Archive for the ‘society’ category


January 9, 2017

Just over a year ago I offered some thoughts about what might make 2016 a satisfactory twelvemonth in my life. To be totally frank, looking back at that post I marvel at the banality of what I wrote, a little cocktail of the technical and the trivial at the beginning of a year; a year that had rather more ambition than that and was going to upset many of the expectations and hopes and assumptions of the circles I tend to move in. 2016 certainly did not bring success for Newcastle United, nor did it bury the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). It did however bring Brexit and President Trump, two developments that I didn’t at that point predict and which have eclipsed the more prosaic concerns I listed.

Maybe I belong to those who have indulged in what Boris Johnson has called a ‘whinge-o-rama’ as our preferences and aspirations were apparently shredded by popular vote. But these are moments when it is appropriate to explore again what we stand for, and why, and how we can work for success in what is now an undoubtedly different setting. Every watershed change in politics is in fact an invitation to explore ideas and to re-emphasise principle and clarity of thought, not expediency, as the driver of action.

So my hope for 2017 is that we, in the universities, can offer an effective forum for such an exploration, where all views can be aired and analysed and where the values of tolerance and rigour of debate can co-exist successfully.

The strange, strange behaviour of the Brexit victors

October 18, 2016

I think I have a word of advice for those who were on the winning side in the recent Brexit referendum in the UK and who are now preparing for Britain’s departure from the European Union: stop behaving in such a truculent manner, you won. There is no need for you to keep attacking and insulting those who voted to remain, they (we) lost.

The speeches and comments from the winning side seem to me to be shot through with insecurity, with some deep worry perhaps that the great Brexit project might not go well. And so they lash out at those who voted to remain – and who on the whole are actually staying relatively silent, waiting for what will happen next. So some of the more exotic (meaning, divorced from reality) newspapers rant about ‘Remoaners’ and suchlike, sometimes à propos of absolutely nothing. And the Brexit politicians and their surrogates come up with ever more ludicrous statements, like one Stewart Jackson MP (who understandably is not a household name) who has suggested that all patriotic British people should boycott the Economist because of its ‘liberal smugness’ and ‘Remoaner whining’. Dear me. Or the Daily Mail and Daily Express newspapers peddling conspiracy theories and suggesting the voices of ‘Remainers’ should be silenced. Or the deservedly unknown Tory Councillor Christian Holliday (who should maybe take a break), who started a petition to make arguing for the EU an act of treason.

We might and should ignore the latter idiot completely – his ‘petition’ has been taken down, though not without having received some support first – but for the really curious response to it by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. When asked whether she supported the idea that support for EU membership should be treason, a spokesman replied (according to the BBC):

‘Different people will choose their words differently. The prime minister is very clear that the British people have made their decision.’

There was only one possible rational answer to the question, and that was ‘No.’ The fact that the Ms May apparently couldn’t being herself to answer clearly is itself astonishing, and potentially a cause for concern.

Supporters of Brexit are now filling the airwaves with conspiracy theories and loud complaints about all those who don’t agree with them, blaming them in a precautionary way for any economic turbulence that may yet emerge. The curious thing is that all the whining, notwithstanding these claims to the contrary, is now coming from the Brexit side. But why? Are they so insecure, so unable to see their mission with a sense of self-confidence? Do they think that they must cover their own inability to manage the Brexit agenda with a barrage of insults aimed at those who have the temerity to ask them about it; or indeed even those saying nothing at all?

It is clear that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. It must do so on the best terms available for the economy and for society. That necessary objective should prompt close and constructive collaboration and inclusiveness; not these constant attacks and stupidities. Brexiteers, it’s time for you to realise that you won and to grow up.

The politics of taking offence

October 17, 2016

Recently Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Labour-aligned Momentum group, was first suspended from the Labour Party and then more recently was removed from her Momentum position because of remarks she made about Holocaust Memorial Day thought by many to be antisemitic. She had also indicated that she had never come across a definition of antisemitism that she ‘could work with’.

