Academic Freedom in the Age of Conformity: Chatting with Joanna Williams
Greg Scorzo/ Joanna Williams
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2015
Joanna Williams is the education editor of the controversial online magazine, Spiked. She’s was also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent. Her work fascinates me because of the way it deals with something very dear to me: the functioning of higher education. Her work doesn’t do what writing on higher education typically does: it doesn’t equate education with the ability of all students to have an equal social and economic standing. It doesn’t speak on behalf of “oppressed groups” with the authorial voice of some kind of Marxism. Most importantly, Joanna’s work combines a passion for free thought and speech with an unusually empowering message: In higher education, people should be treated as individuals; not victims, in virtue of the unchosen demographics they find themselves in.
Such an empowering message is inspiring because of the human potential it allows for. It allows for the best arguments to win out in debates where not all the participants have an equal amount of social or economic power. Of course, this is the point where many would claim her work is naïve. They would say that any rational discourse can only produce decent conclusions in a democracy if society is already egalitarian. What this cynicism ignores is the extent to which history proves this view wrong. Things didn’t start getting better only after the push in Western society towards equal rights. Human society has always improved when better ideas become more persuasive than their alternatives. If it weren’t for this fact, there would be no push for equal rights.
Like it or not, good ideas have a persuasive power that transcends the social status of those arguing passionately for them. This is why the ability for anyone to dissent from conventional wisdom is such an important part of public discourse. You don’t need to be someone’s social equal for them to know you have an idea that’s better than all the ideas they take for granted. This is one of the more magical qualities of the human race; although we may, we needn’t be blinded by our social advantages. Moreover, we may be blinded by the absence of such advantages. That is, in believing we are victims of inequality, we may become blind to what we are capable of seeing and doing. We may reinforce, rather than rise above, the things about us that constrain both our achievements and our perceptions. It is this very human trap that Joanna’s work, among other things, draws attention to, and offers a way out of.
I spoke to Joanna about her book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (Palgrave, Critical University Studies, 2016). It’s a compulsively page-turning account of various trends in academia today that both endanger campus free speech and the freedom of academics to speak important truths, truths that go against the fashionable party line that “truth” is a way the powerful dominate the powerless. Her book contains illuminating descriptions of how these party lines came to dominate the universities of the English speaking west. Her writing explains, quite lucidly, just where things went wrong, and gives a diagnosis for change that is both severely needed (and out of fashion). I spoke to Joanna about her book, free speech, liberal democracy, identity politics, knowledge based education, free thought, safe spaces, dissent, and the words my dad calls me. It was fun.
Joanna Williams: I wrote a book a couple of years ago called Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012). I was quite surprised by some of the response to that book. That book made the case that when it comes to university tuition fees, we should think about what people are being asked to buy. We should judge whether tuition fees are a good idea in relation to what we consider to be the purpose of the university. If students think the university experience is about picking up a certificate or getting employability skills, why shouldn’t they have to pay for their time at university? If going to university is just an investment that enables young people to get better paid jobs, it’s very difficult to know why the public should have to subsidise that. But if university is about something more than just employability skills or future earning potential, if it’s about knowledge, about passing on an intellectual inheritance from one generation to the next, then university becomes a public good. When university is a public good, that’s when there’s a role for the state and the general public in subsidising higher education.
I thought that would be the least controversial part of Consuming Higher Education. But I was very very wrong. People were quite shocked by the argument I was giving. People took issue with the fact that I said there was a body of knowledge that was important for a future generation to know. People don’t trust whoever would be deciding what this body of knowledge should be. I was told there was no connection between knowledge and truth. I was told essentially that truth was a question of perspective and the particular standpoints of particular people. Knowledge was supposedly connected to the experiences of individuals, rather than any objective facts about the world. That very much surprised me, being quiet naïve about all of this. I thought, “what’s the point of having a university if it’s not in the business of teaching objective knowledge?”
I’ve always been interested in free speech and academic freedom. But it was only when I was shocked by attitudes of academics to knowledge, that I then began to draw links between these attitudes and why academic freedom is so easily undermined, these days. You see, academic freedom is in the news a lot. But it’s mostly people pointing the finger at big business or pointing a finger at government policies like the new anti-terror legislation. You see individual academics like Steven Salaita or Thomas Docherty becoming cause celebs because they get disciplined for posting political tweets or something. Lots of fellow academics and members of the general public take their side, in the name of academic freedom. So people like Salaita and Docherty wind up using academic freedom as an insurance policy to combat the departmental discipline they face and keep their jobs. That can make you think academic freedom is completely safe and we’ve got nothing much to worry about. The idea of academic freedom seems, superficially, like it’s quite beloved.
The reality is that academics can’t defend objective knowledge anymore. Academic freedom isn’t called upon to enable academics to pose truth claims that challenge accepted dogmas in the academy. Academics aren’t free to make truth claims regarding how they understand the world anymore. They’re not being able to challenge the truth claims of others, particularly those who speak on behalf of the dominant ideologies of the university. So freedom is being completely eroded in a different way. I wanted to write about this situation and look at it’s historical context.
