Cambridge University correctly roots free speech in ‘tolerance’ instead of ‘respect’ - Businesslive

14 December 2020 - Some claiming to love freedom may balk at celebrating Cambridge University’s resounding vote to ditch the idea of “respect” for people and ideas in favour of “tolerance” in its policy on free speech.

Michael Morris
Some claiming to love freedom may balk at celebrating Cambridge University’s resounding vote to ditch the idea of “respect” for people and ideas in favour of “tolerance” in its policy on free speech. 

Yet the outcome of the argument at one of the world’s finest universities is a signal instance of resistance against cancel culture and its pernicious reduction of the public conversation across the world by compelling adherence to narrow interests and stifling ideas.

It is worth, for a moment, to consider another great university, Oxford’s, straightforward framing of the free speech question: “Recognising the vital importance of free expression for the life of the mind, a university may make rules concerning the conduct of debate but should never prevent speech that is lawful.

“Inevitably, this will mean [being] confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive. The university must therefore foster freedom of expression within a framework of robust civility. Not all theories deserve equal respect.”

And this is the problem that, to his immense credit, stirred Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, to resist the idea of “respect” as anything like a condition for a flourishing of the life of the mind.

“A lot of people feel as if they’re living in an atmosphere where there are witch-hunts going on,” he said, “a sort of academic version of Salem in the 17th century or the McCarthyite era.”

And it’s much more than ivory-tower anxiety. David Butterfield, a fellow in classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, recently drew attention to a survey of British students that found two in five “feel their careers would be adversely affected if they expressed their own beliefs; almost half feel their lecturers would treat them differently if they expressed their views on important issues; and … more than a quarter confessed to self-censorship because they felt their views did not align with those of the university itself”.

As eloquent Cambridge alumnus Stephen Fry wrote, “[doubtless] we can all hope for respectful attitudes”, but “[a] demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt.”

A “free mind is obliged to respect only the truth”, he went on, yet the “passion and distress fomenting the debate” meant “decisions are made and policies implemented on the basis of fear rather than reason or sense”.

Cambridge might have meandered down this path of error had its council gone ahead with a policy that wrongheadedly argued for free speech under conditions guaranteeing the absence of “fear of disrespect or discrimination”; and a commitment to being “respectful of the differing opinions of others” and “respectful of the diverse identities of others”.

But Ahmed’s counterproposal changed all that, arguing instead for conditions guaranteeing the absence of “fear of intolerance or discrimination”, and being “tolerant” of other opinions and the diverse identities of others.

When it was put to the vote by members of the university’s governing body, Regent House, the result was a decisive 1,378 votes (86.9%) for the amendment in favour of tolerance to 208 for “respect”.

Those familiar with the Institute of Race Relations’s online publication, Daily Friend, will know that this same question has been vexing many in recent days.

Among those who misperceive the virtue of respect but undervalue tolerance, it may be hoped the Cambridge debate will clarify which of the two better serves people and ideas, and demonstrates greater regard for the human enterprise.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.