Amongst other things, these events prompted a very interesting discussion on Twitter between the journalist Iain Macwhirter and the President of NUS Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan. The issue in broad terms was how one could identify antisemitism and therefore address it through law and other appropriate means. Iain Macwhirter argued that this could not be done simply through ‘self-definition’ – i.e. by allowing members of a racial or other group to declare what offends them and what should therefore be out of bounds in open discourse. Vonnie Sandlan in turn argued that ‘I fundamentally believe that any action on racism or fascism should be led by, and defined by, those who experience it.’ If that latter approach were to hold, Macwhirter argued, the alleged victim of racism would always be right in their complaint.

In the context of a lot of recent debate about the rise of antisemitism in particular and experiences of oppression by various groups more generally (e.g. Islamophobia), and indeed of the extent or limits of debate where contributions are liable to offend someone, this has become a significant issue. It is a particularly complex question in universities, as it also involves discussion of what constitutes legitimate free speech and where we will constrain it because it creates offence. The battle lines in Britain have not yet been drawn to the same degree as in the United States, but there is little doubt that we will hear more about these matters over here too.

The angry brigade, intolerance and the assault on Enlightenment values

October 10, 2016

Last night I watched the second US presidential debate. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or for that matter what I would find most satisfying, but I wanted to see it happening live. The post-debate consensus appears to be that Hillary Clinton won a particularly nasty event – in which, mind you, the nastiness did not particularly come from her.

But if we are horrified, as I am, by all the bile and aggression, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just appearing in American politics. In Europe the language of political discourse is taking similar forms in some contributions from France and Germany (and elsewhere). In Britain we have just witnessed a party’s internal ‘debate’ that involved an emergency hospital visit. And often when we get to hear members of the public contributing to a discussion the tone is one of anger.

There are several layers to this phenomenon, and the most obvious one is not the most important. Commentators are referring to the current political mood as something unprecedented – a growing group of people who have become angry because they have been ‘left behind’, because the gap between their means or aspirations and those of an ‘elite’ has widened excessively, whose fears and discomforts are not identified and addressed by that elite. In fact some of this is a true reflection of global societies: income inequality has been growing, albeit less because of pressures on the poor but more because of a huge growth in more extreme wealth. But then again, how can we explain such anger leading to support by the angry for a billionaire (Donald Trump) or for a former city trader (Nigel Farage)?

The more significant element here is that the angry sections of the population have, as people often do, been looking for someone to blame; and across continents that someone is the foreigner. The key shout has been to stop migration. This is by far the most important, and the most worrying, aspect of recent trends in popular opinion, and of political responses to it.

Of course concerns with immigration can be quite rational. No place can at short notice accommodate a massive influx of people, as Germany has discovered, and a clash of cultures between migrants and host communities can create genuinely uncomfortable (and indeed unacceptable) consequences. It is not disreputable to say that immigration must be managed intelligently. But you can measure the competence and integrity of politicians by the way they undertake this task, a hugely important part of which is to stop the emergence of xenophobia and racism. Many of the current generation of leading politicians globally (with some very honourable exceptions) are failing dismally. Or worse, they see it as their opportunity to follow the mob and stoke the fires of resentment.

The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus. In Britain the attack on liberal values has most recently come from politicians who might have been expected to defend them, but who appeared to conclude that they must side with public opinion (as for example expressed in the Brexit decision). Some academics have recently pointed out that UK politicians are departing from the Enlightenment values that actually have their origins in Britain and which made the country a beacon of tolerance and decency. And this is a dangerous road on which to travel; it has only ever led to catastrophe.

Those of us who still believe in liberal Enlightenment values, even where we understand the pressures facing people in their lives, must not now stay silent. We should not be intimidated by the insults flying in our direction, often from the left as much as from the right. The freedoms that we all still enjoy are very very easily lost, and very hard to recover when they are.

Savagery at a distance

September 20, 2016

That today’s social media present certain people with a wonderful tool for agitation is well known. Twitter in particular (of which I am a frequent user) sometimes presents us with the online equivalent of road rage: people who are probably quite normal and decent, finding it necessary to compress their outrage into 140 characters, let rip at anyone not admiring their revelation of pure truth. Many, perhaps most, of these perpetrators operate anonymously, giving them the additional cover perfect for the uninhibited online maniac.