What’s really important about academic freedom is the ability of academics to follow the pursuit of knowledge, to pursue even controversial and dangerous ideas. Academics need freedom to be able to do that. The problem is, in order to pursue controversial and even dangerous ideas, you need to actually have them. You need to be prepared to say them. I don’t think that’s happening in academia anymore.
Greg Scorzo: One of the interesting things about your book is it doesn’t just target legal censorship. It also targets unofficial self-censorship that happens in the academy. What interests me is the identity politics crowd seem to be saying something quite similar to you. They say that if people who are part of “privileged groups” demean or belittle or oppress “disadvantaged groups,” this encourages the disadvantaged groups to self-censor. What are your thoughts on that?
Joanna Williams: I think the problem with what they’re describing is it comes out of an incredibly elitist and paternalistic perspective. I think what’s going on is you have a group of typically white and middle class academics saying “These women and these black people can’t cope with free speech! They can’t cope with the rigors of academic debate! We need to protect them!” You also see this argument used against the general public, as well. You see it used particularly around topics like rape or environmentalism. There’s a presumption that there are some ideas that are just so dangerous that the public shouldn’t be allowed to hear them or debate them. This paternalistic attitude can only function the way it does if there’s some kind of unappointed clique that decides what’s safe for the public to talk about. They position themselves as protectors of vulnerable groups, often without those groups having had a say in the matter.
Now, I completely get that not everyone is in an equally powerful position, either in society or in the university. But I think the best way to deal with those power disparities is to always have more free speech, more academic freedom, rather than decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t, based on some kind of political judgement about the content of their claims. I think that’s a really dangerous precedent. But it’s also the logic of the identity politics you’re describing. The logic of their position takes us down a path towards censorship.
Greg Scorzo: Suppose a female rape victim, for instance, encounters some view of rape at university that doesn’t tow feminist party lines. Because she’s encountered this view on campus, she suddenly feels extremely disturbed and unconfident. She feels like she can’t talk about her own experiences being raped. Do you think that lack of confidence is the fault of the rape victim? Or do you think it’s the fault of the university?
Joanna Williams: I wouldn’t want to say it’s anyone’s fault at all. I’d feel desperately sorry for the rape victim, of course. I wouldn’t want to force her or anyone in her position to have to talk about her rape. I wouldn’t discourage her from talking about it either. But I think what’s important in that situation is we don’t create a “safe space” for this rape victim in the university. We shouldn’t create a safe space just because we feel sorry for her. We shouldn’t create a safe space even if it’s because we don’t want her to have to relive her trauma. What’s most important is that the university remain a university. We can’t remove all references to rape from any class or campus discussion. Doing that would be incredibly undemocratic. It would involve policing everyone else’s thought and language, policing the curriculum, promoting self-censorship, and using trigger warnings. That’s what having safe spaces at universities ultimately leads to.
I think it’s possible to speak to the rape victim and tell her, “We respect your personal experiences. We feel sympathetic to your plight. But unfortunately, we still can’t turn the university into a safe space for you. We’re assuming the reason you’re here is because you want to be here and can cope with being here. We’re very sorry about what happened to you. We’ll do what we can to help you, but not to the extent of changing the way the university deals with ideas and discussion.” I know that sounds harsh, but ultimately, if the size of the university is something like 16, 000 students, and one student is a traumatised rape victim, you can’t deny the other 15,999 students their educational experiences.
Greg Scorzo: So at the end of the day, you’re quite sympathetic to the rape victim. But you’re not willing to alter the way the university functions in order to minimise potential trauma she might experience in encountering certain ideas there.
Joanna Williams: I know that sounds ruthless, but I guess that’s what I am saying. Now, if I knew this rape victim, I’d probably sit down with her and say, “There’s some courses you can take where the issue of rape is less likely to come up. If you take English Literature or Law, you’re probably more likely to have to confront the issue of rape in either legal case discussions or works of literature. If you do maths, for example, its not likely that rape will come up as a discussion point in your classes.”
I’d try to steer her in the best directions for her. But ultimately, I wouldn’t change any university discussions or course content just because she’s vulnerable. I know that sounds quite cold of me, but I would hope I’d be able to communicate my position in a way that was kind. I’d say, “Look, we’re very sorry. We recognise the traumatic experiences you’ve had. We would like to advise you to take courses A, B, and C and avoid classes D, E, and F. But no, we’re not going to change the whole set up of the university for you. So you have to deal with that.”
If we gave into her demands, where would we stop? You’ve got the rape victim, you have people who are friends with someone whose been raped. You’ve got people who are friends with someone who was sexually harassed, or people who have a friend that was called a name in a queue. If you change the university structure to make it a safe space for the rape victim, you then open the floodgates for anybody who perceives themselves to be a victim of anything. They’ll start to demand equal recognition for that victimhood.
This is exactly what we’re seeing in the attempt to ban Germaine Greer from speaking to people at university. The trans activists tried to no-platform her for using inflammatory language against trans women, not believing them to be women, and denying the existence of transphobia. What’s interesting is there were actually only a few people involved in that call to ban her. They weren’t all transgender themselves, but they were happy to speak on behalf of all transgender people. They need to make sure the world knows that transgender people are oppressed, just like women and black people. It’s as if there’s this tendency for people who see themselves as victims to constantly try and out do each other. It’s like an oppression sweepstakes. If you let this influence the way the university runs, the university just becomes a giant nursery.
