Cranks and Shills

Arianne Shahvisi

‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines.

The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, wrote to museums, galleries and other ‘arm’s length bodies’ last September insisting that they avoid ‘activism or politics’ and instead ‘act impartially’. He emphasised that ‘the government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects’ and reminded the institutions that they received public funding, in case the stakes weren’t clear. But how could it be ‘impartial’ to present history as though it were not political? And in what sense is it ‘impartial’ to retain a statue glorifying a slave-owner? (Would anyone risk arrest to tear down an ‘impartial’ object?) If being ‘impartial’ just means leaving everything the way it is, there’s a more honest word for that.

These ideological incursions extend also to schools. The equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, announced in a Black History Month debate in the Commons last October that ‘we do not want to see teachers teaching their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,’ and claimed that doing so could be illegal. In September, the Department for Education had released guidance on the national curriculum that said ‘schools should not under any circumstances use’ teaching materials produced by organisations that have ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections’. Sandwiching capitalism between democracy and free elections in an attempt to make it seem self-evidently virtuous does not strike me as ‘impartial’, and outlawing criticism of it is, as John McDonnell noted, McCarthyist. It is against this backdrop that the education secretary is trying to convince us that the government prizes freedom of thought.

In his report, Williamson cites three cautionary tales, none of which, under scrutiny, amounts to evidence of a threat to ‘free speech’ in universities. The historian Selina Todd had an invitation to speak at the Oxford International Women’s Festival withdrawn after other speakers refused to share a platform with her, because of her support for a transphobic organisation. Yet not only is the Oxford International Women’s Festival not a university event; Williamson himself concedes that individuals have the right ‘to decide who they wish to share platforms with’. The organisers made a strategic decision to pull one speaker in order to hold onto others.

The education secretary also mentions Felix Ngole, a student who lost his place on a social work course after publicly expressing homophobic views. Sheffield University withdrew his place because of concerns about his fitness to practise. Again, this is not a question of ‘free speech’ in universities; it relates instead to the standards of care that are expected from professionals working with vulnerable people.

Williamson’s last example is the sociologist Noah Carl, whose dalliance with eugenics and links to far-right groups led to his dismissal from St Edmund’s College, Cambridge in 2019. The university panel that considered his case concluded that ‘the poor scholarship of this problematic body of Dr Carl’s work, among other things, meant that it fell outside any protection that might otherwise be claimed for academic freedom of speech.’

This last point is particularly important. There are moral and pedagogical reasons for keeping certain people off campus; no one can learn in a room in which their dignity is in question. But such reasons are rarely called on, because those who peddle marginalising ideas are usually ruled out for reasons of quality, not content. Anyone motivated by fanatical personal prejudice or a bid for the limelight of controversialism tends not to be an interesting thinker. As Robert Simpson and Amia Srinivasan have argued, ‘it is permissible for disciplinary gatekeepers to exclude cranks and shills from valuable communicative platforms in academic contexts, because good teaching and research requires that communicative privileges be given to some and not others.’ In other words: we have standards.

Yet none of this is to claim that silencing is not a problem. Academics working on race and gender, especially women of colour, live under the continual menace of abuse and doxing, as well as rape and death threats. While these attacks generally come from outside the university, and also affect journalists, politicians and other public figures, Williamson fails to acknowledge that ‘cancelling’ is heavily gendered and racialised, and that the government’s ‘war on woke’ exacerbates the real dangers to already marginalised scholars and students.

Nor does he mention Israel. I was a year into my first academic job when the US scholar Steven Salaita was fired from his post at the University of Illinois after criticising the actions of the Israeli government during Operation Protective Edge, in which more than two thousand Palestinians were killed. (Salaita has since found himself unemployable in academia, but continues to write in between shifts as a school-bus driver in Washington DC.) After a teaching observation a few years ago, I was told that I should avoid discussing Palestine in class, and a senior academic more recently advised me to dial down my public criticism of Israel’s state violence if I wanted to get on in academia.

This brings us to the glaring contradiction between Williamson’s recent diktats. While insisting on the importance of ‘free speech’, he is concurrently threatening to withdraw the funding of universities who refuse to adopt the definition of antisemitism devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. (Will universities be fined if they fire people for using definitions other than the IHRA one?) Not only do the details of the definition threaten to shrink even further the discursive space to advocate for the rights of Palestinians, but forcing definitions on those whose job it is to question the received meanings of terms is an absurd and terrifying precedent.

There are at any moment almost three million people in the UK working or studying at universities. The major threat to their ability to manage healthy discourse within their own diverse communities will now be their nervous navigation of the risk of government investigations and fines. We mustn’t be duped into thinking this was ever about ‘free speech’. Universities have been ravaged by the pandemic, and many now hang in the balance. This week’s announcement is most likely part of a campaign of demonisation ahead of whatever regime of cuts, imposition or abandonment the government now has in store.


  • 19 February 2021 at 5:15pm
    Elizabeth White says:
    Which ‘transphobic’ organisation are you talking about in reference to Selina Todd? And can you please define ‘transphobia’ for readers.

