Archive for December 2017

The mythology of treachery – and its dangerous results

December 29, 2017

In the years after the First World War in Germany a particular view of recent history began to take hold in certain circles – the Dolchstoßlegende (or ‘stab-in-the-back myth’). This suggested that Germany was never defeated in the war, and that the punitive Versailles Treaty was only possible because German troops had been betrayed by the country’s politicians and others. It was this myth that helped to fuel the growth of rightwing fanaticism and ultimately the Nazi party and its takeover of Germany.

It was of course not the last time that some movement or other identified traitors and saboteurs in its demonology, but this has never had good results. It is one of the reasons why the current fashion for denouncing traitors in the United Kingdom needs to be watched with some considerable care. The whole Brexit conversation is full of such language, on both sides, with some quite sinister undertones. Politicians have been accused of treachery, and often threatened personally, for holding views that others disagree with. Most recently the Conservative MP Heidi Allen received an anonymous card in the post in which the writer wished her a ‘long and slow demise’, and calling her a traitor (it must be assumed that this referred to her sceptical stance regarding Brexit). The threatened violence might be abhorrent to all reasonable people, but the general tone is the logical extension of campaigns by widely-read newspapers.

But this focus on alleged treachery is not confined to extreme supporters of Brexit, it has become a common feature of internal Labour Party disputes also. Recently the alternative leftwing news blog, Skwawkbox, decided to suggest that Labour MP Stella Creasy, by attending a concert (Shed Seven, if you need to know) in the company of a Conservative MP and others, was displaying an inappropriate ‘cosiness’ with the enemy. At one level this is playground-like childishness on the part of Skwawkbox, but it also maintains the toxic narrative of treachery and betrayal.

None of this is good. It is time to recover a degree of civility within public discourse and to accept that, mostly, people do and support what they believe is right. We can argue with their views and their judgement, but we should stop making it personal. And for heaven’s sake, everyone should stop constantly being angry about everyone and everything. Lighten up.


The resilience of a festival

December 25, 2017

I am currently staying for a week on the south coast of England, visiting relatives. So last night we headed off to Christmas Midnight Mass in Salisbury Cathedral. For readers who do not know it, it is a gem of ecclesiastical architecture, well worth a visit at any time. But what struck me most last night was the crowd of people who had come to the service – we were told there were nearly 2,000 in the congregation, and it was standing room only. And in his sermon, the Dean of the cathedral mused on the eccentricity of people who, in an increasingly secular society, would still turn up in this place at this time – something that was, in a slightly different context, also explored some years ago by Philip Larkin in his wonderful poem Church Going.

Most of my friends are agnostics or atheists, and yet many of them too join carol services and similar ceremonies in December. Christmas in particular, it has to be said, is a most resilient festival.

Of course we all know that Christmas falls on December 25th, but then again, the event it commemorates – the birth of Jesus Christ – may have taken place on any day of the year, as there is no reliable record of the date. It was not a festival kept in early Christian times. The key elements of today’s Christmas festivities, such as the socialising and exchange of gifts, did not emerge until much later.

By the time of the Reformation some of the reformers had become hostile to Christmas in part because they regarded it as an un-biblical festival, in part because they disliked the catholic resonance of the ‘Christ-Mass’ concept, but largely because of what they regarded as the excesses ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. This led to Christmas being banned in England under Oliver Cromwell – alongside all other religious feasts apart from the normal Sunday religious observances. Christmas was also banned under the influence of the Puritans in some parts of the American colonies around the same time.

So maybe Christmas has an unreliable pedigree, and there is still no shortage of people today who will argue that we have got the spirit of Christmas all wrong and that it is nothing more than an orgy of wasteful excess. But as for me, I don’t particularly care whether people celebrate the Christian festival (as I do), or pursue a secular escape from (what at any rate in Europe is) the winter, or try to have a family get-together during a holiday season. I believe that communities need holidays, and should be able to enjoy them.

Happy Christmas!

Faking it with gusto

December 19, 2017

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Senior Lecturer, University of Dundee

‘Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our capacity to detect it’
(Viktor Taransky, character in A. Niccol’s film S1mOne 2002)

2017 is not over yet but it is safe to assume that it has been a bad year for planet earth. Notwithstanding amazing breakthrough technologies and the myriad of individual stories that, as the old saying goes, ‘restore your faith in humanity’ (meaning that there has always been a need for such faith to be restored!) the current geo-political scenario is often compared to a new Cold War. Also, one cannot forget the lives lost in terrorist attacks, both in Europe and in the Middle East, and the continuing refugee crisis, discussed in previous blog posts, in 2013 and 2015.

