Vile Abuse is Now Tolerated in Our Universities – Nigel Biggar | The Times UK

Vile Abuse is Now Tolerated in Our Universities

Nigel Biggar | The Times UK

The spitting hatred I suffered over my views on empire shows our democratic values are in peril

OMG, this is serious shit. We need to SHUT THIS DOWN”. So ran one of the earliest tweets to greet the news of the launch of my “Ethics and Empire” project last December. And there was more where that came from: my scholarship was “supremacist shite”, I was a “racist” and a “bigot”, and whatever came out of my mouth was “vomit”.        

All this in reaction to my modest view that “empire” can mean a variety of things, is capable of good as well as evil, raises ethical questions worth thinking about, and requires sophisticated moral evaluation.

Incontinent abuse on Twitter is, sadly, so common as to be unremarkable. But this was remarkable, since its author is a senior academic at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities.

When I discovered this, I decided to write to the relevant heads of college and faculty. I had no complaint about being at the sharp end of criticism, for that comes with the academic territory.

Besides, in this case there was none to complain about: Criticism requires an objection supported by reasons, but these tweets didn’t rise above the level of spitting hatred.

No, my complaint was about the uncivil manner.

I held that this was an inappropriate way for one academic colleague to express disagreement with another and, more important, that it was an appalling example to set students. I could have added that, if a university teacher is seen to treat an academic peer with such hissing contempt, then intimidated students are likely to be discouraged from speaking their dissenting minds.

So, what did the two heads plan to do about it? Nothing.

Neither could bring themselves to say that the Twitter conduct I reported was wrong. One hinted that it wasn’t “as temperate as one might hope for”. The other kept entirely clear of moral judgment, arguing that such speech is simply conventional for its medium, albeit in tension with “accepted manners or styles of address” in more traditional contexts.

Neither touched the issue of a teacher’s responsibility to model behaviour. Both defended their colleague’s legal right to behave as she did, invoking “freedom within the law”.

The problem with this is that we can’t live by law alone. For if we tried, civil society would not long remain civil, and civil peace would not survive at all. That’s because all sorts of wrong can be done legally.

Within limits, it’s no crime to be grossly unkind, unfair, mendacious, contemptuous or vindictive.That doesn’t mean it’s morally OK. It just means that the police and the courts don’t have the power to counter every form of injustice — or that, if they did have the power, the state would be dangerously intrusive.

So, if one person abuses his legal freedom to spray others with provocative vitriol, and if they then react by availing themselves of the same liberty, what will happen? Sooner than later, WAR.

For sure, it seems a long way from online aggro to blood on the senior common room’s carpet. It’s conceivable that we could behave with vicious abandon on Twitter but exercise virtuous self-restraint in the tutorial or seminar or committee meeting.

But we’d be naive to depend on it. After all, we’re creatures of habit, taking our characters with us from one social context to another.

Therefore, if we haven’t learnt to restrain ourselves so as to be capable of doing justice in one place, then the chances are that we’ll show ourselves incapable of it in others.

Even the faculty head acknowledged this social seepage, albeit in studiously amoral terms, when he wrote that “unfortunately, contemporary modes of communication now cut across and into more traditional formats with the consequence that what heretofore has been widely accepted as appropriate forms of speech for civil society are now being challenged”.

What’s more, if the distance from Twitter abuse to blood on dons’ carpets seems reassuringly long, then a recent statement by the Metropolitan Police commissioner should shorten it.

Commenting on the upsurge of lethal stabbings in London, Cressida Dick observed a direct causal connection between social media and murder, claiming that the febrile online atmosphere was among the factors responsible for rising knife crime.

Learning the habits of self-restraint is not only important for peace on campus or the streets. It’s also vital for the survival of democracy.

In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democratic institutions need more than constitutional law to function. Crucially, they need informal social norms of forbearance to prevent political rivals from becoming mortal enemies — for then “political competition descends into warfare, and our institutions turn into weapons”.

To wit, we really can’t afford to offload the task of maintaining social peace on to the courts. We can’t afford to affirm the legal right to free speech while refusing to uphold the social norm of forbearance.

All institutions of civil society have a social obligation to require civility from their members, so that, trained to contain themselves, they’re capable of not trampling over other people and breaking the law.

Among those institutions are universities, but, if the response to my complaint is typical, then they are abdicating their responsibility.

Nigel Biggar is regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford

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