Greg Scorzo: Maybe the problem is this: The identity politics people think that in a university, when you have competing ideas clashing with each other, the best ones can’t win until you start from an even playing field. That even playing field has to be such that everyone is included and everyone is socially equal. What you seem to be saying in your book is, “No, not everyone does have to be equal. We don’t have to have an equal playing field. But we can still generate knowledge, even if there are social inequalities between the participants throwing ideas around with each other.”
Joanna Williams: I think the identity politics people are much much worse than that. When you say, “The best ideas will win out if everyone is on an equal playing field,” that suggests faith in people. It suggests faith in people to make good judgments. It also suggests faith in people’s arguments, in their ability to discuss and debate with each other. I don’t think identity politics people generally have that faith. Neither do a lot of academics and students. I think they view people with such disdain. They have so little confidence in their own ideas, that they daren’t put arguments before people in a public forum. They’re afraid that they’re own arguments wouldn’t win out. You can see that in the Germaine Greer case quite clearly. If the people arguing for transgenderism had confidence in their own ideas, they wouldn’t feel the need to no-platform her. They’d say to her, “Bring it on! We trust people! We trust that we have the best arguments. We trust that when we put forward our arguments, people will see that they are the best ones! A debate with Germaine Greer is a fantastic opportunity!”
Ultimately, I think history tells us that when arguments are good, they win out eventually. I don’t think that has anything to do with level playing fields. But activists and academics today don’t trust this. They don’t trust students. They don’t trust their peers. They don’t trust their friends. They don’t really trust people. They don’t trust people to make the right decisions when they hear a debate. They think people will automatically be seduced by bad ideas and become intolerant or violent. The idea that you’d actually engage in a debate with someone you disagree with isn’t a viable possibility for them; nor is the idea that in a debate, you might actually change your mind. They won’t allow themselves to take those risks.
Their own sense of themselves is so fragile and vulnerable, that they can’t handle the risks that come with actually debating someone. That’s why they see debates as threatening their sense of self, and their own identities. That’s why they’d rather no platform Germaine Greer than actually talk to her.
Greg Scorzo: I know what you mean. It seems like that whole fiasco illustrates a big problem with transgender politics. We tend to focus on transgender individuals and the harm that comes to them. Sometimes the harm is because of medical treatments they want easier access to. Sometimes the harm is because of a lack of acceptance by mainstream society. But we don’t think about the harms transgender ideology does to liberal democracy.
Joanna Williams: That’s a good point.
Greg Scorzo: What that ideology says is a very complex, counter-intuitive view of gender called gender irrealism is a precondition of not being a bigot. Gender irrealism is the view that gender is just a mental state. Your gender is whatever you feel is your gender. On trans ideology, if you don’t accept gender irrealism, you’re the equivalent of the guy in the 50s who said blacks should sit at the back of the bus. Common sense is de facto discrimination and hate.
Joanna Williams: Absolutely.
Greg Scorzo: So if if you don’t accept gender irrealism, trans politics would say you should be ostracised. You should be ostracised for not accepting this quite complex, contentious, and counter-intuitive view of gender. Gender irrealism is a view people have only really accepted as etiquette for about 5 years. It’s still quite contestable. So whenever you have an ideology that says contestable claims should be uncontested as a way people perform their lack of bigotry, that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it’s eroding the conditions that the discourse of liberal democracy needs to function adequately.
Joanna Williams: I completely agree. The other point that should be made is that if you look at the proportion of the population that would identify as transgender, it’s tiny. Yet they seem to have so much sway in public debates about this issue. I thought democracy was based on majority rule. Yet, on this issue, it seems we have the inverse of that. The interests of a tiny tiny minority are trumping everybody else’s right to say what they think about gender.
Greg Scorzo: There’s something quite psychologically disturbing about this politics, too. It’s saying there’s a small group of people that are so psychologically frail, that if you don’t accept this really bizarre, counter-intuitive view of gender, you’re hurting them. You’re making them depressed. You’re making them possibly suicidal. So we have to bend the rules of liberal discourse to cater to this psychologically vulnerable population, rather than acknowledge that if it’s this fragile, it’s too fragile to adequately engage in liberal democratic discourse. You shouldn’t change liberal democratic discourse to cater to their ideology. If they really are as vulnerable as they’re supposed to be, they’re too vulnerable to engage in these debates.
Joanna Williams: I think you’re absolutely right. For me, the transgender issue reflects a lot of extreme narcissism. It’s like saying, “I have chosen a particular way that I want to understand myself. I expect everyone else in the world to agree with me.” Now, I don’t have a problem with transgender people being able to see themselves how they wish. But I don’t see why everyone else has to buy into this idea that your gender is what you feel. That’s a delusion. Again, people can see themselves however they want. They should be able to express themselves however they want in their private lives. But the demand that everyone else you meet should buy into your personal fantasies is just narcissistic in the extreme.