Closer to home the Brexit referendum of 2016 has disrupted the lives of millions of individuals across Europe, including the one of this guest blogger, who have been in a limbo since – even the most recent EU/UK ‘deal’ has not ameliorated that. I am not going to rehearse the Brexit referendum arguments; rather I wish to dwell briefly on the outcomes of a process, which though technically has not started yet, is having a significant impact on universities, especially on the public’s perceptions of their value. For lack of a better metaphor I shall resort to the one of Kulturkampf  or ‘culture war’, a phrase that stems from the nineteenth century, but really came to life in the US in the 1990s after the publication of the sociological study Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter. The kind of polarization between conservatives on one side and progressives on the other that Hunter described is very much akin to the one we are witnessing today, with two additional variants. Compared to 1990s there is a marked increase in the radicalization of tone and in the degradation of political discourse. The impact of social media on the above is undeniable, although as recent research has persuasively argued, social media is not to blame for Brexit and Trump.

In today’s culture war universities are, for the pro-Brexit press, ‘enemies of the people’ and hotbeds of ‘traitors’ and ‘saboteurs’, as were those senior judges who dared to argue that Brexit could not be triggered without a Westminster vote. Things came to a head recently when Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a staunch Brexit supporter, wrote to vice-chancellors demanding a list of professors lecturing on Brexit. Recent damaging headlines for universities have featured a variety of issues, including: the value for money of a degree, the tuition fees system, senior staff being overpaid, trigger warnings/safe spaces and controversies surrounding the notion of freedom of speech. To top it all up, on December 8th the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report which claimed that students are victims of ‘mis-selling’ by higher education institutions. Critics of the report have pointed out the poor methodology, limited evidence and bland recommendations, while the Times Highee Education  has rightly noted that the criticisms the report levels ‘are aimed…at universities, when universities are just operating in a system created by the government’. Universities have their shortcomings of course: gender inequalities, staff casualisation, pay-gap, the looming pension crisis, to name a few. However, one cannot but wonder why they seem to attract the ire of a wide spectrum of critics, from the populists of the Daily Mail to the accountants of the NAO. Could it be, as neuroscientist/comedy writer Dean Burnett humorously put it that:

‘Just because they rely on things like knowledge and education and analysis and expertise and study and facts and an awareness of how reality works, they think they can defy the will of some of the people at a particular point in time from over a year ago? Such arrogance! Such elitism!’

Burnett has a point which I would like to complement by noting that universities find themselves at the forefront of today’s culture war because they are inherently hostile to what has become the predominant narrative, one which seeks short term political gains (often the interests of a political party/specific individuals come before those of the whole country) by means of spreading intentional misinformation. Universities cannot ‘miss-sell’ anything because they are not financial institutions; what they ‘trade’ is something that transcends the important but partial economic perspective, they trade in the values of human rights, cosmopolitanism, cultural sensitivity, too casually denigrated as expressions of political correctness. On the contrary, it is exactly such values that constitute a powerful antidote against the risk of normalizing puerile hatred and pettiness as accepted modes of civic discourse.

Over the past year I often found myself reminiscing about the time when, as an undergraduate, I first came across the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin on the ‘Carnivalesque’. For Bakhtin carnivals were occasions in which the political, legal and ideological authority of both the church and state were inverted — albeit temporarily, fools became kings and kings were treated as fools. One of the kings of carnival is Falstaff, a fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry IV  and Verdi’s opera by the same name. I trust I am not alone in thinking that there is more than a tinge of the ‘world upside down’ in the contemporary political scene where a narcissistic Golfer in Chief is the leader of the free world and key political appointments are bestowed not on the basis of expertise (synonym of elitism in today’s rhetoric) but because of ideological affiliations. And it is certainly not accidental that science fiction TV horror series like Stranger Things are so popular, in that they present viewers with an upside world which looks exactly like our own but distorted. Behind the reassuring retro overtones and the familiar tunes from the 1980s, we are made aware that opening the gate of hell and facing the monster behind is as easy as digging a hole in the ground. As scholars of the Gothic know very well monsters are mirrors of our fears; they have always reflected the anxieties of a particular time, what makes them dangerous, I would suggest, is when they lose their exceptionality and become banal, normalised.

