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'What's happened to the university?' with Frank Furedi (video & transcript)

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Menzies Research Centre presents

What's happened to the university? The withering of campus free speech 

A Thought Leadership Forum with Professor Frank Furedi, QUT'S Calum Thwaites and
IPA's Bella d'Abrera 

Wednesday, 27 September 2017
Village Roadshow Theatrette, State Library of Victoria


I want to talk about the broad trends that are at work at the university, not just in Australia but throughout the Anglo-American world. In Canada, England and the United States, we see a very similar pattern evolving in three phases.

When I went to University in the late 60s and early 70s, the University was a place where one debated in robust manner, argued and fought with each other as if we were in a mortal combat, but everybody understood that it was important to open up the space for free speech. Everybody understood that risk-taking, experimentation and questioning was really what a University was all about.

At that point in time, and all the way up to the late 70s, academic freedom and the freedom of speech were fundamental values, that would add to the foundation of freedom. Without it, the life of the university would be fatally compromised and it would turn into an empty institution with no real purpose.

In that first phase of my life, freedom was seen as inviolable. It was very much perceived as a first-order foundational value on which everything else in the University rested. But by the time you get to the 1990s, something very troubling had developed. When people talked about freedom in academic circles and in student politics, they increasingly used the expression; “I believe in freedom but…”

What came after the “but” almost invariably negated freedom. They would say, for instance, “I believe in freedom but not for those people.” Or “I believe in freedom but not if those people express hate.” Or “I believe in freedom but not if they offend a particular group of people on campus.” In other words, freedom became a selective good, something you could believe in every now and again, and for some people. It was not something that was beyond question. I think that second phase lasted, more or less, until two or three years ago.

In more recent times, there is a very new development on campus. When you talk about freedom, a growing section of the campus community, a minority but nevertheless an influential minority, actually believe that freedom is not a big deal. What is the fuss? Who cares about freedom? Freedom does not put food on the table, they will tell you. Freedom does not guarantee you a good life. Freedom sometimes makes you feel uncomfortable.

Increasingly what you are hearing is people saying that when push comes to shove, academic freedom is not necessarily a good thing, certainly not if the freedom of speech is used to criticise certain groups. Certain people feel hurt; they feel offended; they feel that their personality has been undermined by criticism levelled at them. You have a situation, where in all but name, freedom has become a second-order principal subservient to other values. For many people, freedom is not nearly as important as safety, a word used these days in a very wide sense. Safety does not just mean physical safety; increasingly it means emotional safety. And when it comes to emotional safety as you and I know, any form of speech can be hurtful.

As you know yourself, when somebody makes a remark that unwittingly insults you, that person does not mean to insult you. And yet you interpret that as a slight upon your personality and you feel hurt and sometimes people make a joke at you at your expense. On more than one occasion, people make a joke about my buck-teeth and it hurts. I go away and look in the mirror and I kind of tremble and have a mini trauma as a response to this. So words do hurt, we know that, and if you want to draw the conclusion that words can have a negative effect upon us, hurts can demoralise or disorient us, and because of that, we should begin to censor the words that we are using, than we do run into trouble.

On campuses these days you are allowed the right absolutely freely on matters that are not all that important. But when it comes to issues that confuse or disorient people, we are told we need to be “sensitive”. And by sensitivity, what they are really saying is that you cannot express what you really believe in, you cannot speak from your heart, just in case a group of individuals, or even one single individual, might be offended. In other words, freedom is far less important than the right of those people not to be offended. You will hear this statement time and time again.

There is a problem here; it is a problem particularly for a university, that any idea that is worth anything, any idea that makes a difference throughout human history has always hurt somebody. It would not be a good idea if people simply said, “Oh yes”, and casually went on with their lives. Good ideas disturb, good ideas confuse. Ideas by themselves are always disorienting. If we now have this new rule that we should circumscribe these new kinds of ideas in this way, than we do run into a lot of trouble.

So the big development that has occurred in universities is that the idea of freedom, as harmful, has been more or less assimilated and internalised as a fact of life.  Freedom is no longer seen as something that opens up the world to us and creates new possibilities. Freedom is also now seen as a source of harm to the individual.

Why harmful? What makes freedom harmful? Well we now argue that what makes freedom harmful is the fact that the students who come to university are, by and large, no longer able to deal with criticism. They can no longer be questioned or challenges, because they are essentially what we call “vulnerable students”. Students are increasingly described as individuals who lack the moral and intellectual resources to deal with criticism.

The job for the universities today is increasingly seen as immunising people from questioning and criticism, to protect them, to give them safe spaces from harm. When I went to university, an undergraduate was assumed to be a young man or a young woman. These days, an undergraduate is seen as been a biologically immature child, as a biologically immature child, you deal with those persons in very different ways and all the censorship we see on campuses is very much linked to that.

