Dear Mr Columnist, dear Mr Politician: please keep off my uni

In 2014 I was informed by a group of activist friends that Mr Godfrey Bloom had been invited to a debate by the Union Society of Durham University, where I was doing my PhD at the time. I knew absolutely nothing about Mr Godfrey Bloom back then and learnt in the few weeks that followed about his political stances and ideas. Mr Bloom had then been invited to a debate about feminism, an ideology which he loathes with great passion, and the activists organised a rally to denounce the invitation of this gentleman on the campus, claiming we ought to give “no room for bigoted Bloom”. I completely agreed with this notion, as I was frankly shocked that the sole debate on feminism organised by the Union Society that year should be framed in masculinist terms (the title was “This House believes it’s a woman’s world”). I will not enter the details of how women and feminist activists were treated during this debate, as Angela Towers has already done it in details. I think this rally was a very good thing, and frankly the only answer we could have had to that insulting debate. Yet I was left pondering in the following weeks if I had not been a part of a bit of a show that afternoon. The smirks of Bloom and his admirers from the Union Society, seeing they had managed to get a protest to their little masculinist shindig left me with that impression: they had done it, they would be talked about. In bad terms, but talked about anyway. The script had been followed perfectly: a scandaleous public figure with nothing new to add to the debate had been invited, demonstrators had gathered, the press (on this occasion, “merely” the student newspaper, but the press anyway) had come, the usual debate on freedom of speech had been held on the margin of the event.

freedom-of-speech-megaphone2

Inviting media stars

I have seen that script time and again since I started my studies. I remember seeing the change of the guests we invited in the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Aix-en-Provence where I was a student between 2008 and 2013. In 2008 and 2009, the “Committees” (the equivalent of a Union Society) almost only invited scholars, occasionally activists or journalists, to discuss questions more or less attached to public debates (the libertarian analysis of the 2008 economic crisis, the notion of “freedom of the press” in the context of private ownership of the press, the history and application of the concept of “popular education” in France or the interest of Gaullism in the 21st century are among those I remember the most of that period). As a member of one of those “Committees”, I remember that the Institut actually rejected our proposal to invite a member of the EELV political party, months before the European elections, in a panel about environment in the region, because she might have decided to run and the Head was strictly opposed to propaganda or campaigns being run in his school. Two years later, the situation had entirely changed: the now single “Committee”invited two declared candidates to the Presidential election of 2012 for conferences. In parallel, the number of non-political guests dropped (and this was even more sensitive in the case of academic guests), to the point that the “Committee” now does not even mention academic guests anymore in its leaflets. Instead of the little-known academics we tried to invite, the goal is now to openly invite “bankable” guests both in terms of audience and media. Such cases are not the monopoly of the IEP of Aix-en-Provence: in certain cases (which I will not name), student-led academic seminar organisers have mentioned being encouraged to invite guests who “could talk of everything” on “hot” topics, to bring in an audience and potentially get a paper in the local student newspaper, or even better local press. One could have thought that the goal of a university would be to invite relevant specialists on interesting topics and, potentially, to bring in that small added value of “learning something the audience did not know before coming to the event” which is supposedly the aim of an event in a university. But apparently not.

Of course, students are not lobotomised and do protest when grotesque guests are invited: when Marine le Pen came at Aix in 2012, we rallied, as we did in Durham in 2014. Recently, student have found creative ways of protesting by explicitly leaving the room when a conservative “polemist” was invited to a panel in Brunel University. Very insightfully, the president of Brunel’s Student Union asked in an article:

In the current social media climate, where everyone is provided an online platform to speak, do we need to have a serious conversation, as a student movement and a society, on how we deal with online trolls?

These are people who make their living by deliberately saying belligerent and offensive statements. Katie Hopkins is the physical manifestation of these trolls and we should not be providing the oxygen to her fire.

So we have to ask ourselves: Is inviting someone who has no intellectual or political credibility providing any valuable intellectual nuance to debates in our society? At a time when we must be discussing how we do more for disabled people, is this a valuable addition to debate?

I believe it to be exactly the question. And I believe the answer is: we [universities] are not here for inviting TV stars or politicians.

 

What universities are for

In principle, universities are places for learning. They provide resources, access, and occasions to discuss their work for people interested in the study of various topics. This is a broad definition of what a university is supposed to be: a place for knowledge. Call me a traditionalist, but I am very attached to the image of the university as a temple of and for knowledge. Ideally a priest-less temple which doors have been bashed open with a battering ram, and which has been claimed by the mob as its own, but a temple anyway.

And as such, a university is the main place where experts, scientists, and researchers are not only to be invited, but also to be found. Coming to a debate, a panel, a seminar, a public lecture, or a conference at the university should be the occasion to learn something new, to hear a debate on a topic which at least touches academic questions. I remember seeing people who were not at all students coming to certain panels and leaving them with comments of how satisfied they were of having actually learnt something. By no means does this mean we should close the “ivory tower”: the obstacles that prevent “the general audience” to access the university, especially in its public events, should be brought down, including the tendency for scientists to talk in obscure or difficult ways when things could be said straightforwardly. Practitioners, non-academics, witnesses have their place in universities as such. Even non-formalised expertise, the experience acquired in “ordinary” situations, have their place in universities. Students want to meet with practitioners of the various worlds they study, and they should: it is a good occasion of having a different gaze from that of their teachers on these worlds, it is an occasion of meeting with potential employers, it is also the occasion to be confronted to practice in a critical manner (I have seen excellent dialogues between students and practitioners, or even occasions where the students would turn a conference into a collective sociological interview). This is all desireable.

