Featured image: Theo Burman
In universities our perennial Christmas gift to each other is an intensification of the culture wars.
At Durham University, UK, Tim Luckhurst, the Associate Pro Vice Chancellor and Principal of South College, berated students who walked out of a formal Christmas dinner when they realised the speaker was Rod Liddle. Liddle is a ‘controversial’ journalist who has written disparagingly in his Spectator columns about women, trans people and Black people. Some students who stayed on to listen were, reportedly, offended by his remarks. Below is The Guardian’s report on the events of December 3rd.
According to the student newspaper Palatinate, Liddle’s speech began with him expressing disappointment there were no sex workers there that night, in reference to a recent controversy over safety training offered by the university to student sex workers. According to the report, he said the left railed against “science or pure facts”, by reference to people with a “long, dangling penis”, and claimed colonialism was not “remotely the major cause of Africa’s problems, just as it is very easy to prove that the educational underachievement of British people of Caribbean descent or African Americans is nothing to do with institutional or structural racism.”
Luckhurst then compounded his poor judgement by confronting the students who had withdrawn from the dinner, accompanied by commentary from his wife, Dorothy Luckhurst. A good video record and analysis can be viewed here. Luckhurst was irked that the students did not share his taste for obnoxious sophomoric humour – a matter which might have been resolved had he consulted them. His wife seemed even more outraged and contemptuous. On Twitter she posted this: ‘Bunch of inadequates thought it was clever to walk out on a speech tonight because they were afraid of what the speaker said…’
A quick scan of her Twitter timeline (it has since been taken down) indicates support for Toby Young, Priti Patel and Claire Fox. As you might expect, another of the Spiked crew, Frank Furedi, is in sympathy with the Luckhursts.
Frank Furedi (@Furedibyte) Tweeted: I wish Tim has stuck to his gun. What's wrong with describing the pathetic behaviour of students, pathetic? Of course I understand the enormous pressure that he faced for airing uncomfortable truths. https://t.co/ewP1YCBHhi https://twitter.com/Furedibyte/status/1468152955513806849?s=20
The whole event, and Luckhurst’s part in it, is now the subject of an internal investigation. It will surely consider the Office for Students Prevent guidance on properly assessing an external speaker’s risk to public order, and the likelihood of incitement to hatred or obscenity (including the manner of expression). Durham University’s policy states:
All external speaker events must be assessed along the following guidelines.
a) whether the views or ideas to be put forward (or the manner of their expression):
i) discriminate against any individual or group (with a protected characteristic) on any of the grounds of discrimination provided in the Equality Act 2010. Formal requests for gender segregation at meetings (save for those solely used for religious worship or practice) is prohibited on these grounds in accordance with the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance;
ii) are to be presented by any person who has previously been prevented from delivering a speech at the University; or
iii) incite hatred or are considered within the law to be obscene or grossly defamatory.
I wasn’t at the dinner, but the reports evidence content which might contravene the university’s policy, and we wonder if the risk was properly assessed, knowing what we do about Liddle’s inclination for expressing his views on women, girls, Black and LGBT people.
At this point, allow me a digression from a linguistic point of view that I hope adds clarity to this episode. Tim Luckhurst’s behaviour towards the students, caught on video, was contemptuous and hostile. As a member of the senior management team of the university, and principal of the college, he wields considerable institutional power which he has mishandled. He expected the students to indulge his choice of speaker without protest (apparently, the JCR was not consulted). He saw the withdrawal of a dozen or so students as a repudiation, not just of his choice, but of free speech. The students, on the other hand, objected to being a captive audience for an offensive and obscene tirade. This is summarised by Will Jennings @drjennings on Twitter who wrote: ‘The Durham/Rod Liddle affair is a perfect example of how a very large number of people incorrectly equate freedom of speech with freedom to gratuitously offend and troll’.
In linguistics, we would weigh the appropriacy of speech/ discourse as a function of audience design and context. The Durham event was, as indicated by the dress code, a formal occasion. The context was a university college dinner, and so we might rightfully expect a degree of decorum, which need not preclude humour. Another aspect which would determine the expectations is what has happened at previous dinners – were speakers invited, by whom, and what etiquette was observed?
Whether the Principal submitted the Prevent paperwork 7 days before the event, as mandated by the university, is irrelevant. Rod Liddle was his friend and he must have known of his reputation as a provocateur, liable to cause offence. To subject students to that performance must be considered a lapse of judgement and quite possible negligent in his duty of care. I‘m aware of all the issues with the Prevent policy, but on this occasion, it seems to me to uphold a rather old-fashioned value of politeness and considerateness, If you are meeting people you don’t know, on a formal occasion, most of us would try not to violate norms of appropriacy. There were students there from many different backgrounds and cultures, and some would be uncomfortable with public discussion of sexuality. Let’s be clear. This is not an example of cancel culture, nor does the incident have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. It was not an argument about academic opinions or interpretation of evidence. This was an intentional wind up, an in-your-face confrontation with what many found to be vulgar, obscene and offensive material.
In an excellent opinion piece on rudeness and incivility, Jennifer Finney Boylan asks, ‘So how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?’ It’s a world where anti-mask scofflaws walk unchallenged around the supermarket and where Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks it is cute to pose with a gun next to pictures of left-wing, Black and Muslim members of Congress. It’s no wonder that a recent Axios poll showed that young Democrats in the US are unlikely to date or befriend a Trump supporter. This is seen, predictably, by the right wing as further evidence of liberal refusal to engage with opposing viewpoints. But why would you want to enter into a relationship with someone who is comfortable with white supremacy, forced childbirth and attacks on democracy itself ?
The incident at Durham is an example of the right behaving like adolescents; they want to stick it to the woke libtards, they want to scorn everything they value, but we are not their parents, and we don’t have to love them. Durham should be celebrating those students whose good judgement and clarity of thought saw them walk out in the face of a deliberate effort to offend.
It is accidental that my last post was on emotional labour among university managers. Tim Luckhurst may be unencumbered in that department, but I suggest he has a think about what respectful and mature engagement looks like. A good mantra I saw on social media: Is it truthful; is it necessary; is it kind. No, Tim. None of these applied, and you should have known better. I’ll have more to say on academic freedom and civility, but it is clearly time for the guardrails to be renegotiated on the axes of power, respect, decency, appropriacy and just a little thought for those who might not share your preferences.