October 10, 2021

Statement read in absentia, 'Hate, Heresy and the Fight for Free Speech', Battle of Ideas Saturday 9th October

I'm an academic philosopher at the University of Sussex, a feminist, and have written on contentious issues about biological sex, gender identity, women’s rights and transactivist demands. I had hoped to address you personally at this session, and am very sorry to miss it. Unfortunately, events on my campus this week have prevented me. Since the beginning of the week, I've been subject to a campaign of harassment, explicitly designed to have me fired for my academic views. My first inkling of it came when I came across stickers all over my building talking about the ‘transphobic shit that comes out of Kathleen Stock’s mouth”. The next day I came across posters that named me, defamed me, and demanded I be fired, plastered all over my route into campus. Things escalated from there and now the police are involved and treating it as harassment.

Whoever is doing this is not remotely typical of the sort of Sussex student I normally teach. Most of my students are the same as they always have been: curious, idealistic, insightful, passionate, full of bright ideas, keen to do the right thing, and very fun to teach. But what has changed on campus in the last decade is the way that technology – most obviously social media - has allowed a few students with totalitarian tendencies to have a disproportionate chilling effect on the rest. Young people are frightened to say what they think. In a weird reversal of the suffragette motto “deeds not words”, on campus and in middle-class life more generally there is an intense corrective emphasis on words not deeds. Get the word wrong, and you risk social humiliation, of the worst kind: the kind that implies you are a bad person.

Also different these days is the academic culture, which - thanks to the introduction of fees, and league tables heavily based on metrics of ‘student experience’ – is shifting towards the pastoral, the parental, and the cocooning, at least superficially. EDI (that is, ‘Equality Diversity and Inclusion’) groups bombard faculty and students with initiatives: closely monitoring teaching materials for ‘insensitive’ language, showing ‘kindness’ and ‘inclusivity’, issuing trigger warnings, ‘calling out’ perceived injustice, being an ‘active bystander’, and other heavily moralised and nebulous instructions, which of course can each be interpreted wildly differently according to different subjective sensibilities. If, as an academic or student, you express hesitancy about any of these initiatives, then you are instantly castigated as unethical and badly-motivated. Speech becomes more and more fraught, and the obviously detrimental impact on the value of academic freedom seems to be ignored by many. This is the fertile ground from which my student harassers have sprung.

In my experience, plenty of academics will deny there is a free speech problem in academia. For some of them, this is because their own ideas are utterly banal for the discipline in which they work, so that they don’t ever have cause to notice the problem. For others, it is because, like students, they are also caught up in the moralising, self-aggrandising, polarised cultural moment, and they mark disagreement as an instant sign of bad and corrupt character. “Of course someone like HER shouldn’t have a platform”, they say. “She is a bad person”. Case closed. It’s a remarkably handy and self-serving worldview, which means you never have to critically examine your preconceptions, or justify your own position, and in my experience means you lose braincells by the minute. If we want to save academia from this creeping moralisation, we have to fight hard, collectively, to preserve some space between our facts and our values.