Content Note: this article makes mention of racism and homophobia

There are, apparently, two distinct visions of a university. There is the “truth-seeking vision”, where “frictions and rivalries” are a price worth paying in the University’s pursuit of truth. Then there is the “coddling vision”, where “equality, diversity and inclusion” and “the psychological wellbeing of its members” trump truth. This is, at least, what Cambridge’s own James Orr thinks about the matter. No prizes for guessing whether he sees himself as a “truth-seeker” or someone in need of a coddle. And no prizes for guessing what he thinks of the contemporary university. Amidst the professional coddlers who now call themselves academics, Professor Orr and his band of brothers stand alone. In their dogged commitment to free speech, they strive to bring Cambridge back to its fundamental allegiance to truth, no matter the cost.

It was in this spirit that Professor Orr, with the support of his comrades, extended a “personal” invitation to Jordan Peterson, who thus made his return to Cambridge in November of this year. Peterson’s restoration to Cambridge was nothing less than the University’s restoration to itself, if we are to believe his admirers. And it’s true that none of us had any idea that Trinity College Chapel was in fact the Wren Library, until Peterson came along. It was presumably in that same spirit that Professor Orr also hosted Charles Murray at the Cambridge branch of Trinity Forum Europe. Murray is most famous for The Bell Curve, where he complains about low-IQ women being subsidized by the state into having children, makes poverty a consequence of bad genes and endorses race science in the space of a single book. It’s hard to know which of these makes Murray “one of the most accomplished social scientists alive today”, in the words of Trinity Forum Europe. But it’s easy to see why others have called The Bell Curve a tract proposing the comprehensive revision of the American welfare state along eugenicist lines”.

“What is it that these speakers are so desperate to say freely?”

These invitations, extended for the sake of truth, have predictably upset some of the “coddled” students in the Divinity Faculty. In an open letter to the Faculty, these students have questioned how these invitations to speakers who either deny or promote structural racism, can be reconciled with the Faculty’s statement on “Race, Theology and Religion”. After news of possible links between billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel and members of the Divinity and English Faculties, these same students called for a University-wide investigation into the claims. Now, this might look like students doing what they’re supposed to do. In its collective, critical interrogation of the invitations, the letter displays the kind of rational activity that universities charge a lot of money for. Indeed, the students’ commitment to uncovering the truth is surely something Professor Orr should commend, as well as their bravery in holding their Faculty to its self-proclaimed principles?

Not so. What looks like a brave exercise of free speech is, according to Cambridge’s arbiters of free speech, “bullying and harassment”. So claims the Head of the Divinity Faculty, who released his own letter on Friday, defending Faculty members from the harassment of logical inquiry. And logical inquiry is what the open letters are about: they are concerned with establishing facts and their implications, which is why figures as diverse as John Milbank and Priyamvada Gopal support them. When the truth-seekers cause upset, it is free speech; when others exercise their free speech to challenge them, it is “bullying”. It turns out our ‘truth-seekers’ are the real snowflakes in this scenario, who confuse conflict for abuse and readily embrace victimhood, in order to shut down the conversation before it has even begun.

Behind the apparently wide-open right to “free speech” in Cambridge, there is a “doublespeak”, as “free speech” actually means the right to espouse or enable discredited and cruel ideologies without scrutiny. Indeed, one wonders whether this was ever really about free speech at all, or at least, whose free speech this was ever really about.

“The ‘free speech’ that has these views as its consummation is not reconcilable with equality, let alone diversity”

After all, what is it that these speakers are so desperate to say freely? The darlings of this particular brand of ‘free speech’ activism have a surprisingly limited set of talking points: race, gender and sexuality. Moreover, what they have to say about the issues tends toward the same end. What does their obsession with LGBTQ+ people amount to, other than a disqualification of LGBTQ+ people’s speech about themselves? From this ‘gateway’ issue, the speech of women is only a stone’s throw away. Indeed, when Peterson recently claimed that Cathy Newman was “animus possessed… by an emotion driven, argumentative spirit” during her interview with him, he negated the force of her speech, by invoking tropes of female weakness and volatility.

Finally, the slide continues toward gruesome claims about race, with the speech of one ethnic group deemed worthier of attention than another. Most institutions of higher learning have rightly consigned such pseudo-scientific racism to the dustbin of history. But apparently its advocates are worth a warm welcome in Cambridge. After all, Charles Murray’s work is straightforwardly racist in its assertion that there are genetically determined, racial differences in cognitive ability. Peterson seems more respectable on this score, merely denying the reality of institutional and structural racism.


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But appearances can be deceptive. Why are Ashkenazi Jews “radically overrepresented in positions of authority”, relative to the rest of the Caucasian population? What sounds like a question from your racist uncle is a serious question for Peterson. And the answer he gives is that there are “profound, virtually irremediable differences in people’s cognitive performance” which have a “very solid biological and heritable basis”, including a basis in ethnicity. So not only do we find a pseudo-scientific justification for anti-Semitic stereotypes, but also a hierarchy in ethnicities, with some more intelligent than others. And suddenly we find ourselves back in the most gruesome ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The “free speech” that has these views as its consummation is not reconcilable with equality, let alone diversity. It is the denial of free speech. And so, in the trade-off between ‘free speech’ and anti-racism in the Head of Department’s letter, anti-racism has disappeared. At the same time, authentically free speech, together with a university where the pursuit of knowledge is inseparable from an ever-widening plurality of perspectives, has disappeared as well. The future that our self-proclaimed truth-seekers want for our universities is a future in which neither authentic freedom, nor authentic speech, will have a home. Indeed, they will cease to be universities at all. Instead, they will be mere yes-men to a political regime where doublespeak is the order of the day, a regime that has already very much arrived. Under such a regime, it is our duty to speak freely. We will continue to do so.