‘This House Believes’: Silence in the Ivory Tower

It’s the holiday season, and we all know what that means: debate.

We are in the midst of a shiny new (rotting, undead) Culture Wars. We’ve moved from the early focus on staff promoting soft lefty politics to the more recent focus on students aggressively disrupting curricula and not really liking the alt-right and its dogwhistles all that much, but the song remains the same. I often find myself wondering what would satisfy these critics — tabloid, broadsheet, anonymous Twitter user — so mesmerised by the political demographics of university life. Would an easily quantifiable 50:50 split between nominally ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ views do the trick? I doubt it.

It’ll all swing back around to ‘free speech’, over the course of the meal. Pass the gravy and tell me why you think you have the right to stop Steve Bannon spouting bile at your Union. We’ve heard it all before, we’re tired of hashing out whatever myths behind No Platforming the press has pedalled out since we last saw that one uncle. But this year that conversation looms larger than ever, particularly if you are a student at the University of Sussex.

I am, clearly, meandering towards a single name: Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor cum figure of controversy with the advent of the GRA consultation and a messy summer on Twitter. It’s November now, closing in on the end of the first term of the academic year, and the end of a week in which Stock sent out an email to all students in her department justifying her views and explaining why she doesn’t see her work as transphobic. Trans students and staff across the university (and the country) have expressed how inappropriate her behaviour has been, to be met with broad and patronising dismissal. What is severely lacking in Stock’s responses is is any acknowledgement of power, particularly when it comes to the claim made by many trans-exclusionary feminists that the views of women are ‘being silenced’.

Power, inside and outside the university (as far as we can make that distinction) must be complicated, must be made complicated. There are no simple divisions here. Students can indeed harass members of staff; I recommend Jennifer Doyle’s Campus Sex, Campus Security for an incisive dissection of power structures and their knotted state. If those of us who did not already know learned anything over the summer — from Sokal Squared, Avital Ronell, and a new spate of #MeToo discourse — it’s that power is not easy to digest or understand. As if it were possible not to know this.

Stock’s irresponsibility lies in a denial — or total lack of address — of these power structures, whether in simple terms or in all their myriad complexities. What we are seeing is a selective infantilising of students, one day calling them ‘morons’, implying they don’t know their own minds or positions; the next day justifying what many are seeing as an abuse of power as an adult-to-adult conversation. The subject positions are malleable, the terms of play ever-shifting, and the students can’t win. Either they really can’t ‘think’ in the right way, or they are shying away from that adult conversation, using their youth as an excuse.

There is no protocol here, no easy fix or article we can point to: “This is where the line has been crossed”, according to paragraph three of the Academic Twitter Code. But we are uncomfortable. There is something inherently wrong here, and it has a lot to do with the way the atmosphere on Twitter makes its way onto campus. It is so very clear that this would not be acceptable behaviour in the classroom or the lecture theatre.

What is created is an environment in which students and staff feel ‘silenced’ by the prospect of speaking up, speaking out, and being told they are impinging on someone else’s free speech, someone else who has no problem continuing to make appearances on the TV and radio, in the Economist, and claims to have been silenced. There are different kinds of silencing, of course. There is that very literal, preventative kind, but often when we say ‘silenced’ we mean not being listened to, not being taken seriously, not being given the time of day or a time to arrive at the BBC studios to be mic’d up.

All of this is to address what can ‘be’ debate in the institution and in its coverage.

Within these resurgent Culture Wars, the ‘winner’ is fixed. If no disciplinary action is taken, the situation remains unchanged, more harm is done. If disciplinary action is taken, the press is kept fed and happy for months to come: Institution Persecutes Member of Staff for Exercising Free Speech. Trans staff and students, and the rest of us, become further entrenched as villainous enemies of debate.

I could — though I rarely do — leave the dinner table, this December. It would cause a minimal amount of drama, I would be perceived as ‘hysterical’ for not wanting to engage with the latest round of ‘reasoned debate’, and be back in time for cake. This is a contained environment, for me, four walls and a cat to keep me company through it all.

The university is not a dinner table, its walls are permeable — and thank God for that. But its dynamics are playing out in new and complex ways on social media, and what happens on Twitter is soaking into the fabric of the institution itself, into its emails and its whisper networks. We are sodden with ‘debate’, despondent in the halls, staring into the face of the ‘free speech’ conundrum. We know that some speech is freer than others, that some speakers are too. Those who are most affected, most marginalised, are always paradoxically invested with more power after the fact of complaint. The harmed become the aggressors, ‘silencing’ speech that has already taken place, their reaction construed as the first strike. To respond to somebody questioning your humanity — questioning it logically, calmly, no talking about anything so unseemly as feelings — becomes an act of violence, regardless of how much power, structural or otherwise, that somebody might hold.

So who’s debating who, this holiday season? What are we allowed to debate, and who among us is allowed to take part?