In Defence of Oxford’s Vice Chancellor


Alex Illingworth questions the outrage at the Vice Chancellor

The following article was written as a response to comments made by the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University regarding experiences of ‘homophobic’ comments made by tutors (linked below). It was originally intended to be published in an Oxford student newspaper, “Cherwell”, but to-date, it has not been published by them. As such, so as not to be silenced, I have posted the article here.

There’s been something of a controversy in the past day regarding the comments made by the University VC, Louise Richardson regarding homophobia at University. When I first had a read of her comments, I must admit I wasn’t too shocked.

“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.”

 Fair enough. Or not, as it would seem. The Oxford SU LGBTQ Campaign’s “anger and dismay” clearly shows us that something has hit a tender spot, and whilst on first viewing I could not understand why, let’s approach this rationally.

Opinion does not equal homophobia

Let us imagine a situation, where a University tutor has expressed an unsympathetic view to homosexuality. I can fully understand why a homosexual, or indeed any LGBT person might find this upsetting or uncomfortable, it’s only human, surely? However, as with all ethical issues, this is not the end of the story – there are many things which naturally occur in the world which are considered up for debate.

Everyone is different. While we should be sensitive to peoples’ differences in opinion and personal sensibilities, that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss them and have our own opinions, whether they are different to others’ or not. This country values freedom of religion – if a Christian or a Muslim expresses the opinion that homosexuality is ‘wrong’, they are free to do so in the same way that a Humanist may express the opinion that it is a perfectly valid form of human sexuality. There is no need or practical purpose in reacting to such differences with “anger and dismay”. Thus, a tutor (or anyone, for that matter) has the full right to consider homosexuality ‘wrong’ subjectively, if he can back it up with an argument, and it makes sense to do so in the context of that argument. It is not something to take personally in an impersonal, academic setting.

What is University for?

This is the foundation of human knowledge, ethics, metaphysics – literally everything within this world in which we exist is founded upon: our ability to debate and engage with it. The University was founded in order to centralise knowledge, and create a place where scholars could come together in order to study the world through rational eyes in cooperation.

Of course, what this means is, there’s going to be disagreements, and big ones. With disagreement sometimes comes a flaying of tempers, as I’ve said – that’s just called being human. But in a University, where scholars have to look at issues objectively, consider their innate value and come to a conclusion by dialectic and discourse, this means being able to take arguments which the scholar disagrees with and uniting them with that which the scholar does agree with. That might involve swallowing some pride, but without this, there can never be knowledge or progress, only dogma and hindrance.

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What’s that you say? Not all undergraduates are scholars, not all of us will go on to become academics? True, but so long as we are undergraduates, we are part of an academic community until such time as we leave the University. Many of us will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree – historically, a position within the University, a recognition of academic achievement. Can we truly say that we are worthy of that rank and position if we reject the very foundation of scholarship?

I understand that some things are hurtful. I understand that some things are distasteful, but have Jewish historians shied from studying Nazi documents because they list the many millions of dead? Have the Russians banned their communist party and locked up its members because over the history of the Soviet Union, over 20 million people were killed and that makes them uncomfortable? No, they have faced these things head on, and they have learned from them.

The Totalitarian Tendency

Viewing homosexuality as a sin, or disapproving of it is nowhere near as bad as the examples cited above. There is a profound difference between considering homosexuality a sin and encouraging the persecution of homosexuals. In this regard, to engage with and debate those with anti-LGBT viewpoints is a necessity in the preservation of the freedom of debate.

I have a message for those who would seek to use the Vice Chancellor’s comments to attack her, or to attack religious or secular professors at the University: in your “anger and dismay”, you are playing into the hands of dangerous forces. The first thing that the Nazis, Soviets and other totalitarian regimes did when coming to power was clear out the Universities – those who practiced scholarship, those who sought the truth by engaging with challenging topics were removed. If you remove or attack the people who encourage engagement with difficult topics, who ask us to “challenge homophobes” and “try to change their minds”, you are playing into a worrying totalitarian mentality.

I wonder where it will end. We are the writers, journalists, politicians, scientists and academics of the future. Will that future be marked by the persecution of those, not merely academics, but individuals with unsavoury opinions wherever “anger and dismay” is aroused? I hope not, but this is the attitude from which this “anger and dismay” derives.

Galileo was told by the Catholic Church that he couldn’t make a difficult point: that the Earth moves around the Sun, despite proof. For this “crime” he was sentenced to house arrest. Progress was blocked, but eventually the truth became self-evident. The point is: you don’t end an argument by suppressing an opposing viewpoint. Some people won’t like me saying this, but to find the truth, we must at least entertain the possibility that either side of an argument might be true. Progress does not come in the rejection of ideas. If someone could propose a sound, rational and scientific theory proposing that the Sun goes round the Earth, I would listen to them.

Eppur si muove. And yet it moves.

Value can often be found even in the most frightening and fearful phenomena. Whether or not there’s truth in the arguments of ‘homophobic’ professors, truth of any kind cannot be entertained, so long as we remain in fear of a new Spanish Inquisition. Unlike in Monty Python, however, everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition, appearing in order to metaphorically burn individuals for their apostasies in disturbing examples of modern auto-da-fé.

P.S. There has been some development of the argument against Richardson in the past few days. Whilst some still claim that “there is no ‘engaging’ with homophobia”, others have pointed out that the context of Richardson’s comments are unclear. That is to say, if ‘homophobic’ remarks are made outside of a tutorial where ethics is discussed, then it would be inappropriate and a pastoral care issue. I disagree. I have sat through countless tutorials where tutors have claimed that those on the right-of-centre are ‘racist’, that conservatives are the ‘worst sort of people’ and that ‘only intelligent people’ voted Remain. There will be those who won’t be happy that I equate being right-wing with being homosexual, but the sentiment is similar – these situations make people feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, we have to deal with these sorts of situations and people who are less sensitive than we might like. Such is humanity. My point still stands: the more we police people’s minds, the more like Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” we become.

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