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.
Dr George Oppitz-Trotman