PROFESSOR ERIC KAUFMANN: Universities are terrified of free speech

Universities have become so terrified of free speech I’ve launched a Faculty of Common Sense, writes PROFESSOR ERIC KAUFMANN who was hounded out of his job at the University of London 

Woke ideology has a way of generating phrases that send a shiver down the spine.  To me in particular, one chilling dictum sums up the dogma: ‘The process is the punishment.’

What does it mean? That merely being investigated for speaking out against hard-Left orthodoxy is itself a kind of torment. Academics don’t have to be guilty of any professional misdemeanour. The accusation of a thoughtcrime alone is sufficient to inflict anxiety and fear, silence opposition and impose obedience.

This week, in her first speech as Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Professor Irene Tracey referred to a survey from last year. This found that, while there may be strong agreement in the abstract that free speech should be protected in universities, only a paltry 20 per cent of those who took part agreed that universities should allow all ideas and opinions to be expressed even if some people might feel ‘threatened’ as a result of them.

As Professor Tracey warned: ‘This highlights one of the tasks we have: making sure that free speech happens within the bounds of civility, intellectual rigour and the law.’

Her attitude emphasising limits on free speech is troubling. The pendulum has swung too far already — as I know to my cost — with free speech under assault as never before. As a former professor at University of London, I spent years battling woke forces within the institution determined to hound me out after two decades of employment for daring to question hardline ‘progressive’ beliefs.

The accusation of a thoughtcrime alone is sufficient to inflict anxiety and fear, silence opposition and impose obedience, writes Eric Kaufmann (pictured)

Wokery on the march: This photo was from a student protest at Oxford University in June 2020

In all, I was subjected to three internal inquiries by the university and, although a non-disclosure agreement bars me from discussing them in any detail, I can tell you they made my life intolerable.

So what exactly was my supposed offence? As former head of the politics department at London’s Birkbeck college, in recent years I had repeatedly criticised the illiberal excesses of self-appointed defenders of ‘identity groups’ such as racial minorities and trans people. This had angered some staff and students.

It seemed inevitable that my research — which included, for example, investigating whether academics make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s support for Brexit — would eventually raise the hackles of the ‘Ethics Committee’.

This body is now standard in most Western universities, but its decisions are coming to echo the warnings of dystopian writers such as George Orwell and Franz Kafka. At Birkbeck, the committee had the power to censor my research or even put it on indefinite hold.

I’m now 53 and, after nearly 30 years in this field, my challenging of Left-wing ideology has increasingly marked me out among my colleagues.

Previously, that didn’t bother me: universities are meant to be places of free inquiry and robust debate. I always conducted my work with scrupulous open-mindedness, but these days an open mind and a tendency to look at inconvenient facts can get an academic into trouble.

By the mid-2010s, I was aware that the atmosphere was changing quickly, first at U.S. universities and, by 2017, in Britain, too. A new and alarming fundamentalism has come to surround identity politics in particular.

Let me illustrate this with a statement by one of America’s most famous Ivy League colleges: ‘We envision a Princeton University community of practice that affirms, uplifts, and celebrates women, femme [gay women whose appearance and behaviour are seen as traditionally feminine], trans and queer people, and that actively resists sexism, cissexism [believing that ‘cis’ people’s gender identity is more natural than trans people’s], heteronormativity [prioritising heterosexuality over homosexuality] and other intersecting forms of oppression on campus and beyond.’

In all, I was subjected to three internal inquiries by the university and, although a non-disclosure agreement bars me from discussing them in any detail, I can tell you they made my life intolerable, writes Kaufmann (pictured clearing his desk on last day at University of London)

Some of this might appear reasonable enough: What is wrong with ‘celebrating’ women, trans or queer people?

But the stilted language and terminology used will sound bizarre to anyone outside academia — and yet it is now the dominant ideology among many young people, and it is effectively forbidden to question it. One simply may not even ask, for example, whether children should be permitted or even persuaded to undergo ‘gender reassignment’ surgery, or to consider whether the Black Lives Matter movement is partly a cover for anti-white or anti-capitalist feeling.

I liken it to religious extremism. Anyone who tries to argue with the preacher is, by definition, a heretic — and heresy is absolute.

I date the start of the campaign against me to 2018, when I wrote a book called Whiteshift, about populism, immigration and the future of white majorities in the population of countries such as the U.S. and my home country, Canada.

It made no difference to my howling critics on social media that I come from a multicultural family: I’m half central European Jewish, one quarter Chinese and one quarter Costa Rican. Born in Hong Kong, I spent much of my childhood in Tokyo before moving to Vancouver. (And I’m a specialist in the history of Protestant politics in Northern Ireland to boot.)

The woke heretic-hunters deal not in facts but in emotions — and any book that failed to match their own views on white populism and immigration was bound to provoke an emotional response.

Around the same time, I was invited to take part in a public debate titled Is Rising Ethnic Diversity A Threat To The West?

This was by no means some Enoch Powell-esque crusade against mass immigration. My colleagues were to include the liberal journalist David Aaronovitch and Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, who happens to be black.

Yet to some at Birkbeck, the very idea of even holding such a debate was intolerable. One of them, a newly arrived lecturer who specialised in ‘race theory’, emailed me informing me that, as head of the department, I should not take part in this debate. I thought it was outrageous that a junior academic believed she had the moral right to dictate to her department head what he — or indeed anyone — could or could not talk about in public.

Using claims of ’emotional harm’ to engage in political blackmail, as she did, is against the spirit of free speech and freedom of association.

Yet this academic believed not only that she was justified in her actions, but that she was acting under an almost religious imperative. She kept a laundry list of my perceived infractions throughout her time at Birkbeck, including my use of the ‘language of incitement’ in a 2019 book review I wrote, in which I hoped to ‘slay the dragon’ of Leftist dogma.

An open letter to the Master of Birkbeck called for me to be fired for my supposed ‘defence of white identity politics and [my] countless attacks against Black Lives Matter and other activists and scholars of colour on social media’.

In 2021, the Birkbeck Students Anti-Racist Network piled in, claiming my use of the phrase ‘woke hijacking’ was a dog-whistle to white supremacists. In their efforts to cancel me, they began the X (formerly Twitter) hashtag #KaufmannOut.

This and other vague charges went into my opponents’ dossier, to be used as evidence of my transgressions in my next heresy trial.

My subsequent offence was more frivolous. In 2021, I tweeted a jibe at Canada’s ultra-woke prime minister Justin Trudeau, when he stumbled repeatedly over the rather clumsy acronym LGBTQ2+. He couldn’t get this ever-expanding sequence in the proper order, which made me laugh — and my laughter was treated as a hate-crime.

Similarly, it was apparently beyond the pale for me to ask why a fitness magazine used a plus-size model as its cover star, as one did in the U.S. last year. The social media storm that followed spiralled into allegations of racism because the model was black.

Many academics, having seen what happens to dissenters like me, are self-censoring their work, for fear of being publicly shamed or losing their careers.

And it was this fear that finally sparked my desire to leave Birkbeck. At last, now free of the strictures on free speech in higher education, I’ve launched a new, online course open to the public at the University of Buckingham’s Centre of Heterodox Social Science. Its title is: Woke: The Origins, Dynamics And Implications Of An Elite Ideology.

My goal is to help restore truth, trust and balance to academic life. Woke fundamentalism is an assault on freedom of thought, and the loss of that freedom cripples the truth-seeking mission of any university. We must confront it.

  •  Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Produced A Cultural Revolution, by Eric Kaufmann, will be published next year by Forum Press.

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