Greg Scorzo: In some ways, it’s scarier than narcissism. When a person is narcissistic, society doesn’t capitulate to a particular ideology because they pity the narcissist. With trans people, that’s exactly what’s happening. Now, trans people are obviously not unpleasant and destructive the way narcissists are. But the ideology that trans activists wants us to accept is one they don’t tolerate any dissent over. They just want it to become etiquette, which is what’s actually happening. It’s quite strange. A lot of things that, a couple of years ago, were seen as political positions, are now just etiquette. Affirming these positions is the way you demonstrate you’re not a prick.
Joanna Williams: I think this idea of “politics as etiquette” is really important, right now. What the Germaine Greer fiasco illustrates is how much there’s a generational split with this new etiquette. This is an etiquette that young people know about and then feel they have the right to enforce upon the older generations. I think you saw this with the Charlotte Proudman incident. She’s a barrister who complained that a businessman on LinkedIn said that a head shot of her looked “stunning.” She turned this into a sexism issue, claiming that him focusing on her looks was “silencing women’s professional attributes.” She was also very keen to emphasize that this was an older man. She wasn’t just upset because he engaged in behaviour she felt was improper.
There was this assumption that his behaviour was the product of having come from an earlier generation. It was as if she was saying, “These old people don’t know the correct etiquette about how to talk to women. It’s our job as members of the younger generation to teach them.“ I think that’s quite scary because, for one thing, it’s incredibly disrespectful to older people. It’s completely writing off the knowledge and experience that an older generation may be bringing to the table. It presumes young people have the right to make the world anew, in their own image.
Greg Scorzo: There is a sense in which Charlotte Proudman’s attitudes didn’t come out of nowhere though. That’s something you talk about in your book. The young people you’re describing see themselves as carrying on a civil rights tradition. According to that tradition, there’s a way, as an activist, that you get rid of social inequality. You shout and you scream. You don’t debate. You use shame and lots of psychological strong-arm tactics. One of those tactics is you make certain words forbidden; words like nigger. So young people who want their politics to become etiquette often see themselves as an extension of this civil rights tradition. They see themselves as updating it, taking it into the 21st century. If you object to young people doing this today, are you also objecting to the entire civil rights tradition that preceded them?
Joanna Williams: No, I’m not. I don’t think the civil rights project is really a project that’s grounded in attempts to ban words like nigger. I think the earliest civil rights activists had far more important things to fight for than vocabularies. The fetish for banning particular words didn’t come until much later. The push for equality that began with the civil rights movement was about issues like the right to work, the right to have wages, the right to travel freely. These were quite practical demands. If we think about the historical origins of Feminism, for instance, the suffragettes were arguing for real material changes in society. They wanted genuine legal equality, things like the right to vote, the right to attend university, the right to work, the right to be payed the same as men. Language was the least of their concerns.
You can’t imagine the suffragettes sitting around and getting angry because a man said one of them was “stunning.” You can’t imagine them getting upset because of the Protein World advert that relies on the fact that most women want to look slim when they show off their bodies. So I think the whole shift towards looking at civil rights, in terms of words and media, came about in the 60s. Or if not the 60s, certainly the post-WW2 period. It’s much more recent than classic civil rights campaigns for material and legal equalities.
This is something I would take Germaine Greer up on actually. And not just her. I’d also take up people like Julie Bindel, people who are quite right to chastise young feminists for being incredibly censorious. What they don’t understand is these young feminists are just following along in the tradition that Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer started. This is another thing I write about in my book. The slogan, “The Personal is Political” is a view that has censorship as one of it’s logical consequences. We see this play out in the contemporary campaigns for censorship. “The Personal is Political” was fully supported by people like Julie Bindel. She really argued for that stance and so did Germaine Greer. Now they sit back and complain about the consequences that slogan has for them. I think one of the reasons “The Personal is Political” caught on so heavily is because of the race and gender movements of the 60s. Some of the censorship you see on campus today has roots in the free speech movement that was going on at Berkeley, ironically. And not just Berkeley. It was across campuses. A lot of deeply illiberal stuff emerged from that movement. The political causes they wanted to fight for eventually became much more important to them than the demand for free speech. It was at Cornell University that the Black Student Union, carrying guns, demanded the introduction of courses in Black Studies. The academics completely capitulated to them and it makes total sense. Anyone would capitulate to students who are pointing a gun at them.
But after the academics did give in, there was a sea change. Everything had a new focus on identity. After the 60s, the fashionable idea was that you had to see your own identity reflected in your course in order for you to master a body of knowledge. That’s a product of a collision of different trends; trends within Feminism, trends within Critical Race theory. All of these trends express themselves in this obsession with identity. That’s why I think it’s hypocritical for people who were part of that to complain about the censoriousness of the new generation. They want to wash their hands of this younger generation, but it’s only following the logic of arguments that were made in the 60s and 70s.
Greg Scorzo: Are you someone who rejects the idea that any word should be prohibited, as part of our etiquette norms?
Joanna Williams: Absolutely. Very few words are formally banned, but self-censorship often does the job that a formal ban would do. That’s why people who fight for free speech are not just fighting formal bands. Sometimes, as you can see with Germaine Greer, we are fighting explicitly formal bands like no-platforming. But apart from that, there’s still an inculturation of new social norms that control people’s behaviour. They control what people can and can’t say. These new social norms tend to make people always think twice before they speak. They don’t feel free to say what they believe. They police their own language, so as not to say anything that might be perceived as offensive.
