David Abulafia

What’s behind Cambridge’s anonymous reporting system?

What’s behind Cambridge’s anonymous reporting system?
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Here is a challenge. Cambridge University provides an electronic Daily News Digest to anyone who wants to see how the university is being reported in the press. Will the News Digest include this article? On past form, that seems unlikely.

When arguments arose in the past few weeks about Cambridge’s Report + Support website, which offered the opportunity to make anonymous denunciations against individuals deemed to have committed ‘micro-aggressions’ (such as being critical of a student’s work, even if it is bad, or praising the English of a non-native speaker), the Digest went quiet. A few days after the Telegraph published a letter against the website signed by 25 senior academics, a cryptic link was provided to an out-of-date edition of the newspaper. After the Times and Daily Mail picked up the story, links remained sparse. Meanwhile the Digest published, day after day, updates on a story about medieval bunions which, a Cambridge archaeologist suggests, were brought on by pointy shoes.

We all know the press keeps a close eye on Cambridge and Oxford, fascinated by the way two ancient institutions are dragging themselves into (what they imagine to be) 21st-century realities. The catalogue of their obsessions deserves its own daily digest. When one of the fiercest opponents of the Rhodes statue signs off as ‘Rhodes professor of race relations’ we might feel there is a whiff of hypocrisy in Oxford about when, how and whether Rhodes should be ‘cancelled’. But Cambridge has overtaken Oxford in zealotry. Jesus College Chapel contains a monument to the slave-trader Tobias Rustat by Grinling Gibbons; Historic England is contesting plans for its removal. There is the window at Gonville & Caius College in memory of R.A. Fisher, the geneticist and statistician (and eugenicist), whose removal became an issue for students who had mostly been unaware it was there.

And one college after another has established a junior research fellowship specifically in ‘racism and anti-racism’, offering up to four years of stipend, accommodation and high-table meals, as if this will somehow atone for any ancient links with Caribbean slavery. Research fellowships have always been awarded for outstanding academic work, but now ‘activism’ is being added to the list of the winner’s duties. Meanwhile younger academics are reluctant to put their head above the parapet, fearing for their career; but their silence certainly does not mean assent. The threat of anonymous denunciations has made many academics wonder about how to express challenging views without getting into trouble.

The Report + Support website was taken down in embarrassment after it had gone live. Those who created it have a lot to answer for; the reputation of a great university has been damaged. For several days Report + Support won the approval of people near the top of the university hierarchy. One prominent law professor, Professor Graham Virgo, who is the seniorpro-vice-chancellor for education, defended anonymous denunciations: ‘I welcome the introduction of Report + Support to simplify the reporting to the university of inappropriate behaviour of staff and students. It is critical they are able to work and study to the best of their ability and thrive while at Cambridge. Our community must be confident they can report concerns and that action will be taken… Together we can continue to build a culture based on inclusivity, equality and respect for one another.’

What are we to make of another of Professor Virgo’s remarks, that ‘there is no place within our community for those who do not share our values’? Inclusivity and equality are highly desirable, but he as a lawyer would surely agree they would benefit from exact definition. Some behaviours are unquestionably unacceptable, such as sexual harassment and bullying. But are the supposed micro-aggressions, even if unconscious, necessarily ‘unacceptable behaviour’?

Obviously Professor Virgo does not want to see Soviet-style denunciations; but let’s see what definitions appeared on the website he commended. Here is its definition of racism: ‘Racism is a system of oppression, woven into the fabric of societies, institutions, processes, procedures, people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. It is a system of advantage that sets whiteness as the norm, manifesting in societies’ valuing and promoting (implicitly or explicitly) being white.’

This definition is straight out of critical race theory textbooks. Racism CRT-style is not about the use of foul language about another ethnic group; it is not anti-Semitism. It is something that may be unconscious, because it is ‘systemically’ wired into society, and has been for hundreds of years, as white people have established dominance over black people and have used their exploitation to create a capitalist, colonialist world order.

Some of these ideas can be traced back to Das Kapital. But with its emphasis on ‘white privilege’, CRT moves on from Marx’s class-based analysis to a race-based one. For CRT is itself profoundly racist in the way that it separates out, and blames, white people of today for the cruelties and excesses of their ancestors. CRT is a sort of heresy that has grown out of Marxist ideology, and owes a good amount to it, but has its own identity and trajectory — in many ways a gloomy and pessimistic one, which regards ‘white’ western civilisation as incorrigible. All this is wrapped up in various vague isms, notably colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, which, like Professor Virgo’s worthy principles, are left without any definition.

Those well-meaning innocents in Cambridge and beyond who parrot language about white privilege, systemic racism and so on seem to be unaware that this is the language of a subversive theory about society and history, a new way of deploying arguments and disputing facts. It is rooted in inaccurate and ignorant historical generalisations. Meanwhile, the engineering department continues to offer online ‘Resources to educate yourself about racism’ entirely drawn from radical theory.

These theories offer no solution. Their approach is anarchic, demolishing institutions and proposing nothing realistic in their place. The good news is that these are just theories. The bad news is that more and more apparently intelligent people, even in Cambridge, are mouthing them.

Mixed doubles
‘Mixed doubles?’
Written byDavid Abulafia

David Abulafia is emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge.

Topics in this articleSociety