Students Have the Right to Be Offended

At last year’s Times Higher Education World Academic Summit meeting in September, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, revealed that she’s

had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality […] And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable […] If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that […] Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind.

This was followed by an official statement from Professor Richardson on the university website, pointing out that the university has an anti-discriminatory policy which she has always supported. She did not retract any of her words from the summit.

As someone who has taught students at Oxford and elsewhere, let me say this: it is absolutely not the role of a teacher to make students feel uncomfortable.

Professor Richardson is mistaking the need to challenge students intellectually with a desire to make them so uncomfortable, so distressed, that they complain to a university authority. Yes, we should be able to justify and defend all our positions, including the idea that homophobia is bad. Yes, students should have to understand and analyse ideas they may not agree with. Yes, students should at times feel out of their depth or bewildered – this is how we know we are stretching them intellectually.

But as teachers we control the context in which ideas and views are argued for or against, and I see no reason why a professor’s personal views on a subject should even be considered. What matters is, what does the student think? Why do they think this? Most importantly, how do these thoughts relate to the topic they are studying?

This intellectual work should take place in an environment the student is comfortable in; just as you would not ask a student to sit an exam whilst half-submerged in icy water, we should not expect students to learn from someone they know holds offensive views.

How do we define ‘offensive’? The Sun reporter Giulia Crouch paraphrased Professor Richardson’s comments as ‘DON’T INDULGE SNOWFLAKES […] Generation Snowflake students need to toughen up and challenge views they disagree with rather than taking offence’. The problem with this interpretation is that Richardson singled out negative views on homosexuality in her example, and homosexuality is not just an idea, it’s an identity. As such, the problem isn’t that someone has a different opinion from the student; it is that part of the student’s identity – or part of the identity of people the student cares about – is being judged and attacked.

If the professor was instead arguing against the effectiveness of government surveillance to counter domestic terrorism, or the idea that the British Corn Laws bolstered the Victorian economy, then yes, a discordant student should construct a counter argument, rather than taking offense and complaining. That, however, is not the point Professor Richardson was making.

But what if we reversed the hypothetical, and the student was homophobic, and felt uncomfortable because their professor was pro-LGBT rights? You can imagine other examples – the student could be racist, anti-Semitic, or sexist, and these views might even form part of the student’s identity, as a white supremacist or a ‘meninist’. Would this student also have the right to feel ‘comfortable’ at university?

The difference is that in these examples the professor’s position is inclusive rather than exclusive, assuming that all sexualities, religions, and genders should be treated equally. The onus is on the student to argue that a sexual, religious, or gender identity should be treated differently, and those arguments should be heard and responded to objectively (although I’ve yet to hear an argument for negative discrimination that holds up to serious scrutiny).

Of course, this assumes that arguments against homosexuality – or any other identity – are relevant to the topic being studied, and that personal views needed to be considered. Even if that topic was the effect of gay marriage in the Christian church, a teacher should still frame all arguments in the context of the wider effects and issues; not because it will make everyone feel more comfortable, but because this is how we analyse ideas at universities.

Professor Richardson’s remarks are particularly disappointing as her university is generally a very comfortable, welcoming place for everyone, including LGBTQ students. The colleges fly rainbow flags for LGBTQ awareness; student committees have LGBTQ representatives; cases of discrimination based on sexuality are treated seriously by welfare and disciplinary teams. A few years ago the chaplain of my college draped a rainbow flag across the chapel lectern for LGBTQ awareness month, and gave a stirring sermon in which he apologised for the church’s prosecution of LGBTQ people.

Oxford students and organisations have been quick to respond to professor Richardson’s comments. The University’s LGBTQ society wrote an open letter, asking her to apologise, and reminding her that as Vice-Chancellor she has moral and ethical obligations to protect LGBTQ students according to the Equality Act 2010 and the university’s own equality policy. It has 3,185 signatures.

Lloyd Houston, a teacher and LGBTQ Staff Role Model at the university, also wrote an open letter. He argues that the power balance in the teacher-student relationship does not work the way the Vice-Chancellor describes it: the tutor is an intimidating authority, one of the people who determines the student’s academic success, and to expect a young unqualified person to ‘persuade’ them to reconsider their view on the student’s lifestyle is grossly unfair.