Greg Scorzo: I was wondering if you would be ok, for instance, with something my dad does. My dad calls me nigger. Now, he means it affectionately. He doesn’t have any problems with black people. He’s not a racist. But he can only call me nigger indoors. He can’t call me nigger on the street because that would cause a firestorm. Would you like us to have a society where my dad can call me nigger on the street?
Joanna Williams: The really important thing for me in what you’ve just said is the fact that he’s your dad. He’s calling you nigger affectionately. I think what’s problematic with banning or prohibiting a word like nigger is you remove all context from the situation. You ignore what the person who said it intended or was actually expressing, in using that word. So for me, what’s important is that your dad is calling you nigger affectionately, as your father. I would like to see a world where he could do that in private or in public. It’s communication that’s happening between the two of you. I think the problem, at the moment, is we’re being encouraged to police even our words that ground the human bond you’re describing. The affection between a father and son is seen as less important than behaving in a way where you both use the right vocabulary.
So I think it’s really sad that your dad can’t call you nigger in public. I think it’s really sad that when you’re both out in public, your dad feels the need to police his language. That language expresses the affection he feels for you. He’s having to police himself and change his relationship to you, in public. Personally, I think that’s much more upsetting than the potential for someone to hear that word and be offended by it. If they are offended by it, they should assess the context in which it’s being said.
Greg Scorzo: So is the main problem with having etiquette prohibitions against words, that such prohibitions view words as symbols of nasty views? They see words as symbols for things they want to rid society of. Not things that have different meanings, depending on the intentions of the speaker.
Joanna Williams: I think so. Maybe this sounds a bit silly, but I think we give too much importance to words these days. One thing I blame the 1960s generation of academics for is this belief that words shape reality; that vocabulary is so powerful, that it constructs our perception of reality. Or worse, it may actually construct reality itself. So, to go back to the example you gave about your dad, the idea that the word ‘nigger’ creates racism or constructs a racist society is a consequence of that kind of thinking. The importance of words is completely overstated nowadays.
That isn’t to say that I don’t think words are important at all. Obviously, they’re important because we’re communicating with them. But the extreme importance that’s given to words and the idea that words shape and construct reality is actually very unhelpful. It completely overstates the importance of words to the extent of ignoring the material conditions of society. These conditions are far more important in determining things like equality. If you look at issues like the unequal distribution of income or unequal access to education, those things are far more important than people using offensive vocabulary.
Greg Scorzo: This, to me, is where you get mercurial and confusing…but in a good way. You say all these things that sound really libertarian and then you talk about income inequality like it’s a bad thing. Everyone assumes you must be in favour of some kind of income inequality if you’re that concerned with cultural freedom. You’re not supposed to mix wanting a social welfare state that contains income equality with all these libertarian views on speech and responsibility. Are you mixing and matching different things from wildly divergent parts of the political spectrum? Or am I just misinterpreting you?
Joanna Williams: I’m certainly not arguing that we should live in a world where everybody gets a standard wage. I wouldn’t want to live under some kind of Green Party that doles out money to everyone. There always will be income inequality. But I still think there are destructive inequalities that exist in society today. So I’d want to look at what actually causes them. I don’t think it’s the language we use.
But to be honest, I’m not convinced that we have any kind of oppression going on in the West today. I certainly don’t think women are oppressed. However, if we were to go along with the claims that feminists put forward, claims like there is a slight wage gap for women over 40, that gap isn’t caused by words. It’s not caused by a solicitor referring to another solicitor as ‘stunning.’ I think you have to actually look at what the material conditions are which shape people’s lives. Like, do women over 40 have access to childcare when their children are of nursery age? What are the material conditions that shape the reality of what people experience? That’s more important than language.
Greg Scorzo: So it sounds like there are certain conceptions of economic equality that you like. You’re not a stereotypical libertarian, in that sense.
Joanna Williams: I’ve never described myself as a libertarian. I suppose, in thinking about equality, I’m someone who would want to see equality of opportunity for everyone. Not necessarily equality of outcome. Education is something that’s very important to me. I would like to see every child in the country have the most fantastic knowledge based education. I think every child should have access to Shakespeare. Now, you obviously can’t learn Shakespeare for them. You can’t guarantee that they will all take away the same messages from reading Shakespeare or read it with the same levels of understanding. But giving every child the opportunity to learn Shakespeare is something I believe in very strongly.
The problem is, nowadays, lots of people imbued with identity politics argue the opposite. They argue for equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. They say “Why should a working class black girl have to learn Shakespeare? Isn’t it much better for her to have something in which she can see herself and her own experiences?” There, they are denying the basic equality of opportunity that I would support. They’re doing that because they’re trying to secure some kind of vaguely defined equality of outcome. Whereas I would want precisely the opposite. I say give everyone the best opportunities. But that means no guarantees whatsoever regarding equality of outcome. I completely accept that you’re not going to get equality of outcome.
Greg Scorzo: Do you think one of the problems with identity politics is it’s proponents cite inequalities of outcome as evidence of discrimination? They overlook that inequalities of outcome are what you would expect to see, given equalities of opportunity.
