Being on the political Right at an institution like the University of Sussex – famous for its banner-waving, blue-haired, lip-ringed protesters – I know that I’m in a minority. Yet I’m certain that there are still large numbers of students who are at least sympathetic to my opinions.
I like the monarchy, and I don’t think Margaret Thatcher was the devil incarnate. Nor do I think that Donald Trump’s ascension to the US Presidency is an example of fascism in orange-tinged form. I also voted for Brexit. Indeed, the majority of students I meet aren’t “radical”, and are at least receptive – or would be, if exposed to reason and debate – to changing their minds.
This is why I was shocked to find a poster, put up for all to see, but aimed at staff and PhD students, advertising an “informal discussion” organised by the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research. The discussion would be centred around, “dealing with right-wing attitudes and politics in the classroom”.
The first thing to note is the stunning willingness (or perhaps total indifference) of those behind the poster to reveal – in a public space – a clear bias against anyone with right-wing opinions. Second, there was clearly an implicit assumption that all who saw the poster would consider themselves on the Left, and would equally not be concerned at the shameful intellectual laziness of using the term “right-wing” as a synonym for “disagreeable opinions”.
I did wonder though: perhaps the person behind the poster, maybe an assistant unfamiliar with politics, had lazily used the term as a substitute for something like “nasty ideas”? Instead I discovered that it had been consciously used by the organiser of the discussion, Professor Jan Selby, the current director of the above mentioned SCSCR, and former head of the International Relations department at Sussex.
In his reply to a request for comment, in which I said I was “surprised” by the language used in the poster, he said rather tellingly: “was aware of the poster, I organised the discussion. What was it specifically that you were surprised by?” Unconvinced by his confusion, I clarified that I was surprised at the suggestion that right-wing views needed dealing with. Surely, I asked, the university classroom is supposed to be a place of discussion and debate of all opinions, even uncomfortable ones? I also asked him to confirm what was meant by “right-wing”.
He never did, which is somewhat revealing, but the university now says the label referred to “extreme attitudes” such as racism, sexism and homophobia. So not only are seasoned academics happy to falsely conflate bigoted views with right-wing politics – when they are plentiful on the Left too – but they are also willing to condemn all the other outlooks and opinions which are encompassed by “right-wing”.
Imagine the uproar if a similar discussion had been advertised aimed at “dealing with left-wing attitudes and politics in the classroom” (with an aside of “No Guardian Readers Welcome” just to get the message across). People seem to generally agree that its okay to control “bigoted” speech, but definitions of the term are thrown around extremely liberally – as are accusations of “sexism”, “racism” and “homophobia” – and have been applied by some to those who voted for Trump, or to people who want to restrict immigration into the UK.
It’s far better to have a liberal system of open debate – especially in universities – with no restrictions on speech, bar the unwritten rules of decency and respect which tend to get reaffirmed by students and staff alike in properly managed places of learning. This is particularly important because, sadly, that poster was far from my only experience of a clear left-wing bias within academia.
I recently went to see another Sussex academic about my interest in studying the work of Edmund Burke, who is considered one of the founding fathers of conservatism. Just two minutes into our discussion, I referred to a well-known admirer of Burke, the eminent contemporary conservative philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton. The lecturer’s face dropped as soon as Scruton’s name passed my lips. In what appeared to be an only half-joking tone, he replied, “you aren’t some kind of rabid conservative, are you?” I should have replied with, “you, sir, are supposed to be an academic who cares about intellectual diversity, so why would it matter if I was?” Instead I sat rather awkwardly and tried to bluster my way through explaining that I wasn’t yet entirely sure what I believed in.
This lecturer may well be perfectly fair-minded to all political persuasions. But his assumption that I would naturally be left-wing suggests a dangerous climate of conformity. And when students are confronted with remarks and attitudes like his, how are they to be sure they will be treated unfairly? Why shouldn’t they be worried about the way their work will be judged? Why did he think that was an appropriate thing to say?
The central point is that universities should be intellectually diverse from top to bottom, rather than echo chambers of left wing opinion. Whilst there are some small, encouraging signs of open-mindedness amongst the student body, there seems to be a worrying aversion to the Right amongst academics, and a similarly disturbing desire to control dissenting opinions that are considered beyond the pale. As a response, perhaps students should organise a discussion aimed at ‘dealing with’ the aversion to the Right in academia. With any luck, it’ll shake them out of their caustic and prejudiced myopia.