Dear Vice Chancellor,
Naturally I wholehearted agree with the general aim of non-discrimination and of treating everybody with fairness, dignity, and humanity. In fact, as a moral philosopher, this has formed a large part of my life’s work. But I work in applied areas, and such laudable goals often fail. In fact, they probably fail more often than not. They need to be precisely articulated and to be worked out in concrete, workable, and practical steps. The demand to respond to allegations and demands in the face of a tight deadline, under pressure of public shaming, is regrettable to put it mildly.
A rapidly rising, and well-documented, form of harassment consists in making accusations of harassment, bullying, or other misconduct, against others. In the case where the entire body of the College stands accused, we all have the finger pointed at us. However, since there are no details given, none of us is able to offer any defence. This is unconscionable. Specifics need to be given for the sake of justice and in order for anything of any tangible benefit to come from this; the worst case scenario, which may well eventuate, is that such demands and pressures lead to a worsening situation at College.
This brings me onto one of my most immediate concerns, which is with the mental health of College members who may feel under attack. I was myself signed off sick for a month by my GP because in my particular case, I found the numerous accusatory messages I was receiving retriggered a major trauma. To be told that, simply because of an immutable characteristic, your skin colour, you are actively complicit in the deaths of black people, is psychologically very dangerous. I would question whether it is in fact against equality legislation to make such claims. I have been particularly concerned with an article in the student magazine addressed to “white” members of College, which made sweeping accusations of racism against all white people. We have a number of students with mental health concerns, and a number of students on the autism spectrum, who are liable to take such material rather literally. If we have any real racists in College, they won’t care. It’s the people who are most concerned, and most emotionally and psychologically vulnerable, who will be most impacted and possibly very distressed by this article and other such material.
It is obviously imperative for the College to have workable, fair, transparent, and effective policies and procedures on harassment and bullying, and to refer cases to the police where there is illegality. Claims of harassment are often dropped, or never pursued in the first place, because of various institutional barriers, and careful thought needs to be given to how to best implement policy. However, harassment can have a number of definitions, and clarity is needed so that College members can know when they have a case, and also know how to protect themselves against accusations. Particular difficulties arise when there is a subjective element. The current law on hate speech unfortunately, in my mind, introduces such an element, because speech can be said to constitute hate speech depending entirely on how it is interpreted by someone else, which can be a third party, not even the person to whom the speech is directed, and even when the person to whom the speech is directed explicitly denies that they see it as hate speech. This opens up anybody to the potential of such a charge being brought, and in this climate of vague accusations, we will be in very dangerous territory. There also are particular issues with definitions of transphobia. As you will no doubt know, some academics, including philosophers, have been accused of this for arguing for certain accounts of the relationship between sex and biology. There are hence questions of academic freedom involved.
There also needs to be a clear rationale and philosophy behind the various calls for diversity. What issues are being addressed? Discrimination against candidates for posts or for places? Fair representation of ethnic groups? In which case, what precisely is meant by “representation”, and who benefits, the individual concerned, the group as a whole, those students also from that group? And how are these ethnic groups categorised? (This is likely to be different in the UK than in the USA, and varies over time.) Are we pursuing equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Are the students even aware that positive discrimination in employment is illegal in the UK? How much diversity will be “enough”? What is the target reference group—the demographics of the London population, the UK population, the world population? Will the target demographics be appropriately adjusted for age? What will count as diversity, given that it seems from recent public discussion that all white people are just “white” whether they are from Lapland or Sicily, but that there is variation in views as to whether everyone else is “black”, or if “black” excludes other ethnic minorities, some of whom also stand accused of anti-black racism and complicity with white privilege. The way in which ethnic groups are categorised is in fact a topic of heated controversy.
Behind much of the recent wave of demands and accusations, there appears to lie certain notions of “representation” which need to be articulated, and there appears to lie a certain standpoint epistemology, whereby it seems to be assumed that people from certain ethnic groups have privileged access to certain knowledge claims. If so, this needs to be articulated and debated, not just assumed and accepted in an inchoate and unscrutinised form as appears at present. As a philosopher, I have a number of objections to standpoint epistemology, but it appears to be being used without question in many recent discussions of race. This has practical consequences. Will there be a demand, for instance, that all curricula are developed in conjunction with a black or ethnic minority person? Will this mean that all white staff will have to have their work scrutinised to a higher degree than non-white staff? I do not mean to be pedantic here. These are all issues that could arise indefinitely, given the requirement for permanent acknowledgement of failings at the College. What, if any, skills will those called upon to check the curricula be required to have (bearing in mind the many years of expertise that may lie behind curriculum development), or is ethnicity in and of itself a qualification?
It is apparent from recent debates that there are numerous voices of black people and people of colour who object very strongly to many of the claims and demands currently made in the wake of the BLM movement. How do we know that in conceding to these demands, the College is truly representing the wishes of its black and minority ethnic students? For example, take the demand that the College “Ensure that experiences of racism or other forms of discrimination are considered extenuating circumstances (without requiring evidence as this may be impossible to gather) for students who may struggle with their work as a result.” I have heard in recent weeks many black people commenting that they consider such special arrangements to be examples of the “bigotry of low expectations”. By what authority are these demands being made? Therefore, I do not consider that the College should proceed without significant thought and consultation.