Joanna Williams: I think that’s right. This is the big irony of identity politics. I obviously don’t like identity politics but I think celebrating a diversity of different people with different strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, experiences, and interests is a good thing. I think it makes life more interesting. Whereas when you focus on equality of outcome, it makes the world a more boring place. I think it’s important to recognise that different people are not going to always want the same outcomes in life. This is another one of my problems with Feminism.
I think Feminism really denies women their choices. There’s an assumption within Feminism that there’s a correct set of choices to make. Any woman who decides she wants to pose topless or stay at home and look after her children is either making the wrong choices or making those choices because she’s been conditioned by patriarchy. My position is that you should give everyone equal opportunities and provide the conditions in which people can make whatever choices they wish. But after that, don’t look down on the many choices women can make. If a woman decides she wants to stay home and look after children, or pose on page 3, or take up pole dancing, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.
Greg Scorzo: What’s interesting about Feminism is that many feminists will agree with you. In fact, a lot of them will respond to you by saying, “But not all feminists look down on women for staying at home. We have sex positive Feminists. You’re stereotyping Feminism, based on it’s most shrill and extreme elements.” How would you respond to that kind of objection?
Joanna Williams: I think part of the problem is that feminists break Feminism down into a million different sub-ideologies. You’ve got “white woman Feminism,” “black woman Feminism,” and millions of other kinds. So whenever you criticise Feminism, people are quick to say, “Oh, that’s the wrong kind of Feminism. That’s not real Feminism. Real Feminism is the good kind.” I don’t really buy into this idea that there’s a good Feminism and a bad Feminism. I think if you genuinely believe in equality for men and women, if your concern is with humanity, then you don’t need Feminism. There just isn’t a good type of Feminism. That’s not to say that there never was, at one point. But today, I think if you’re concerned with equality and humanity, there’s no good type of Feminism.
Greg Scorzo: So then, do you have a problem with the sort of feminist who agrees with everything you say, but still calls herself a feminist?
Joanna Williams: Yes, I do. It’s obviously not a major problem. I know that may sound a bit petty. At the end of the day, I think people should be able to call themselves what they like. You can attach whatever label to yourself that you want.
I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to pick an argument with someone who agrees with me on most things but still decides to call themselves a feminist. But I would wonder why there is a need in them to use that label. Again, I guess it comes from something you see very strongly in identity politics today. People have a strong need to attach labels to themselves. You know, “I’m Libertarian. I’m a Feminist. I’m a Humanist. I’m a Socialist. I’m a Liberal.” Or whatever the label happens to be. Up to a point, I just think those labels are very unhelpful. The reason why I don’t attach political labels like that to myself is that the meaning of those terms are always changing.
The vocabulary for describing political positions is always changing. In the past, I have at various points called myself a Socialist, a Communist, a Marxist, and a Feminist.
Greg Scorzo: Me too.
Joanna Williams: Every time I call myself one of those things, the world changes and then the meaning of that term changes. I may still think the same thing, but what’s now meant by the word I’m using completely confuses things. That’s why I’m loathe to attach any labels to myself.
Greg Scorzo: I know what you mean. I was calling myself a feminist back in 1998. I would never call myself that now. Now, that movement seems to be totally at odds with everything I think about gender. But it seemed like in the 90s, there was a big space within Feminism to think something sort of like what you think. Now, that space is largely gone. Feminists who think like you are hardly representative of Feminism.
Joanna Williams: Absolutely. It’s not just Feminism but Environmentalism that’s also played a big part in this. They’ve really lowered people’s expectations. The idea of a left-wing politics that believes in the potential of people, that believes in human progress, that believes in technology, the potential to make a better world for everyone, all of that’s completely gone now. I can remember a left-wing politics that genuinely believe in freedom and autonomy for people. It didn’t view people as fragile little flowers.
Greg Scorzo: In your work, it feels like you’re promoting an idea which sounds something like this: “People are too soft today. They need to be more psychologically resilient. They need to be able to take more criticism. They need to stop fetishising vulnerability. They need to be able to hear upsetting things and cope with that. That’s what you need to live in a liberal democracy and have free speech.”
Joanna Williams: Actually, I wouldn’t say that my view is that people need to toughen up and be more resilient. I think people actually are much tougher than they are given credit for being. I think students can go and listen to Germaine Greer without becoming violent transphobes who want to go out and beat up transgender people. I think people can listen to Nigel Farage talking without becoming immediately xenophobic and wanting to go out and beat up refugees. So it’s not so much that I’m saying people are too soft. I’m saying that people are already capable of hearing arguments and engaging in debates. We don’t need to protect them from that. We don’t need to turn the world into a safe space. In fact, we don’t need any safe spaces at all, if we’re talking about debates happening in public spaces or at universities.
One thing I find very reassuring is that students who call for bans on certain speech get a lot of attention in the press. But in actual fact, they’re a relatively small proportion of the student body. The vast majority of students just roll their eyes at them. They don’t agree with most of the decisions that get made on behalf of these activists. The vast majority of students are fairly sensible. It’s the student leaders who are at the forefront of calling for consent classes, safe spaces, and bans.
