Ethics & Public Policy Center

Universities are Reviving the Notion of Heresy

Published in The Times (UK) on November 27, 2017


Religions offer membership. They fill the void in the heart with the mystical presence of the group, and if they do not provide this benefit they will wither and die, like the religions of the ancient world during the Hellenistic period. It is therefore in the nature of a religion to protect itself from rival groups and the heresies that promote them.

Today’s university students have little time for religion and no time at all for exclusive groups. They are particularly insistent that distinctions associated with their inherited culture — between sexes, classes and races, between genders and orientations, between religions and lifestyles — should be rejected, in the interests of an all-comprehending equality that leaves each person to be who she or he really is. “Non-discrimination” is the orthodoxy of our day. Yet this seeming open-mindedness is just as determined to silence the heretic as any established religion. There may be no knowing in advance how the new heresies could be committed, or what exactly they are, since the ethic of non-discrimination is constantly evolving to undo distinctions that were only yesterday part of the fabric of reality. After Germaine Greer made clear her opinion that men who regarded themselves as women were not, through the surgical removal of their penis, actually members of the female sex, this was judged to be so offensive that a campaign was mounted to prevent her speaking at Cardiff University. The campaign was not successful, partly because Greer is the person she is. But the fact that she had committed a heresy was unknown to her at the time, and probably only dawned on her accusers in the course of practising that morning’s Two Minutes Hate.

More successful was the campaign to punish Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel prize-winning biologist, for making a tactless remark about the difference between men and women in the laboratory. A media witch-hunt led Sir Tim to resign from his honorary professorship at University College London; the Royal Society (of which he is a fellow) went public with a denunciation, and he was pushed aside by a large section of the scientific community. A lifetime of distinguished creative work was marred.

The ethic of non-discrimination tells us that women are as adapted to a scientific career as men are. I don’t know whether that is true. How would I find out who is right? Surely, by weighing the competing opinions in the balance of reasoned discussion. Truth arises by an invisible hand from our many errors, and both error and truth must be permitted if the process is to work. Heresy arises, however, when someone questions a belief that must not be questioned from within a group’s favoured territory. The favoured territory of radical feminism is the academic world, the place where careers can be made and alliances formed through the attack on male privilege. A dissident within the academic community must therefore be exposed, like Sir Tim, to public intimidation and abuse, and in the age of the internet this punishment can be amplified without cost to those who inflict it.

This process of intimidation ought to cast doubt, in the minds of reasonable people, on the doctrine that inspires it. Why protect a belief that stands on its own? The intellectual frailty of the feminist orthodoxy is there for all to see, in the fate of Sir Tim. Indeed, UCL and the Royal Society displayed, in their failure to protect him from the cloud of twittering morons, the sad state of the academic world today, which is losing all sense of its role as guardian of the intellectual life. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, at the very moment when universities are advocating diversity as an academic value — meaning by “diversity” all that I have included under the term “non-discrimination” — the true diversity for which a university should make a stand, namely diversity of opinion, has been steadily eroded and in many places destroyed entirely.

Traditional education had much to say about the art of not giving offence. Modern education has a lot more to say about the art of taking offence. This, in my experience, has been one of the achievements of gender studies, which has shown students how to take offence at behaviour, at words, at pronouns, at institutions, customs and even at facts, whenever “gender identity” is in question. It did not take much education to make old-fashioned women take offence at the presence of a man in the women’s bathroom. But it takes a lot of education to teach a woman to take offence at a women’s bathroom from which males who “self-identify” as women are excluded. Students today are being encouraged to demand “safe spaces”, where carefully nurtured vulnerabilities will not be “triggered” into crisis. The correct response, which is to invite students to look for a safe space elsewhere, is not one that universities seem to consider, since each student is an addition to income but censorship costs nothing.

It is my belief that an institution in which the truth can be impartially sought, without censorship, and without penalties imposed on those who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy, is a social benefit beyond anything that can now be achieved by controlling permitted opinion. If the university renounces its calling in the matter of truth-directed argument then it becomes a centre of indoctrination without a doctrine, a way of closing the mind without the great benefit that is conferred by religion, which also closes the mind, but closes it around a real moral community.

Sir Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and teaches philosophy at Buckingham University.

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