“You and what army?”: Power, prejudice, and resistance in the academy
The CFN workshop at Encounters Sussex reflected on the state of institutional prejudice in the academy, with particular attention to the recent culture of transphobia that has been increasingly exposed in our universities. Despite increasing acceptance of, for instance, LGBTQ+ rights action and decolonisation on campus, senior academics have been able to attack marginalised people without substantial action from their institutions.
We began the workshop by asking: What does institutional prejudice look like? The volume and range of responses were at once refreshing and troubling. Microaggressions tolerated under the mandate of professional politeness; complaints procedures that place the onus of resistance on the victims of prejudice; ‘equality and diversity’ programmes intended to excuse rather than challenge oppressive structures of power. We talked about the need to understand institutions as a corpus. University press releases frequently address prejudiced academics, like the contributors to recent transphobic open letters, as if they were rogue individuals: ‘all views my own’. But if a large group of networked individuals within the academy share a set of prejudiced beliefs the problem surely rests within the system – indeed, the system is the problem – not with each individual.
We then presented a series of case studies by Rhy Brignell and Cleo Madeleine of UEA, gathered with the support of the CFN, on CHASE academics who have participated in hate speech propagation and/or the ongoing marginalisation of students and staff. Our examples included Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at Sussex who regularly attacks trans rights without and without the university and has previously driven protesters from public life; Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck whose recent book Whiteshift has suggested that ‘white fear’ over immigration is not racist and should be tolerated to a degree; and John Collins and Rupert Read, both in philosophy at UEA, who have recently co-signed open letters with Stock rejecting pro-trans revisions to the Gender Recognition Act and insisting universities break from LGBTQ+ rights org Stonewall.
None of this is new information. Each of these cases are public, and each of them has been defended by the individual – and each of them has seen no consequences from the institution, or been quietly buried by an interminable and opaque internal investigation. For the next discussion session, we thus posed the question: How are our institutions legitimising these kinds of discourse, and is there a way we can resist it? This provoked fierce discussion, and understandably so. While we can all agree as feminists, one hopes, that our institutions do facilitate the oppression of marginalised people in one way or another, it is much harder to agree on what should be done about it. Stock, for instance, is protected by her tenure when she defies both UK hate speech law and Sussex’s own equality and diversity policy by continuing to publish work that paints targets on specific trans individuals like Lily Madigan. But if we concede that current practices around tenure allow for transphobic views to be enshrined, we call into question one of the strongest (and most sought after) tenets of academia. It is entirely reasonable to want to protect our academic freedoms, but if the systems that provide them are corrupt we risk becoming contributors to academic prejudice. Ultimately if institutional practices support hate we must reject the systems as well as the individuals they protect.
PowerPoint from the event is available here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1SPTMEsJcZuWDfZZeFh6WOC1SHdaSQkBA