert their own vision of the social and political forum in which the idea of a university should be discussed – with them, in their location, according to their ways of discussing – waggly hands and all. Throughout history there have been examples of how political and religious ceremonies have been disrupted, and how these events throw into sharp relief subaltern political attitudes such as those represented by the campaigning students at our university.
    With best wishes
    Isobel Urquhart, Homerton College

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