But as far as self-censorship is concerned, I do acknowledge that things are psychologically complicated. It’s difficult to point to that moment at which you self-censor. Maybe it’s something you do in the same way you instinctively follow certain etiquette norms. Whatever it is, there are all sorts of pressures in academia that encourage self-censorship. It comes out of the whole idea of students as consumers, the idea that students should be “satisfied” with the university experience. I don’t know how familiar you are with what goes on at universities, but after every module, you have to give students what’s called a “student evaluation sheet.”
Greg Scorzo: I know what you’re talking about. I taught Philosophy for five years. I tried very hard to balance getting get good student evaluations with being a good teacher.
Joanna Williams: With student evaluation sheets, the students are evaluating you. Not just your teaching, but your personality. The students are judging you as a person. You’ve got things like the National Students Survey, which are really really important to universities. Universities are incredibly concerned with how they rank in the National Students Survey. This survey is just a very crude measure of student satisfaction. But it puts an incredible amount of pressure on both the university and academics working within it. So if, as a lecturer, you’re number one priority is to make sure that your students are satisfied, you have to consider things like safe spaces and trigger warnings. You’ll be less inclined to include topics or texts or ideas you can predict will upset even a few of your students. And you don’t upset students, mind you, by just being offensive. You can upset students by giving them material or ideas that they just find quite difficult.
If upsetting students is such an important thing to look out for, the easiest thing to do is to teach in a way where you never challenge them. It’s so sad. Many academics construct their courses around appeasing students without even recognising that they are self-censoring in this way. They think they’re just being pragmatic. They think they’re just being sensible. I think this is why, in some ways, a much better word to describe what’s going on is “conformity.” What trends like “student satisfaction sheets” do is encourage academics to just fall in line, teach in a very standardised way, to teach content that’s not going to upset or worry anyone, and especially not challenge anyone.
You can see this in the REF (Research Excellency Framework) that we have in Britain. What the REF does is basically tell academics: “These are the top journals in your field. If you want to have a good score in the REF, you want to be published in these journals.” So the easy thing to do is have a look at what kinds of issues are covered in those journals, what positions will be seen as plausible by the journal referees, and write material with the aim of impressing those referees. This just encourages conformity.
Greg Scorzo: So it seems like you’re taking issue with universities for encouraging certain behaviours. Suppose someone said: “It doesn’t matter what the university encourages academics to do. It’s the responsibility of academics to do what they ought to do, independently of those encouragements. Hence, it’s better to talk about what academics actually do in the face of pressure, then it is to just complain about the pressure. It’s more important for someone to resist conformity, then whether or not they have any pressure to conform. So you should blame the conforming academics. Not the university.” How would you respond to that objection?
Joanna Williams: I have a lot of sympathy for that, actually. I suppose people could point at me and say that I’m in the academy, and I’m speaking out and being critical of it’s norms. But all I can say is it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all.
I do what I do because I’m bloody minded and obnoxious. So I carry on with what I’m doing. But I think it’s much harder for people who aren’t necessarily in my position, in terms of their material circumstances. If you’ve got young children and a mortgage to pay and you’re on a two year temporary contract, can you stand there and say: “I’m going to resist this pressure. I’m going to ignore all these demands to have satisfied students, to meet the requirements of peer review.” Do you have the freedom, in that position, to say: “I completely resent this. I don’t like having to change my teaching so that students are satisfied.
Someone in that position wants to be employed in two years time. They need to get a promotion. They know that in order to get that promotion, they have to jump through particular hoops. So they have to make sure their students are satisfied. They have to make sure that peer reviewers give them a positive appraisal.
Of course, you can criticise individuals for succumbing to these pressures. But I think ultimately, there is a problem with academia that needs to be talked about. I think it’s just too difficult these days for academics to really be non-conformist. In the past you could be a bit quirky, a bit different. You could be a bit idiosyncratic. Nowadays, the pressure to stay in line is so much stronger. I think what I am admittedly hesitant to criticise is the particular decisions that individual academics make on a daily basis. However, the fact that academics have let so many of these things in the university happen is important to draw attention to. Academics who are in very secure, well paid positions go along with these pressures. They go along with them, when they, of all people, have the freedom to be more critical. They tend to think, “How can we play this game? What are the rules? How can we win? How can we play it in the most efficient way possible?” I think successful academics have to take a lot of responsibility for that.
Greg Scorzo: Another thing you talk about in your book is the idea that we need to have lots of different ideas at university, battling against each other. No issue should be beyond discussion or criticism. For that, you need to have a lot of ideological diversity in the university. You can’t have the university being an activist platform.
Joanna Williams: That’s right.
Greg Scorzo: Does this view imply that the university should be politically neutral?
Joanna Williams: That’s a difficult question to answer. When we talk about university, it means three different things. There’s the university as an institution; that’s the buildings, the managers, and the framework. But then there’s the individual academics. And thirdly, you have the students. That’s who makes up the university community. I don’t think academics should be politically neutral because that actually infringes upon their academic freedom. I wouldn’t be in favour of enforcing some kind of dictat that says, “You’re aren’t allowed to express political views.” Obviously, I’ve never held back from expressing my own political views. I think the problem nowadays is that instead of a divergence of views in the university, you have a coalescing around particular view points. What that means is that students are unlikely to hear more than a narrow range of view points at university. So I don’t think there’s any problem with individual lecturers expressing their view points in the classroom. Students are adults. Moreover, it would be particularly dishonest of lecturers to deny having particular political views points on the topics they teach.