But, as pointed out by the leader of Brunel’s Student Union, what is the interest of bringing politicians or polemists in universities? We never learnt anything from these panels. We never walked out the room with anything new. We just saw yet another act in the mediatic tragicomedy of “the public debate”. This is not what universities are for. I fully acknowledge that these events bring people to universities. Butzthey serve them nothing. They are almost insulting to people who take it upon themselves to come to the university and are in return served a fraudulent product: a cover version of what they get all day, from their television to their newspaper. They could write the speeches they are going to hear in advance. I fail to see how it is supposed to be “respectful” to the audience to invite it to an event which has for base rock the notion that the audience is unable to comprehend critical thought. As such I remember, still in Durham University, being invited in 2015 at an event organised by sociologists on poverty in the UK, a few hundred yards from where Mr Bloom had been debating. This was a very “academic” event, with researchers presenting research papers and discussing scientific theories and findings. At least a third of the audience consisted in people from Durham, not included in the university who had heard of the event through the researchers, and took part in the discussion. I fail to see how we would not be insulting these people by assuming they cannot assist to that type of debates. And yet, at the contrary of the Bloom debate, the Mélenchon debate, or the Le Pen debate, no information had been given to “the general audience” about that event.

Let’s talk about freedom of speech

Let me get things straight immediately: what I am saying here is in no way an attack on TV (or any other form of media) polemists’ or politicians’ freedom of speech. I believe in absolute freedom of speech, and I believe both politicians and polemists get a lot of freedom of speech without coming to colonise my university. If I want to know Mr Godfrey Bloom’s ideas on women, I can very easily access them without going to a panel in the university: the man has plenty of access to the television, to newspapers, to the radio. As do Ms Katie Hopkins, Mr Eric Zemmour, Ms Marine le Pen, Mr François Bayrou, and Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon (only to quote the last names I have heard being invited to panels or conferences in universities). I have never heard of an event when one of these fine people was invited in which the audience went out of the room with an added bit of knowledge they lacked previously. They came because they knew what the speaker was going to say beforehand. They came to the show, to “see the beast” live.

A person whose freedom of speech should be discussed here would on the contrary be that of, for instance, Dr Mohamed Kamel Doraï, specialist of refugees’ migrations between the Middle East and Europe, who is not being invited while Ms Katie Holmes comes to tell students how to best poke holes in inflatable boats. Another person could be Pr Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, specialist of questions of citizenship in France and who does not get invited when Mr Eric Zemmour comes to sell his unsourced and professionally catastrophic book on the French identity and how it got destroyed by TV cartoon shows. When Ms Le Pen is invited to talk about the history of the extreme-right, a topic on which she has absolutely no knowledge whatsoever and which is only a sock puppet for a political rally, I can think of at least a dozen grad students, researchers, or experts who never get any audience except in specialists TV or radio shows and would bring the audience considerable critical knowledge on the question. And inviting Mr Jean-Luc Mélenchon to sell his book, for which he already was invited on most important TV and radio talk shows, also takes some potential space for specialists of the question of the people, citizenship, democracy, and constitutional reform in France.

Letting people who already have almost daily access to the media colonise universities and turn them into extensions of an arena which is already massively publicised does not only insult an audience who may want to come to the universities and maybe would like, sometimes, to hear something else than the usual provocative, thoughtless, elections-centred discussions, it is also an attack on freedom of speech. The freedom of speech is an empty concept if it does not apply to everyone: why should my colleague who is working very hard to provide more knowledge about refugees not only be denied access to mass media (which, as academics, they are), but also yield the one context in which they were able to present their work to someone who is already occupying most of the existing debate arenas? In what way would that be respecting freedom of speech?

Conclusion

The idea market is led by offer. People make do with what is given to them. Arguing that one has to adapt to the “bankability” of a speaker is rubbish. It is an attack on other speakers, and it is an attack on the audience: I am part of the audience, I am a citizen, and I want to hear things I would not usually hear. I don’t want to hear Katie Hopkins’ in my university. Not because she’s right wing, not because she’s a bigot, not because she’s calling on sinking the refugees’ boats, but because the university is not her damn place. And the same goes for any figure of her type, including those whose ideas I support. They have all the place they need to express their freedom of speech in columns, TV and radio interviews, shows, public debates and whatnot. Academic speech is, so far, restricted to small arenas, mostly the university. When I can go and take one of those fine people’s place and talk in their stead of what I want, I will invite them to do the same in my lane. For the moment, this is not the case, so I would be grateful, as a student and a member of the audience if they could be as polite to me as I am to them.

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