    • 20 February 2021 at 7:51am
      Martha says: @ Elizabeth White
      Yet answer came there none...

    • 20 February 2021 at 6:43pm
      Elizabeth White says: @ Martha
      They never answer any of the questions.

    • 21 February 2021 at 12:00pm
      semitone says: @ Elizabeth White
      Are you serious or are you trolling? It's often difficult to tell. But if you type into google (other search engines are available) the name of the person you ask about, the answer will be yours. Isn't the internet amazing.

    • 21 February 2021 at 11:26pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Elizabeth White
      her support for a transphobic organisation

      'Ware punctuation - Pink News, in the linked article, doesn't state that Woman's Place UK is a transphobic organisation. The article refers repeatedly to Professor Todd and WPUK as "transphobic", but always in other people's words and never without the scare-quotes (and it also quotes both Professor Todd and the organisation itself as denying that she is/they are transphobic).

  • 19 February 2021 at 11:24pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    Freedom of speech has turned into one of those irregular verbs.

    I am free to speak.
    You are free to listen to me.
    He is being cancelled for defending someone who failed to condemn someone who once shared a platform with someone who posted something on Facebook in 2007 that could be interpreted as antisemitic.

  • 20 February 2021 at 11:48am
    freshborn says:
    You make a convincing argument but there is undeniably a trend against free speech in academia, and young people. The treatment of JK Rowling shows that, where someone has been marked, it is obligatory to insist that they are silenced, or else you will be attacked too for not disagreeing strongly enough - even where the offence is highly ambiguous. Hysterical pile-ons and prideful blocking of anyone who challenges your opinion are normal on social media.

    The right-wing might be hypocrites on free speech, but hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. A great number of people who are nominally left-wing abhor the virtue itself. In the polarised, reactionary, and short-sighted online culture, they assume anyone defending the principle of free speech or critiquing cancel culture, e.g. Chomsky, to be right-wing or out of touch, and ridicule them.

    At that point it isn't enough to complain that the other side are impairing our free speech and need to be stopped. Free speech needs to be defended as a universal principle and treated as sacrosanct, defended at the expense of any other matter. Otherwise, it becomes a political weapon and that is clearly a fight we will lose. (Not to mention that silencing someone you disagree with is a Pyrrhic victory, compared to ignoring or challenging them.)

    We can hardly expect anyone to care about our right to criticise Israel if we are then going to deny their right to criticise tendentious ideas like white privilege. I know the Tories are trying to foment a culture war by raising these largely irrelevant issues. But my identity doesn't depend on opposing the Tories, so I'm never going to be arguing that white privilege should be allowed to be taught in schools. A culture war takes two.

  • 20 February 2021 at 7:48pm
    Howard Medwell says:
    Generally, I am with Arianne Shahvisi on these issues. However, the left has to be very careful with arguments and tactics which the right can turn to its own use. For example, I recall two arguments I heard or read in public discussions in educational or academic circles in the 1980's: firstly, that only the victims of racism have the right to define racism, secondly, that if you fail to call out racism, you are yourself a racist. I don't recall anyone - certainly not me! - raising any objection to these arguments. And we can all remember how effectively these arguments were used during the recent campaign to portray Jeremy Corbyn and his co-thinkers as anti-Semites.

    • 20 February 2021 at 9:01pm
      recover says: @ Howard Medwell
      I don't think the fact that identity politics fractures the left particularly bothers its practitioners. In fact it is a hugely useful aspect of this type of thought. It's significant that Shahvisi laments the right wing cancellation of outspoken thinkers on race and gender, but makes a mealy-mouthed defence of the effective cancellation of Selina Todd, who specialises in class. Modern capitalism is not threatened or bothered in the slightest by the type of work Shahvisi sponsors: it's easy enough to maintain inequality while slightly changing the composition of the wealthy few.

    • 21 February 2021 at 12:07pm
      semitone says: @ recover
      Good heavens. Shahvisi made no defence, mealy-mouthed or otherwise, of the decision to exclude Todd from an event. She merely noted that it was not a university event, and thus out of scope of the Government's proposed policy. And, therefore, not a brilliant example for the government to use when justifying its policy. This suggests bad faith on the part of the Government. Your mischaracterization of Shahvisi's argument suggests that the bad faith doesn't stop there.

    • 21 February 2021 at 10:35pm
      recover says: @ semitone
      We appear to have read different articles! I don't care for Williamson or for the Tory government's crass embrace of identity politics, but I see what he is doing and what Shahvisi is doing as two sides of the same coin. Shahvisi (appropriately) complains about more senior academics urging her to shut up about Israel. I cannot see the difference between this and Todd being blackballed by other academics for having different opinions to them. You could argue that her views on trans people are dangerous and hurtful, but the same argument is frequently (and cynically, as Howard notes above) used about views on Israel, equating them with anti-Semitism.

    • 22 February 2021 at 3:55pm
      semitone says: @ recover
      Sorry mate, you've lost me. Shahvisi's point is that the merits of the decision to exclude Todd from the event are moot, because it wasn't a university event; therefore it would have been out of the scope of the proposed legislation.