What the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University says – and how others respond – is important, not just because it sets a standard at the university; Oxford also helps set a standard in the world. Young students preparing for their studies at Oxford or other universities now think that as well as defending their arguments, they may have to defend their sexualities from criticism. A student should be worried they haven’t done enough summer reading (you can never do enough summer reading), not that they have the ‘wrong’ sexuality.

As teachers, we have a duty of care to our students. As scholars, we have an intellectual obligation to frame ideas and perspectives in historical and social contexts. We can reject homophobia and maintain a high standard of intellectual rigour; we only need to put the emphasis on the student’s ability to understand and argue, all the time respecting the personal identities of the people we are teaching.

A version of this article appeared as a ‘letter to the editor’ in the January / February edition of The Gay and Lesbian Review.


References

Sean Coughlan, ‘Oxford head attacks ‘tawdry politicians’ on university pay’, BBC News, 4 September 2017: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41149074

Louise Richardson, ‘Statement from Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor’, University of Oxford, 6 September 2017: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-09-06-statement-louise-richardson-vice-chancellor

Giulia Crouch, ‘DON’T INDULGE SNOWFLAKES: Oxford university head says Generation Snowflake students need to toughen up and challenge views they disagree with rather than taking offence’, The Sun, 4 September 2017: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4392155/oxford-professor-toughen-up-snowflake-students/

Oxford University LGTBQ+ Society, ‘Letter to the Vice Chancellor and Senior Staff of the University of Oxford’: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd8kJePIi8erpbpytUMXHKNeSCJyUeBtxhJp9HqI3cnumH3yA/viewform

Lloyd Houston, Facebook post, September 5 2017: https://www.facebook.com/lloyd.houston.7/posts/10154961028392616

Brexit: The View from the Moon

Edgar Mitchell steps onto the powdery grey surface, plumes of dust swirling around his feet. The land, empty except for rocks and shadows, stretches to rolling hills and a close horizon. Above him, the huge blue and white disk gleams in the black sky.

‘You develop an instant global consciousness,’ he told people after he’d returned to Earth. ‘From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’

The Brexit referendum has encouraged some of us in Britain to see, like Mitchell, the world from a new perspective. If we are not going to be part of the European Union, what should we be part of? If we are to remain inside the EU, what are our reasons for subverting the vote? Where is our home — Britain, Europe, or the world?

Earthrise, taken by Bill Anders during Apollo 8 (1968). Image © NASA.

In January 2017, Theresa May spoke of ‘a truly Global Britain,’ and Brexit as a vote to ‘embrace the world,’ but only referenced an increase in the number of trading partners when describing the nature of this embrace. The pro-Brexit report from think tank The Henry Jackson Society (September 12, 2017) also used the phrase ‘Global Britain,’ but only when arguing that the country is a potential ‘leader of nations.’ There is no sense of global unity in either of these visions; only a desire to be important in a world divided into nation states.

In his speech on the future of Europe (September 26, 2017), Emmanuel Macron talked about an ‘open world’ in which European identity and values are constructed. But for Macron, as for May, the world is still only considered in terms of trade; he framed his ideas ‘within the context of globalization,’ rather than within the concept of a single world with shared issues to tackle.

We may have to wait until politicians visit space before we hear a speech with a truly global perspective. That day, however, may not be far away; by the time Britain leaves the European Union and begins its transition phase in 2019, SpaceX plans to fly tourists around the moon. By 2020, one year into the transition phase, Blue Origin aim to run their first cargo trip to the moon’s surface. Around 2025, when Britain will have established its new relationship with the rest of Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA), ChinaNASA, and Russia intend to begin construction on their permanent moon bases.

SpaceX plan to use their Dragon2 craft for their commerical moon missions. Image © SpaceX.

These projects will change human perspective. For the first time, anyone — not just scientists and astronauts — will be able to see our planet from a distance, so long as they can pay for it. We will have Instagram posts and tweets from the moon, and each Earth-rise and comment on the fragility of life’s existence will be shared by millions. Most importantly of all, by establishing a lunar base, and later, visiting Mars, we will become a multi-planetary species. Will we still be thinking of our place in a hierarchy of nation states, then? Or will we instead be considering our place in the universe?

Britain can play a role in reaching this new global perspective, by contributing to space exploration. For some science-fiction writers, European unity and space exploration go together: Eoin Colfer describes a rocket ship painted in ‘European Union blue’; Andy Weir’s The Martian features a German astronaut with the EU flag on his space-suit; and in Ben Bova’s Mars, the English character justifies his place in the first team to land on the red planet, when so many other nationalities were not included, by explaining that ‘England represents the European community.’

