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Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism. 

Last week, I read the most perfect piece of writing. Ok, its sentences were rambling. And, yes, teachers making public criticisms “according to our marking criteria” is overdone. But the letter sent by 21 Oxford geography academics in support of the campaign to remove Theresa May’s portrait from a display in their department was pretty close to being a crib-sheet explainer of today. It represented, in microcosm, some of the worst of modern thinking. Give it to a Martian and she’d balk. Give it to Ptolemy and he’d cry.

My problem here isn’t simply to do with freedom of expression. This may be because I want a break: FREER, the political initiative that I direct, has just published a paper on the topic, so I’ve been thinking about it solidly. But, really, it’s because the Oxford geographers’ letter seems more complex than that.

Aside from clear-cut cases, there are usually various questions in need of answering before it’s obvious whether something is truly an instance of the suppression of free expression. Not least, has some genuine form of expression genuinely been suppressed?

Suppression doesn’t always happen at the hands of the state, but it’s important to remember the difference between public and private spaces. It’s also important to remember that people make disappointing but permissible choices — sometimes involving changes of mind — all of the time, based on all kinds of reasoning, including considerations such as resource allocation and assessments of merit. And that there are 7.6 billion people in the world, and they can’t all be chosen for everything. And that people have a right to protest. And so on.

I’m not going to go into that kind of detailed assessment here. But we should note that a representative of the department claimed the portrait wasn’t taken down in response to the protests, but rather to keep it safe. (This is the same “safe” justification often offered by education establishments after invitations to speakers have been rescinded — although it’s usually students they claim to be protecting, rather than portraits!).

But the writers of the letter get off to a good start:

Firstly, it seems inappropriate to display images of an incumbent head of government in an institution that has amongst its intellectual responsibilities that of holding government accountable. Regardless of political allegiance, we would like to highlight that the display of portraits of acting heads of government is a highly unusual practice amongst higher education institutions in liberal democracies.

I’m not sure “highly unusual” is quite accurate, and I’d never really thought of “holding government accountable” as a key duty of geographers (though I’m glad to learn it is), but I share the writers’ unease here. It can be difficult to criticise something if you believe the institution you work for is unquestioningly committed to it. And educational establishments have special obligations — including providing a model of reasoned discourse — related to their educative purpose, as well as their privileged place in society. So, although there’s a difference between a portrait that’s hung in a place of honour at the head of a dining table, and a portrait that’s one of many within a specific display, the writers do make a strong point.

It’s just a shame they go on to detract from it in their following paragraph:

Secondly, we believe that so much of what Ms May embodies politically is antithetical to what geographyas a discipline which aims to produce citizens of the world—should (and does) stand for. 

Yes. After arguing that educational establishments should avoid politicisation, the letter’s writers immediately go on to claim a certain political position for their discipline! I can see ways in which this move isn’t necessarily inconsistent, but it still seems emblematic of some of the biggest problems we face today. One of those relates to the politicisation of academic disciplines; another to the politicisation of the teachers of these disciplines.

It’s not groundbreaking to suggest there might be some subjects in which the method of study has become a matter of greater concern than the thing being studied. Call it ‘theory’, call it ‘critical studies’, you know what I mean. And it’s not particularly surprising if geography is one of those subjects — or at least if it is at some universities. And that’s the key point, isn’t it? That it might be at some universities. Some universities. Some academics. Some traditions. Surely, there’s not just one way of “doing geography”?

Not that I should weigh in on a subject that isn’t “mine”, of course (until yesterday, I thought Ptolemy was just a plain old mathematician). It’s all about subjectivity these days — but only from acceptable voices! Interestingly, the letter tells us that May, herself, could well be one of those: “we must acknowledge that Ms May is a product of the institution in which we work”. (It’s a great use of “acknowledge” — like a little acceptance of objectivity in a sea of bewildering sludge.)

With their claim regarding what geography “should and does stand for”, the geographers who wrote this letter are unilaterally denying others — most likely, students — a world of insight and exploration. (Ironically, I bet they often accuse their more conservative colleagues of exactly this kind of thing: of seeing the subject as being set in old stone.)

But the writers also reveal their specific political leanings. As well as their clear opposition to May’s political “record”, they negatively compare her with Doreen Massey. Massey — a renowned Marxist, who, as Mark Wallace and others have pointed out, advised Hugo Chavez — is the only professional geographer referred to in the body of the letter.

People should, of course, be allowed to express their political beliefs. But, as I wrote here in the wake of the Heaton-Harris “Brexit letter”, there’s something deeply worrying about those in positions of educational responsibility publicly sounding forth on the political issues of the day — whether it’s on social media, or in an ex officio capacity — in ways that imply they are representing their establishment, colleagues, and, here, even their subject. It’s yet more worrying when it’s done by a group.

What have we come to? And where will it end? We’ve become mired in such lazy thinking that, sometimes, all to be seen ahead is suppression. Fear of saying this. Fear of saying that. Fear of thinking and saying and doing anything that counters the loudest orthodoxy.

Claiming that there’s only one acceptable way of thinking about anything sets us rolling down a slippery slope towards destruction. And the only way to get a grip is by arguing back. We should thank this set of Oxford geographers for having given us such a clear example of what needs to be addressed.

54 comments for: Rebecca Lowe: The May portrait protests. Roll up the map on these Oxford geographers.

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