Over the last few days I have followed the exchanges between some UK politicians and their would-be online tormentors. To be impartial, I picked a number of politicians who were involved in current disputes, but selected ones from different parties and different arguments. What became clear very quickly was that politicians of all shades appear to attract hugely aggressive tweeters, who use language that would be totally unacceptable if used in face to face debate. Secondly, an extraordinary number of angry tweeters use anti-semitic taunts, even where there does not appear to be any Jewish presence in the conversation. I am not suggesting that a majority does this, but it is clearly present. I should add that such antisemitism is not confined to those attacking ‘Zionism’. In several tweets I found people using words and expressions hostile in racist terms to Jews that I could not possibly repeat. I should emphasise that the use of such unacceptable and vile epithets was not unique to people of a particular political outlook, though in fairness they were targeted disproportionately at Labour MPs and supporters not backing the party’s leadership. Other forms of racism and xenophobia also made an appearance, here more often used by those hostile to migrants or opposing left wing causes.

What struck me also was that some of the aggressive tweeters were, or appeared to be, academics or students; not a majority or significant minority, but nevertheless an identifiable and visible group. Which brings me to the point that started me on this investigation. University life is now experienced by a very large proportion of the population, at one stage or another in their lives. Furthermore, this experience is shot through with social media – Facebook, snapchat, whatsapp, Twitter are all part of the higher education reality. Already a few years ago it was suggested that 75 per cent of students use social media ‘all the time’. The generation of university staff who avoided computers and wrote everything by hand is gradually leaving the academy, and lecturers too are now of the social media generation. Cyber behaviour and cyberpsychology are now important subjects of analysis.

It is important that universities accept a degree of responsibility for guiding people on how to live their virtual online lives, and how their lifestyle can have a larger impact on others, and more generally on society. For me, online tools and facilities are wonderful; but we all need to understand that what happens online is very real, and not just a game. Savagery, even in what we consider a good cause, is a bad action.

Breaking away?

July 26, 2016

Academics are well used to being asked some time in early June at the latest whether the are now off until September. As I have mentioned a number of times, this is never the case now (and anyway never was the case in most universities) – few manage to take more than 2-3 weeks away.

However, I can report that I am now on a two-week break, and right now am travelling between the United States and Canada (tomorrow I shall be in Halifax, Nova Scotia).

As I travel I get a chance to read things I don’t normally have the time to tackle. This time it has been Pnin by Nabokov; Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; and The Silent People by Walter Macken. Alongside that, and for real entertainment, a book on monetary economics.

I hope some of my readers are also enjoying a break. Back to normal service for me next week.

The nature of argument

July 19, 2016

One of the key demands made of a democratic community is that it must be capable of critical argument. Nobody can be sure that an idea, or a policy, or a proposal has merit until it has been properly tested in debate. However, as Monty Python pointed out (or not) some time ago, conducting an argument is not the same thing as hurling abuse. And yet that increasingly is what it has become, at any rate in certain political quarters.

Right now I am visiting the United States. It is an interesting time to do so, as we are just into the Republican Party Convention. Perhaps unwisely, I spent a little time this evening watching the proceedings on television, and the sum of the speeches, interjections, interviews and commentary was simple enough: Hillary Clinton is a crooked liar. That’s all you need to know, and let’s not assess the evidence too much, it confuses the message.

But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride, the last few days have seen bucketloads of abuse thrown around in Britain also, a good bit of it at the Conservative Party; in fact, there is a popular hashtag on Twitter that reads #Toryscum. I am not an apologist for the Tory Party, but I cannot help noticing that all too often its detractors detract less with reason and more with vilification.

Political debate is becoming increasingly coarse, and all too often those conducting it seem to assume that they will fare best if they succeed in attacking the bona fides of their opponents rather than the merits of their opponents’ arguments. The result of this is popular cynicism, which in turn corrodes democratic processes.argument

Of course there are some politicians who deserve censorious denunciation. But not all of them do, and not even all in a particular party with which you or I might disagree. Real argument is more intellectually laudable than personal abuse. In fact, abusive anger is never attractive and rarely appropriate, in whatever setting we might be tempted to apply it.

I’ll probably go back to watching the GOP tomorrow. I have asked my family to prod me if I mutter anything abusive.