We do not have to remain part of the EU to contribute to space exploration, but to be influential we do need to collaborate with other countries on issues other than trade. Continuing to contribute to ESA is one way of doing this.

The value of global collaboration and perspective should not be forgotten during the Brexit negotiations; maintaining and strengthening the links Britain has made across national borders will not only help advance space exploration and science, it will keep the country relevant, even as the boundaries between countries become less important, in an increasingly interconnected world and solar system.

Edgar Mitchell planted an American flag on the moon. Decades of solar radiation have since bleached the markings of that flag, wiping away the stars and stripes to bare white.

And above it, the world.

Look at that.


References

· Anatoly Zak, ‘Russia Will Team Up with NASA to Build a Lunar Space Station,’ Popular Mechanics, 21 September 2017.

· Andy Weir, The Martian (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 134.

· Ben Bova, Mars (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 91.

· Christian Davenport, ‘An Exclusive Look at Jeff Bezos’s Plan to Set Up Amazon-Like Delivery for ‘Future Human Settlement’ of the Moon,’ Washington Post, 2 March 2017.

· David Grossman, ‘China, European Space Agency Plan to Collaborate on “Moon Village”,’ Popular Mechanics, 26 April 2017.

· Edgar Mitchell, ‘Bio: Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,’ People Weekly, April 8, 1974, pp. 20–23 (20).

· Emmanuel Macron, ‘Sorbonne Speech of Emmanuel Macron — Full text / English Version,’ Ouest France, 26 September 2017. French text.

· Eoin Colfer, The Supernaturalist (London: Penguin, 2004) pp. 200–1.

· James Fincannon, ‘Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition?’ The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, ed. Eric M. Jones and Ken Glover.

· James Rogers, ‘Towards “Global Britain”: Challenging the New Narratives of National Decline,’ The Henry Jackson Society, [September 12] 2017.

· SpaceX, ‘SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year’SpaceX, 27 February 2017.

· Theresa May, ‘Theresa May’s Brexit Speech in Full,’ The Telegraph, 17 January 2017.

Satire in the Age of Trump

In 2001 the critic and journalist Charlie Brooker was writing fake TV listings when he realised that reality had overtaken satire:

The problem, he says, is that some TV has become so bizarre, it’s pointless to try parodying it. “Touch the Truck made the point for me,” he says, referring to the show in which contestants stood round a truck touching it for as long as possible, with the last one standing winning it. “I was seriously considering just copying the listing from the Radio Times and putting that on the site straight.

Fast forward 16 years and the words of U.S. government representatives seem to be having the same effect. Take Sean Spicer, for example: the White House Press Secretary, the man who explains to the world the position of the U.S. government, spoke about dangerous five year olds, twice burped up some random letters and numbers which may have been his password, and endorsed (presumably by accident) a headline from satirical news site The Onion which stated that his job was to ‘spread misinformation’.

Read More »

European Heartbreak

Like many people, I awoke to the news that the UK would leave the European Union feeling heartbroken, angry, and scared.

I have been a citizen of the E.U. since I was six, and now that part of my identity has been wrenched from me. I was proud to be European and British, the dream of Winston Churchill. Now I am no longer European and ashamed to be British.

I feel that a mistaken older generation have taken away the future of a younger generation. Vote statistics show that the share of ‘leave’ vote dramatically increased among the oldest voters so there is evidence to support that feeling.

I’ve never been more concerned and afraid for the future, but I I take some solace in nature and literature.

The land itself hasn’t changed. This is a social crisis on epic proportions but nature is as it was last week. The social and political crisis may yet destroy the land if we don’t do enough to tackle climate change, but for now, the land continues unchanged, unaffected by Brexit.

I still have fantasy and sci-fi to distract me, but also to inspire and guide me. I can look to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to see how things can get better despite cataclysmic events.

I can also look to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King to see how nature can guide us:

‘Merlyn had taught him about animals so that the single species might learn by looking at the problems of the thousands. He remembered the belligerent ants, who claimed their boundaries, and the pacific geese, who did not […] Countries would have to become like counties – but counties which could keep their own culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok [a goose], and would to man if he could learn to fly’.

For the sake of peace and prosperity we must knock down walls and erase borders, whilst keeping our cultural and social identities. We should not retreat into our castles, pulling up the drawbridges. The world’s problems are our problems.
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