So, how can universities fight the perils of such normalisation and slay the monsters which threaten the core values of civilization? So far universities have spoken the language they know best. Their leaders have advocated ‘reinjecting the principles of rationality into public policy’, rightly warning of the risk that phenomena like Brexit ‘could set our economy and society back for generations to come.’ Facts are universities’ weapons of choice and, consequently, Brexiteers and Trump supporters alike have been dismissed by most academics as the proponents of romantic fantasies, nostalgic for an edulcorated vision of national identity. Unfortunately, new discoveries about the human mind have shown the limitation of reason. In fact the psychological studies discussed in this New Yorker piece even state that:

‘…providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.’

This is bad news for universities, and corroborates what I wrote in a previous post, where I argued that universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone: they should be tapping instead into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity while rejecting exasperated competition. It might seem counterintuitive, but at times of alternative facts and fake news universities cannot expect to rely on facts and rationality alone to oppose them. They must master the emotive language that speaks to everyone’s heart; theirs must not sound like the algid pronouncements of a privileged elite, universities’ voice should be heard across all media outlets and vibrate with the passion that derives from the principle of serving no one else but the public good.

Fuelled by political turmoil in the UK and US, it has been argued that we are now living in a golden age of satire, an observation that, once again, made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin. Writing under Stalin, Bakhtin claimed that ‘every act of world history was accompanied by a laughing chorus’. Courageous comedy is an affirmation of his belief in the power of laughter to triumph over fear. The monster lurking behind the gate to the upside world won’t be slayed by facts alone, but by the corrosive effect of a laugh!

Universities: the senior salary spotlight

December 12, 2017

Over recent weeks, the salaries of some university leaders have been in the spotlight, and in a manner not calculated to help universities in their necessary drive for wider public support as they pursue their mission. It is clearly a matter in which I have a vested interest, and so I shall not offer any detailed views of my own. It is however worth reading the comments – on both sides of the argument, if this is an argument – recently published in the letters pages of the Guardian newspaper.

While I don’t wish to comment, I would perhaps draw attention to the relevant section of the 2012 review, which I chaired, of higher education governance in Scotland. We recommended:

‘The panel … recommends that remuneration committees should include staff and student members. The work of the committee should be transparent, and in particular, the basis upon which pay is calculated should be published. … We also recommend there should be a standard format for reporting senior officer pay, and the [funding council] should publish these figures annually.’

As with most issues, there are clearly a number of factors to be taken into account in dealing with the appropriateness or otherwise of senior officers’ pay. But transparency and objective justification must at the very least be necessary elements of these processes. If they are not, it is not only the reputations of individual university leaders that will be tarnished, but also their institutions and, ultimately, the higher education sector.

Thinking about the digital economy

December 5, 2017

Some years ago when I was spending a morning in a somewhat obscure library in London looking for materials relevant to the development of a British trade union in the 19th century, I came across a sermon delivered shortly after 1800 in a London church. The clergyman in question was most exercised by what we would now call the impact of new technology. He feared that humanity’s ability to perform ‘miracles’, which should be the sole preserve of God, would create a materialistic society in which a very small number of people would reap the rewards of science and engineering, while the majority would become redundant and face destitution.

I was reminded of this recently when the US company Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from MIT, unveiled a humanoid robot that could jump up and down on various obstacles and, finally, do a back somersault. You can see the whole spectacle here. This display quickly led to a whole tsunami of online anguish about how we are all doomed. If a robot could successfully mimic an athlete, then humans might as well all just go home and wait to be put out of our misery by the new artificial master race. You get the idea.

As for me, I thought the Boston Dynamics machine was pretty smart engineering, but to be honest I was less captivated by it than by another recent item of news: a group of engineering researchers helped by an economist were able to design a robot which delivered a lecture to economics students and successfully answered questions from them at the end. Apparently the robot answered questions with stuff like ‘Well, this is a hotly contested point, but I tend myself to support the view that…’

Today, lots of people are talking about the digital economy and what it may involve and what it may do to us. The science and engineering of it all is of course important, but it may be as important for us to come to grips with what it all means: how it affects our understanding of humanity and human purpose. This isn’t a debate about automation; that’s a debate we’ve been having for 250 years, and to be honest there aren’t many new things to say. It’s a debate about who we are, and how we will harness human ingenuity, and how we can ensure that we evolve successfully to engage that ingenuity with the new means at our disposal.