Opinion: The perils of false victimhood - The Critic

This article was first published in The Critic.

There is a strong prevailing narrative in British political discourse that, in our academic institutions, conservatives are oppressed and to be right-wing is to be a counter-cultural martyr. The well-established narrative, which this magazine’s writers buy into again and again, alleges that right-leaning academics are routinely censored in our universities and that anyone who dares to deviate from the woke consensus can expect their career to stall. Free speech is under existential threat in UK academia, we are told sternly.

I’m a neoliberal and active Conservative party member. I believe in free-market capitalism. I am also a student of sociology at a British university. It would be very easy – and attractive – for me to buy into this narrative of victimhood. I could wax lyrical about how difficult my life is thanks to the lefty meanies. I could whine endlessly about the injustice of it all, shedding righteous tears.

The only problem is that that narrative is unscientific balderdash. As enticing as it might be, the idea that Tories have a hard time of it in British academia has no basis in fact whatsoever. But the narrative continues its rampage through the discourse uninterrupted, of course, exactly because it is so enticing. Its latest iterance can be found in a report from Policy Exchange, which pertains to include conclusive evidence for the theory.

It seems very likely that rather than beginning with a null hypothesis, the authors instead sought to prove their pre-existing views on this issue. Any undergraduate statistics student could have explained the problems that would cause. This approach has led to their conducting some remarkable intellectual gymnastics in order to reach their desired conclusion. The report is littered with basic statistical errors. It has already been comprehensively deconstructed by various methodologists. Almost half of the pool of academics it surveys are retired. It also has no qualms about twisting the truth in questionable ways in order to enhance its numbers, such as coding Liberal Democrat voters as “left”. Some of the anecdotes it includes about the day-to-day struggles of right-leaning academics sound very far-fetched indeed, almost like a reverse Titania McGrath.

For instance, they suggest that the appropriate way to treat an academic who wants to conduct research into whether black people are inherently less intelligent than white people is to assume that they are acting in good faith and with the best of intentions.

Female academics are paid an average of 13.7 per cent less than their male counterparts in British universities. That’s a much higher gender pay gap than the national average. Of the 14,315 professors in the UK, only 70 are black, and just 17 of those are female. Yet, somehow, the report’s authors believe that “Leavers, Tory voters and gender-critical feminists” are “the main groups facing discrimination” in UK universities.

Plenty of groups face institutional barriers to their progress in British academia. Tories are not one of them.

The demands the report makes are even more bizarre than the conclusions themselves. It calls for an “academic freedom bill”, including the appointment of a new “director of academic freedom” to the Office for Students, along with a range of dramatic new policy measures. In other words, those behind the report, who call themselves liberals without a hint of irony, are asking for a drastically increased role for the government within academia. That is not a pro-freedom position.

Those who believe that their ideological brethren are unduly oppressed in academia must decide what it is they actually want. They call for increased state action, but to what end? Suppose the Office for Students ramps up its efforts in this area, as seems likely. What would that achieve? What is the ultimate ideal outcome here?

They are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. The right accuses the left of snowflakery, of rejecting facts to protect their feelings. But that is exactly what is happening here. Researchers have asked academics (and retired former academics) whether they feel that they are being treated unfairly. Given the prevalence (and convenience) of the narrative of woke censorship in the conservative media, it is unsurprising that they said yes. But that isn’t evidence of any quantifiable real-world issue.

Where do they think this censorship is coming from? The gender pay gap, for instance, is caused by a range of factors including discrimination against women in hiring and promotion, the career paths women choose, and so on. We can observe working women over the centuries, trace institutionalised misogyny through history and identify the origins of today’s gender pay gap in an empirical way.

So where does a lack of academic freedom come from? Who is orchestrating this grand conspiracy to shut down the voices of Tory academics? When did it start? What is it for?

The inconvenient truth is that those academics might feel oppressed, but they’re not.

Academia is far from perfect, of course. Plenty of endemic issues continue to plague Britain’s education and research institutions. Take, for instance, Satoshi Kanazawa.

Kanazawa has published articles claiming that sub-Saharan Africans have low IQs, leading to high rates of poverty and disease. His work includes studies called “Are all women essentially prostitutes?”, “What’s wrong with Muslims?” and “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?”

Censoring the work of dangerous bigots like Kanazawa is not an issue of “emotional safety”, as Eric Kaufmann, one of the authors of the academic freedom report, claims. LSE – my university – is perfectly happy to continue employing Kanazawa as an associate professor. Yet, it remains unwilling or unable – or both – to hire a single black professor. That is the systemic issue within British academia which desperately needs tackling.