Nick Cohen

Tolerance is out of fashion at Cambridge University

Tolerance is out of fashion at Cambridge University
(Getty images)
Text settings

A struggle begins in Cambridge on Friday, which will determine the freedom to argue in the university. As the students of today are the elites of tomorrow, and as the same fight between liberalism and, for want of a better word, wokeism is being fought everywhere, it is an early skirmish in the fight over everyone’s freedom.

At its heart is a distinction with a difference worth fighting over: the line between ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’. Tolerance is an old liberal virtue that is tougher than it looks. After the devastation brought by the wars of religion, the early Enlightenment decided, in the words of John Locke, that ‘the civil magistrate has no jurisdiction over souls’.

To tolerate one’s opponents meant that you did not ban them or punish them for their religious or political beliefs. But that was all. You remained free to offend and challenge them. You most certainly had no obligation to ‘respect’ ideas you regarded as ignorant or dangerous or both.

The demand for respect is the demand to bite your tongue and not to argue against what you believe to be wrong. To respect people, groups, ideologies or institutions is to bow down before them, accept them on their own terms, and refrain from criticism. No wonder gangsters demand it.

As Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, says, in a free university, no one has the ‘right to demand that we be respectful towards all beliefs and practices: on the contrary, we have a right, in some cases practically a duty, to satirise and to mock them’. 

Oxford understands the distinction and tells its students and academics the university cannot uphold ‘respect’ for the rather obvious reason that ‘not all theories deserve equal respect’. 

Stephen Toope, the vice chancellor of Cambridge, and the other members of the university’s council either do not or do not want to see the obvious. In March, they put out a woozy and potentially authoritarian ‘update’ to the university’s policy on freedom of speech. ‘The University expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the differing opinions of others’ it says, ‘to be respectful of the diverse identities of others,’ and to be free to express themselves ‘without fear of disrespect or discrimination’. [My italics]

What did it mean? The university goes on to say that it favours ‘robust and challenging’ debate and defends ‘free speech within the law’, so the proposed changes might have been innocuous. Cambridge academics weren’t so sure. As a test, they asked the University Council to replace ‘respect’ with ‘tolerance.’ It would expect ‘its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others', and ‘tolerant of the diverse identities of others,’ and so on. The university refused, and suspicion hardened into resistance.

They forced the university to ballot all academics on three motions. The voting begins on Friday and concludes in early December. The result will be binding. Over 100 academics led by Arif Ahmed, a philosopher at Gonville & Caius college, whose number includes the economist Diane Coyle, and Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk, signed the first. ‘We should not be expected to respect patently false opinions concerning vaccination or climate change,’ it reads. ‘Nor should the University demand respect for all political or religious identities, from white nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism. But we must permit them to exist. That is exactly what "tolerance" means.’

In the overwhelmingly leftist culture of academia, universities are caught up with arguments within the left: supporters of trans rights want to ban feminists who insist on the primacy of biological sex; post-modern relativists denounce atheist and secularist critiques of reactionary Islam as racist. They take their little world for the whole world, and forget that we have had a right-wing government for ten years that is becoming ever-more authoritarian and ever-more grateful for attacks on free speech. Everyone who has lived through the Johnson administration’s suspension of parliament, purging of the Tory party and threats to the BBC and Channel 4 News should know the need to defend liberalism. It is a sign of their parochialism that the vice chancellor and council of Cambridge University do not.

The second motion would stop the no-platforming of speakers: not just because it is illegal under the 1986 Education Act, but because it threatens the purpose of higher education. ‘Being exposed to views that question or offend your fundamental beliefs and feelings, about yourself and society, is a large part of the point of attending University in the first place,’ the dissident academics say. Or rather, it used to be. 

And as the third proposal makes clear, it is not just students the academics feel the need to constrain. If it passes, the university authorities will be instructed to accept that the ‘lawful expression of controversial or unpopular views will not in itself constitute reasonable grounds for withholding permission for a meeting or event.’

We are in our own religious wars now. The US right is so convinced Democrats are infidels it cannot admit the truth that it lost an election. The version of the left formed by the social justice movement believes in shaming and banning with the fervour of a pre-Enlightenment Calvinist. You can see why tolerance is out of fashion at Cambridge. The danger lies in the promotion of the slippery concept of respect by a university, which once insisted on precision. When I asked Arif Ahmed why he was mobilising academics against respect, he quoted the argument of the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn: ‘The word seems to span a spectrum, from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference.’

Its multiple meanings suited ideologues wanting to impose conformity. ‘People might start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.’ At the extreme it reaches the terminus of, ‘unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions.’

As things stand, the university is insisting on respect and forgetting that respect has to be earned. When I asked the university why it was restricting free speech, it was, fittingly I thought, unable to reply.