Cambridge Should Preserve the Freedom to Disrespect | Opinion

Cambridge University votes this week on a new free speech policy. Its executive body wants rules demanding that staff, students and visitors "respect" other opinions and identities in the course of our speaking, teaching, research and other activities. The alternatives are to either reject the policy altogether, or to pass our amended version, which asks only that academics "tolerate" diverse opinions and identities.

The demand for "respect" is a direct attack on academic freedom because it is restrictive, subjective and vague.

"Respect" can be taken to imply appreciation; it probably rules out mockery, and certainly rules out anything that the target claims to be offensive. We should not be expected to respect patently false opinions on matters like vaccination or climate change where there's established scientific knowledge. Nor should the university demand respect for political or religious identities. This holds regardless of whether we're talking about white nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, or even mainstream Christian, Jewish or Muslim identities. Atheists have rights too, and it is not reasonable to expect atheists to respect theistic religions.

But a university can expect staff, students and visitors to accept other opinions and identities. That is why we believe the right term to use in a conduct policy is not respect but "tolerance," which means: "willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them."

Progress in science and scholarship depends on challenging established beliefs, and Cambridge has led this for centuries. We were founded in 1209 by refugees from Oxford; rather than respecting established religion, we nurtured the Reformation and were a cradle of Puritanism. Isaac Newton debunked the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy—revered for centuries but wrong about physics. Charles Darwin challenged the creationist views of all major religions by explaining how evolution proceeds via natural selection. James Clerk Maxwell upended earlier theories of magnetism and light by showing how light might consist of electromagnetic waves. Cockroft and Walton built the first particle accelerator and split the atom—with no "respect" for philosophers who had defined the atom as that which could not be split.

To this day, even some scientists are "disrespectful" towards the theories and beliefs of others. There are multiple factions in theoretical physics; physical and social anthropologists disagree about the roles played by genes and culture in human evolution; in computer science, we find that traditional cryptographers, quantum cryptographers and cryptocurrency enthusiasts have little time for each other.

Cambridge classroom
A lecture room is pictured at the University of Cambridge, in Cambridge, east England on October 14, 2020. JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP/Getty

This history has taught us the importance of academic freedom and academic tenure. Once an academic has passed a probationary period, he or she cannot be fired except for gross misconduct. This provides the freedom needed to challenge existing ideas and the space to develop new ones.

When we look at the humanities and social sciences, the disagreements are even more acute, and the need for academic freedom even greater. One of us teaches a subject—philosophy—in which undergraduates regularly do (and should) face challenges to their fundamental beliefs about pretty much everything; this teaches them, if you do it right, to respect truth and nothing else. Getting to that point requires a willingness to be honest about what you think and why you think it. None of that would be possible in a classroom where teachers and students alike must constantly be on guard against showing "disrespect" to the ideologies or identities of those most likely to take offense.

Unfortunately, university administrators sometimes think that they understand the issues well enough to take sides. U.K. universities have recently conducted lengthy and hostile investigations into, or taken disciplinary actions against, expressions of belief about Palestinian rights and gender-critical feminism. In one case more than 500 students petitioned Oxford University to force two professors to include trans women in their research into women's equality, so as not to create a "hostile and exclusionary atmosphere." Given how power works in bureaucracies, the most likely losers when administrators intervene will be junior academics, minorities and women.

A great university must provide an environment in which Israelis and Palestinians can feel at home, and traditional feminists and trans people too. Of course many groups in society have real disputes, and their voices must be heard. As our Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope said shortly after taking up his post: "Universities have to be places where you do feel discomforted at times because the ideas are genuinely challenging to you. If you dislike or despise an idea, then it's important that you engage, challenge and resist."

If instead we have regulations that cause staff and students to err on the side of caution, there's a risk that only ideas not deemed "extreme" will get invited or taught: on religion, Cardinal Newman but not David Hume; on race, Martin Luther King but not Malcolm X; on the Middle East, Tony Blair but not Noam Chomsky.

So as well as replacing "respect" with "tolerance" in the university's free-speech code, we are voting on further amendments which will prevent the university from blocking or cancelling meetings with which some people disagree so long as these meetings are lawful. It should not be more difficult to speak freely in Cambridge University than at Hyde Park Corner.

Arif Ahmed is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a
Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Ross Anderson is Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of both The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.