However, it’s only ok to express your opinions, as long as you don’t present them as knowledge. They have to be presented as opinions. Many academics don’t present their opinions as opinions. They present them as values and the values wind up replacing the knowledge, in the way the knowledge is taught. If you look, for example, at some courses covering geography and development, sustainability is a big topic. To my mind, sustainability is a value. It’s not a body of knowledge. It may be a good decision one can make. One may decide they’d like to go down the road of sustainability, having assessed all the facts about particular issues. But you might also decide nuclear power is the better decision, given a careful consideration of those same facts. But that’s not how sustainability is taught. Sustainability is taught as though it’s a fact rather than a value. So students are actually denied the opportunity to make up their own minds regarding sustainability. Unless they write pro-sustainability essays and exams, they won’t good good marks.
Greg Scorzo: Do you think what you’ve just articulated is itself a value?
Joanna Williams: Yes, of course. The universalism I advocate is an important value. Academic freedom is something I think of as an important value. But I would like to think academic freedom allows for a divergence of view points to be held. I think it’s the superior value, of course, because it doesn’t curtail debate. It opens up debate. It doesn’t curtail discussion. It opens up who can take part in discussion.
Greg Scorzo: So do you think academic freedom is one of the few values that universities should take an affirmative stand on?
Joanna Williams: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think you can have higher education in any meaningful sense without academic freedom. A university without academic freedom isn’t a university. It’s a school. This is because academic freedom is absolutely essential to the pursuit of knowledge. If you don’t have academic freedom, you just can’t pursue knowledge in any meaningful sense.
Greg Scorzo: So with freedom, especially academic freedom, comes an element of risk. With academic freedom, there’s the risk that you might go to university and come away with the wrong views. You might come away wreaking havoc on the world, rather than somebody who leaves uni ready to make the world a much better place.
Joanna Williams: That’s right.
Greg Scorzo: So a big difference between you and identity politics people is they seem to think that real education involves becoming informed on how to do good. Not being given tools that you can potentially use badly in the way you live your life.
Joanna Williams: What the identity politics people are describing isn’t something I would call education. I would call it indoctrination. It’s indoctrination because there’s a pre-determined concept of what is good about the world. I’m not going to sit here and make any judgements about what I think is a good way for people to live their lives. I think what’s good is for people to determine that for themselves, preferably in conjunction with others, through debate and dialogue. But I don’t have a pre-determined philosophical outlook that I want to impose on others. I’m not telling people, “you must recycle your chip wrapper! You must use a poly-styrene cup! You must talk to women in this particular way! You must attend consent classes! You must negotiate a sexual relationship by following this particular script!” I want people to have more freedom to work those things out for themselves.
Greg Scorzo: What would you say to someone who says: “It’s lovely, in theory, to talk about how all ideas should be contested, how there should be no final pronouncements. But in order for the world to work, in order for science to get done, in order for history to get recorded and taught, in order for medicine to advance, in order for buildings to get built, you have to assume some discussions are just over. And if anybody challenges the dominant assumptions about those discussions, you’ve just gotta ignore them. You’ve gotta write off those challenges, assuming they’re coming from loonies and cranks.”
Joanna Williams: I actually would agree. For example, in America, if you’re teaching a biology course and you’ve got a teacher who wants to teach creationism or a student that demands it be taught, I think one is absolutely entitled to say, “No. Creationism has been disproven.” You can make this claim by citing a body of knowledge. This is the beauty of academic freedom. Historically, academic freedom is the reason evolution won out over the arguments presented by creationists. I think there is a case for saying to people, “If you want to argue for creationism, go ahead. Don’t do it at the university. In the university, we have enough knowledge to say that this debate is over; evolution has won.“
I think the problem though is that a lot of the debates that the university makes conclusive statements about aren’t actually conclusive. In other words, the sense that they have been settled isn’t warranted by the knowledge that’s actually there. The debates haven’t yet been won. You can see that, for example, in the Environmentalism debate. Global warming, I don’t think has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Even if just a small percentage of competent scientists believe that there are reasons to be skeptical, its worth having those arguments out. Once more, even if the debates on global warming have proved that global warming is real, what hasn’t and never can be proven is what we should do with that knowledge.
The problem in higher education is people go from, “Global warming is real” to “We need to go down the route of sustainability.” Or “We need to turn the clock back.” Or “We need to stop industrial progress.”
Greg Scorzo: Yes, some of them take it as a given that humanity can only survive efficiently if we live in a giant agrarian farm. It’s like the left’s version of austerity.
Joanna Williams: It is. I think it’s always better to say, “Ok, if global warming is a problem, let’s look at technological solutions that we could employ to ameliorate the impact of global warming.” Again, I think this comes back down to the separation of knowledge and values. If you have a discussion about why global warming is real, this says nothing about the values you should employ in solving the problem of global warming. Values are not facts. Values should be discussed and debated.