This piece was originally written for the now defunct political commentary website The Hitch.
Reports from a left-wing campus: from eco-activists to Corbynites
The advance of authoritarian, far-left activism that has plagued campuses from Middlebury to Yale has been partially explained as the result of a growing percentage of left wing academics. Jonathan Haidt at the Heterodox Academy has been particularly active in analysing the entrenched orthodoxies of pseudo-science that come with this, from blank slateism to postmodernist ideas. With conservative academics accounting for only 5% of staff in the humanities (1), viewpoint diversity is clearly waning. It is not so clear how far the curriculum bends to the appetites of those teaching it. As a student at the crossroads between social science and ‘harder’ science – studying the environmental side of geography with modules in the human side – in my experience, the course content is marginally skewed to leftist thinking, but with some surprising consequences.
In my own area, there is still a broad discussion of climate scepticism but this tends to be cursory and with the intent to highlight that it is flawed rather than in some cases credible. I have left a few students nonplussed when discussing Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and his move away from activism that he saw as being sensationalist and reliant on disinformation for rhetoric, rather than scientific evidence (2). That a leading organisation of environmentalist thinking had been abandoned by its founder, in favour of a moderate or ‘sensible’ environmentalism, must’ve rattled their Manichean sense of eco rights and wrongs. It must be noted, however, that left-leaning bias is more often the result of the inclinations of individual academics than it is a systemic problem writ large in the module guide.
However, in a gratifying turn of irony, I recently discovered that environmental alarmism can do more damage to a left-wing student’s academic life than it does to a sceptical conservative. When an environmentalist ideologue comes up against a professor looking for critical engagement, they fall foul of their instinct to chastise anything perceived as ecologically unsound. Most recently, submissions of a policy proposal on maximising the social welfare of shale gas left the lecturer so bemused he had to email the year-group to admonish their uncritical thinking. Evidently, students saw the word ‘fracking’ and their instinct to denounce it took over; if the Labour party want to ban it, it can’t have much utility! Even when they were explicitly required to give an account of how best it could be utilised, many of the students defaulted to dogma, and their marks felt the consequence.
This brings me to a wider-reaching problem and my personal bugbear of modern campus dialogue. Just as my environmentalist comrades were unable to phrase the opposing argument of careful investment in fracking competently, if at all, so do far-left students find the gymnastics required to consider a viewpoint other than their own too taxing. Upon hearing an argument that I profoundly disagree with, I can usually sympathise with the underlying motive. The good intentions are never too far concealed from what I consider on the surface to be ineffective policy. For example, though I question how scrapping tuition fees might increase social mobility rather than just providing a hand out to the middle-classes, I can see the intention is to make higher education accessible for poorer students, even if a glance at Scotland’s statistics in this department proves this logic faulty. Where this counterargument is made, it is all too easy for my intentions to be reduced to that of meritocratic elitism. It is only those who know you personally that give you the benefit of thinking you aren’t evil or ill-intentioned, but that you have come to a different conclusion based on a large overlap of evidence.
By far the most eye-opening experience I have had at university came from an elective module about the rights of women under Islam. The first indication that the tuition on offer would not be as balanced as I had hoped came from a glance at the suggested reading list. Tariq Ramadan, a man who has found it difficult to condemn the stoning of women (3), stood out on the page next to other apologists for oppression. ‘But it’s just a reading list, how they tackle the content is a different matter,’ I assured myself as I tentatively took my seat at the introductory session, and settled in to wait for my professor to join. Students, each a stranger to the other, began to acquaint themselves. Amidst the noise, one brazen woman declared that she had been interested in the rights of Muslim women for years. Her account started promisingly. She then continued with a half-hearted version of the backwards idea that the hijab is a symbol of feminism, and that it is the west’s islamophobia that compels people to think otherwise. Although I had been primed by overhearing my fellow students committing the kind of cultural relativism that sees Muslim women as undeserving of the same freedom of choice we take for granted, I could not have been prepared for what came next.