I just kind of want to go to its conclusion by explaining why it has occurred. Why is it that we now regard young people in this infantilised way? You see the tragedy is, the reason why these developments have kicked in is not because of some malevolent political forces, some kind of radical movement that has brought this upon universities. There is no obvious movement that is kind of promoting this, although there are beneficiaries of this. I think in many respects, the reason why young people in universities are treated in such an infantilised way, indeed themselves demanding that they be mothered and fathered by campuses, is because we adopted a form of socialisation  that cultivates the powerlessness of the young.

Socialisation in Anglo-American societies is no longer about socialising them into the values that their grandparents and parents were socialised into, it is no longer teaching them right and wrong, or [that] this is good and this is bad. Increasingly the method we use for socialising people is by psychologically validating them, by telling them that they are very nice, very good, very smart, by raising their self-esteem, by continually flattering them in school, by never actually criticising them, by handing out literally hundreds of smiley faces every time they come home from school. As a result of that, what happens is that as they grow from childhood to teenage-hood, they have never been exposed to serious criticism, they have never been told that “you are wrong”, “this is a disaster”, “you go back and redo this essay”, but instead people are told, “well good on you, it was a good effort, may be you can do better”. This kind of constant encouragement, which people think is good, is actually hoping that by giving people more confidence, young people will become more confident.

Actually, it has the opposite effect. The main effect that psychological validation has is to unravel people’s resilience and unravel their personality. Instead of allowing young people to stand on their own two feet and take risks and stretch themselves and expose themselves to uncertainty, which is how all of us in this room ever gained a sense of independence, and ever gained a yearning for freedom, instead of doing that, they arrive on campuses as people who are essentially old children.

I don’t know if any of you have been to an open day at a university in Australia, or England or Canada. When you arrive on open day as a new student, there are more adults there than young people, parents. I mean these days, when you arrive on campus, there are more parents than rats and sometimes you even have the grandparents coming along to give the parents support because it is such a big transition. It’s such a massive transition that little Johnny or little Mary is making by going into the university and therefore you have to be there to give them support. In my days, the idea of your father or your mother been with you when you arrive on campus would have been social death. I mean everybody went to university precisely to get away from them - that was the whole buzz of going on campus. Now it is the opposite thing.

Not only are the families there to give the children support. In some universities, they actually give what they call transitional counselling where they get these people to sit down with the undergraduates and say, “You know Johnny, you are now at a university”. This is serious business, you are going to find this unnerving, you are going to tell them all the horrible things that are going to happen. Therefore, it is not surprising that little Johnny or little Mary are going to be traumatized, every time somebody makes a peep.

Once this psychological term becomes politicised by identity politics, which is what it really is, than you do run into trouble. I want to end up by explaining one development that is often misunderstood. Identity politics on campuses has got nothing to do with the identity politics of the seventies and sixties, those forms of identity politics had their problems, but at least they had some kind of political vision with a capital “P”. They were almost always wrong, but they were essentially political. The identity politics on campuses today is not about changing the world, it is not about social transformation, it is not about a utopia. The identity politics that we are seeing on campuses is really all about “me”. It is my identity - it is a narcissistic form of cultural politics, whereby essentially what we have are individuals who feel that if you criticise them, you are just not criticising their views, you are undermining their personhood.

 In other words, when you criticise an individual these days, it is never about their ideas, it is about themselves. It is all about me. For me, the best way of understanding what identity politics is about on campuses is to go on one of their demonstrations. I mean, I am probably the oldest person in the room, but I still go to their demonstrations just to see where the action is and what is going on. If you go on a protest march or a demonstration these days what you will find, it is a very wonderful phenomenon for a sociologist like me to see, is everybody on the protest march taking selfies of themselves. This is meant to be a protest march, but they are all taking pictures, sometimes you get two people here, and everybody is oblivious to the big picture. It is almost like, I have been there, I have got the picture, now I can go back home.

That is the form of protest we have - that is the form of identity politics we have in action and although it is not political with a capital “P” it is actually more pernicious than the old identity politics because it corrodes away the very fibre of who we are as human beings. It downgrades the human persona and tells us that we have not got the moral resources to deal with risk, to deal with challenge and most important of all it tells us that freedom, rather than being a precious asset that we have to live with and continually never take for granted, is a moral hassle rather than a good. It is for that reason, that people like ourselves in this room have to go out and fight and stand firm and explain to people around us, our neighbours and people in our communities, that freedom is not just another word, it is something that we have to live with 24 hours a day. Thank you


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