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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

How far can you go?

I've been thinking a bit more about the issues raised by the Jesus & Mo affair at the LSE particularly about some of the dafter attempts to privilege rights stemming from feelings of offense over rights stemming from valuing freedom of expression. 

It seems to me obvious that these are not matters that can  be resolved by  appeals to first principles and that in practice decisions about what kind of actions and displays to allow in a public forum are going to be context dependent and influenced by  ideas about good  and appropriate manners, considerations  to do with the  prevention of disorder as well as with  concern for  protecting the ability of people to go about their lawful business without unwanted intrusions.

Having said that, I still find the actions of the LSE's SU and the School's administration both repressive and risible. I'm particularly surprised at attempts to assert that the Freshers' Fair has a special status as a welcoming event  that everyone should feel comfortable at, no matter how narrow their comfort zone. My memory is that in the past we assumed that the adults (for that is what they are) that attended such events had much wider comfort zones.

I seem to remember that the LSE Freshers' Fair I attended in 1979 as a first year undergraduate was more of an oriental bazaar than a vicar's tea party. And quite right too. All of the  SU societies were in the business of attracting punters by whatever means they could (several had large barrels of beer at their stalls) for more members meant a larger share of SU funds. 

I also recall that tolerance (repressive or otherwise) was in much greater supply in those days. How else can you explain the simultaneous presence of the Jewish  and the Palestinian Societies, the Iranian and the Iraqi Societies as well as the dozen or so far left societies almost all of whom had as part of their stated purpose the violent overthrow of the state. Of course, almost none of the left groups posed anything more than a theoretical threat , apart from perhaps the SWP. The Trots seemed to permanently occupy a corner of the Three Tuns bar and several of the uglier ones were  frequently ready, round about chucking out time, to strike a blow for  the revolution at  anyone within their reach.

I suppose I have been lucky in my teaching to have mostly avoided issues of student disruption. In fact I can think of only one case in which I was indirectly involved. I was the tutor of a young man, let's call him George, who had fallen into the clutches of one of the more totalitarian fundamentalist Christian sects. In the circumstances it was probably not a good idea for him to take the optional course in the Sociology of Religion, even though it was taught by one of the country's most eminent Professors. After a few weeks I began to get reports that things were not going well. George had started to monopolize the seminars with long speeches about the corrupting ways of the world in general and the Sociology of Religion in particular. Things reached a crisis point when he stood up in class and cursed the said eminent Professor denouncing her as an instrument of Satan who would lead them all to eternal damnation.

I decided I needed to have an avuncular word with George, but it quickly became apparent that he was, to all intents and purposes, beyond (normal) reason. He simply could not see that it was anything other than his bounden duty to save the class from itself. Nothing else appeared to matter. The rights of others to study in peace, to discuss things in an open minded way, to appeal to evidence, all of these were nothing to him. Worse, they were actually tricks of the Devil and it was his duty to combat Evil wherever he found it. Despairing, I had only one card left to play. I put on my severest expression and said menacingly that if he continued to be disruptive in class, I would make it my personal business to make sure that he was expelled from the School. He seemed unimpressed, but miracle of miracles, after going away and thinking about it,  for the rest of the course he registered his protest by sitting in silence. Perhaps he had reflected on the text about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

George's actions were clearly inappropriate in the sense that they violated some conventional and largely tacit norms about how to behave in situations that our culture labels "university seminars". We can argue about what these are but at the end of the day they are whatever we decide they are, with the "we" being the relevant "community" of users. Some people take fright at the mildest signs of discord, others, and I'm one of them, feel entirely comfortable with robust exchanges of views up to and including visible signs of anger (if you don't care enough about what you think the truth is to occasionally get angry with those that deny it how deep actually is your belief?). On the other hand threatening visiting lecturers with a poker is a step too far.

If a militant atheist insists on interrupting the vicar's sermon every week that would be disrespectful and ill-mannered. It would also interfere with the rights of others to be left in peace to listen to the words of whichever God they happen to follow. Removing, forcibly if necessary, someone  acting in such a way seems entirely reasonable, it's really no different than removing the rowdy drunk that decides it is a good idea to go to Midnight Mass at Xmas. If our militant atheist  stands in the street outside the church and peacefully ties to persuade the faithful of the error of their ways as they leave evensong, that may be impolite and even distasteful but it is not something that should be prohibited. It may well  be inconvenient, annoying and even a trifle upsetting but so are lots of other unwanted intrusions into our private lives.

I happen to dislike intensely receiving unsolicited calls from people trying to flog me stuff or con me into giving them access to my computer. I also abhor the seemingly endless succession of chuggers and Nottingham Knockers that are attracted to my door. And don't get me started on the half hundred-weight of pizza delivery leaflets I get every year. But much as I dislike them I have to accept them as part of the modern world and also that there is nothing I can do to stop them.

Of course that doesn't mean that  I have to cooperate in being conned or exploited. Telling Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses that I'm a Catholic or a Jew (neither of which are true), tends to  curtail the conversation, as does hanging up on the cold callers and asking the Nottingham Knockers to produce their Pedlar's Certificate. And if all else fails a little gratuitous rudeness takes care of the rest. After all, I reason, I didn't invite them to call me, knock on my house door or start a conversation about whatever crazy thing is going on inside their heads, so why should I feel bound by the normal rules of  social interaction?

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