In one fell swoop of astonishing bias, my lecturer ran through the module guide, disguising a similarly dismissive strain of anti-western sentiment in administrative courtesy: ‘During this module, we will discuss both the traditional theological view that women are not treated unequally under Islam, just differently, as well as the western feminist critique that Islam harbours sexist tropes.’ The latter was notional, and followed by facile refutations of feminist criticisms; that they don’t understand the original Arabic, don’t consider the fairhandedness of Sharia courts and that they treat Islam as a monolith, granting no freedom for its adherents to live, dress and act modestly. She framed this feminist viewpoint as being filtered through a lens of western orientalism. Whilst some of her points are integral to the modern discourse about Islam, the grains of truth were held so close to the eye as to obscure the work of dissident, LGBT and ex-Muslims without a second thought. Of course, this distaste for feminist criticisms of Islam made me yearn for a time when tolerance for religious conservatism did not get in the way of arguing for the liberation of women; now we have the feminist society at goldsmiths going hand in hand with the Islamic society as they disrupt talks by Maryam Namazie, an outspoken critic of misogyny under Islam. (4)
Sadly, the opportunity to refute these ideas, to engage in the kind of dialogue one would think a necessary component of university, had already been made impossible. The lecturer in question happened to be espousing this brand of Islamic conservatism from behind the same black, floor-length veil she had already asserted was a matter of choice, and rarely a matter of patriarchal compulsion. I immediately unenrolled myself from the class, waving my chance to answer the essay question that had already been set, the impossibly tendentious, ‘discuss the idea that women in Islam are not treated less equally than men, just differently’. I had good cause to think any answer that did not respond in the affirmative would not sit too well with the woman whose own answer to the question was readily intuitable. I am all for debate and cease the chance to oppose consensus when I think it is misguided. However, I am not prepared either to sacrifice my critical viewpoint at the altar of flattery, nor risk my overall grade by opposing the obvious beliefs of the marker. I hope my assumptions were wrong, and that the class went on later in the course to foster some lively debate. I still wonder if in my own way I had prejudged the lecturers views, essentially homogenising all conservative Muslim women as being closed to criticism, though I am still glad I did not take the risk.
In any case, I was not about to undertake the intractable task of changing her mind on how much freedom she had been granted in her own collision with faith. At times, it feels like the only way one might change an indoctrinated mind would be divine intervention and a new gospel on universal human rights dictated by Muhammed himself. This argument from ultimate authority has demoralising equivalents in secular debate. For example, at times it seems like the only way you might change the mind of an ardent Corbynite is if his prophet Owen Jones wrote a biting polemic against him in the Guardian. It is not enough for labour’s own MPs to worry publicly about their leader, that is all too easily dismissed as propaganda from the Blairite wing. The phenomenon of unwavering, hypocritical support for Corbyn is perhaps the best real world example of Steven Pinker’s concept of the left pole, from which all directions point right. Similarly, the Corbyn pole comes with its officially mandated literature from which all other publications are right-wing and fake news. Prohibited are the blogs of lifelong labour supporters, much sensible material written by liberals critical of Corbyn’s illiberal deference to dictators and theocrats (Nick Cohen is particularly insightful and thus ignored in this area) and centrist magazines.
Finally, the most frustrating obstacle to open dialogue I have encountered on campus is the unwillingness to listen charitably. To rephrase one of Christopher Hitchens’ many memorable quotes (5) if someone believes they have identified the basest possible motive anyone could hold, even if it is not one you hold, then they are sure they have identified your only motive. I’ll give you one telling example. After questioning the effectiveness of the 2003 Hunting Act (on the basis that it is poorly conceived and not sensitive to animal welfare), it was assumed I was a bloodthirsty toff. Further attempts to explain myself as anti-legislation and not pro-foxhunting have had the ‘protesting too much’ effect, and buried me further in the mire. If you take a position more complicated than an outright moralistic denigration of anyone in favour of foxhunting, then you are not to be listened to. If you’re not in total agreement, you must be in total disagreement.
In this case, the conversation ended with a startling example of what Thomas Paine called ‘making a slave of oneself to one’s present opinion.’ That is, when I suggested my interlocuter read my essay on the pitfalls of the hunting act, she responded with an admonishment packaged as a favour: “I do not want to read an argument against something I believe in as I know I will be bias against it.” And there we have it, the condescending height of self-regulated ignorance, the shriek of the isolated and incurious mind; the essence of leftist intolerance for other’s views.