Friday, May 15, 2009


Political Scholars

Cambridge University dons are in a snit.

The university recently amended its equal opportunities policy to stress respectfor religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds and its opposition to discrimination. The policy now reads:

The university's core values are freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination.

It therefore respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds, including the lack of religion or belief.

It also respects the right of all members of its community to discuss and debate freely issues of religion, belief, and philosophy. So far as is practicable, the university will attempt to accommodate requests for adjustments to accommodate religious observance.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering, thinks this a bad idea:

The university has no duty under this legislation to 'promote religion and belief equality', merely a duty not to discriminate when hiring staff or admitting students – which we stopped doing in 1877.

The unfortunate wording of this policy might be interpreted to suggest that Cambridge is to promote the equality of evolution with creationism, or of cosmology with shepherds' tales.

We must never accept any duty to promote the equality of truth and falsehood.

Prof Anderson earlier said that iconic figures such as Newton and Darwin were part of a long tradition at Cambridge of "theicide" – the killing of gods – which was threatened by the policy amendments.

This is very much an environment where people can challenge established belief and express thoughts which will challenge the faithful.

We should not allow ideas to be snuffed out in fear of causing offence.

Prof Geth Evans issued a statement slamming as "half-baked." "misconceived and confused and . . . likely to do more harm than good".

Meanwhile, David Goode, president of the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union, criticized the university for failing to carry out an "equality impact assessment" (!) and for not involving the Union in discussions. However, Goode added:

Cambridge UCU is nonetheless pleased that the policy has been produced, and that the university has made a clear and concise commitment to freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination in respect of religious or philosophical beliefs or lack thereof.

Frankly, I think Prof. Anderson is committing the same error that so many conservative Christians here in America do: conflating criticism -- even harsh criticism -- with discrimination.

But perhaps he knows better how the university will interpret the policy.

We should not allow ideas to be snuffed out in fear of causing offence.I find offensive the notion that offensive speech should be curbed.

It therefore respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds, including the lack of religion or belief.Perhaps the Cambridge dons should read Simon Blackburn's essay on Religion and Respect
I haven't read all of Blackburn's essay yet but his initial example of refusing to participate in what was obviously a seder misses one ground for showing respect: accepting the hospitality of another human being. I'll happily call Ray Comfort, for example, a moron but, if I had accepted an invitation into his home (even unwittingly) and he started on his anti-evolution blatter, I'd paste a frozen smile on my face, saying nothing, until the first moment I could reasonably excuse myself. I'd also consider a seder as more of a cultural ceremony than a religious one, where non-Jews are often invited, at least here in the US, and would happily participate since my hosts would know I don't share their faith. Obviously, there are limits even there and if my host tried to baptize me, I'd tell him/her to shove it with the appropriate level of emphasis to match their behavior.

The same general rules apply to guests I invite into my home and I would only confront them or oust them if their behavior reaches a level far above what I'd tolerate from someone in public discourse.

A university is something between an open public forum and a person's home, since it is designed to invite sharing of knowledge and viewpoints in a collegial setting but still intended to foster open debate.
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