      I occasionally organize discussion panels like this, though on energy policy not culture or history. If I approached people to speak and they refused to share a platform with someone else I had booked, I would try to understand why and then, as was the case with the Todd example, I would most likely pull one speaker in order to hold onto multiple others.

      I didn't mention Israel so I don't know why you did in your reply to me. I'll just note that:
      (a) I'm fairly comfortable with the IHRC definition, as I think it gives ample swinging room to criticize the vile and illegal policies of the State of Israel with regard to its many documented breaches of international law
      (b) I do think that Todd's views on trans people are dangerous and hurtful, yes. And it's weird that you seem to excuse them because criticism of Israel is also, sometimes and by some cynical people, characterized as dangerous and hurtful.

    • 23 February 2021 at 1:20pm
      recover says: @ semitone
      The really sad thing is that attitudes like yours and Shahvisi's are enabling the likes of Williamson.

  • 21 February 2021 at 6:23pm
    RM says:
    Judging by the few comments to the article, it appears Gavin has tapped into another pet peeve of British folks; namely, white right-wing xenophobic anti-everything-but-what-they-impose-on-others get a raw deal in life. Over here, we call them Karens since, surprisingly, they have an awful lot of women in their ranks. Their male brethrens are known as Kevins.

    • 21 February 2021 at 10:33pm
      Howard Medwell says: @ RM
      oh, we're very superior, aren't we... must be an LRB reader!!!

    • 22 February 2021 at 12:17pm
      Charles Evans says: @ Howard Medwell
      You're surprised to find LRB readers on the LRB blog?

    • 23 February 2021 at 12:13pm
      Howard Medwell says: @ Charles Evans
      surprised to find irony there? well, perhaps...

    • 23 February 2021 at 1:38pm
      Charles Evans says: @ Howard Medwell
      Point taken.

  • 22 February 2021 at 12:18pm
    Charles Evans says:
    It seems fitting that a blogpost titled "Cranks and Shills" is attracting the odd crank and occasional shill!

  • 23 February 2021 at 4:51pm
    stettiner says:
    Let's not forget how the long arm of Zion extended to the American University of Beirut and got Steven Salaita blocked after one year. You can't escape the menace of IHRA even in an Arab country!

    • 23 February 2021 at 5:06pm
      Charles Evans says: @ stettiner
      Welcome to the LRB Blog, where the Editor, Thomas Jones, seems happy for anyone to post lazy anti-semitic tropes. Such a bastion of free speech!

  • 24 February 2021 at 11:35am
    roger gathmann says:
    This reminds me of the riotously funny "islamo-guachisme" being served up by Macronists and the right in France. First, there is the ridiculousness of it: if you really want to find out who helped Islamism, look at the foreign policy of France and the rest of the West over the last fifty years vis a vis Saudi Arabia, or as Tony Blair once called it, a "bastion of the free world". Islamo-centrism, though, isn't catchy, I guess. But the second thing funny about it is that Macron is a determined Americanizer and Globalizer in France, always getting the country ready for "competition". In the field of higher education, the international standard has long been concerned with intersectionality, post-colonialism and all the other scary -isms that the right waves around. The call to go back to "universal" values, i.e. a time when France was a serious colonial power, is a call to make French universities even more provincial. Disconnecting from the "American" standard is probably not so bad a thing for those rightwing academics who are never going to be invited to teach in America, or the UK, or China, or basically anywhere anyway. The contradiction between Macronism as a neoliberal device and Macronism as a way to absorb Le Pen's nationalism really comes out here. The international wave of know-nothingism - another ism! - is peaking, I guess.

  • 28 February 2021 at 6:18am
    nlowhim says:
    Yeah, coming from the US end of things, I sense that for this topic, for "Cancel culture" we simply need more definitions. What are people calling it? From what I can tell, it seems to mean "whenever the left screams about it" rather than a general stifling of the discourse. This could also be it, going along with the bullying we see on social media and which has been what the right does with the culture wars for as long as I can remember.[1] From this century alone, if we're to ignore COINTELPRO and other examples from the end of the last century, we have many examples. Like Ward Churchill, Dixie Chicks, Chris Hedges, and the list goes on. In fact, I still think it funny that the right screams Cancel Culture at all. Perhaps they don't want their favorite activity to get co-opted?

    [1] I don't have the link, but I do believe that with regard to professors being fired, the right gets more lefties fired than vice versa. IOW, they have the power and do the cancelling, it's just not as loud.

  • 3 March 2021 at 11:57am
    Hannah Schwieso says:
    I don't believe there is a single statue that 'glorifies a slave-owner' though there are many that commemorate people who served the public in some way and who also happened to be slave-owners. There is a difference. Nelson's Column doesn't glorify one-armed men, nor does Churchill's statue in Parliament Square glorify politicians who drink a lot, though Nelson did lose an arm and Churchill seems to have consumed a lot of alchohol whilst war-time leader.

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