Should Academics Be Forced to Respect Each Other’s Views?

As a Cambridge alumnus, I’ve been glued to the “free speech” saga currently unfolding at my old stomping grounds. A few weeks ago, the Cambridge University’s Executive Council—consisting of its principal officers (the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor), a few Heads of Colleges, a handful of junior and senior academics and administrators, some external members, and a couple student reps—passed what proved to be a “controversial” resolution. In short, they want to revise Cambridge’s free speech guidelines such that academics (and other stakeholders) are expected to be “respectful” of differing views and opinions. This resolution, though passed by the Council, still needs approval from the University’s governing board, the Regent House. Voting on the resolution is underway as I write these words and the result should be announced in a couple days.

You might be thinking, what’s so controversial about guidelines that call for respect? Well, nothing and everything. There is nothing controversial about it in the sense that Cambridge’s HR (human resources) policies already have sufficient provisions to ensure respectful behavior within its ancient and hallowed halls. Bullying, harassment, and incivility are already violations of the University’s code of conduct, as they should be. And yet everything is controversial about this resolution because it seems to be going one step further than the HR policies. During the course of normal debate and disagreement, the resolution appears to insist that all parties to the debate must respect the views of the others.

I suppose it boils down to a question of semantics. What does “respect” really mean? If it means, let’s suppose, not interrupting and allowing the other party or parties to have their “say” before a retort against their position, then, yes, respect is certainly called for. Plato would never countenance people yelling over, at, or across each other, so why should we? But if it means necessarily, under threat of punishment, holding their views in high regard, then the resolution may perhaps be misguided. Now, this obviously doesn’t mean that I’m against a culture of respect. Far from it! I just think that a culture of respect is best built organically, “from the ground up,” rather than imposed by force. Respect, like trust, ought to be worked on continuously.

“A culture of respect is best built organically, ‘from the ground up,’ rather than imposed by force.”

Let me give you an example close to my own research agenda. As an evolutionary theorist, I strongly disagree with the creationist explanation of the origins of life and the universe. I’ve nothing against religion. In fact, I was baptized and confirmed a Presbyterian. I still attend church every so often. I see value in some religious parables, but you still can’t force me to respect creationist views. Now, it goes without saying that I can (and should) be forced to be respectful of an individual’s right to hold creationist views. But respecting an individual’s right to hold a view is very different from respecting the view itself. I hope you see that this is not just splitting hairs.

In any event, you can never really force an individual to respect another’s views. You might be able to force an individual to pretend to respect another’s views, but that’s still quite a different animal from actually respecting another’s views. More often than not, any attempt to force one person to respect another’s views is likely to result in a strengthening of any prior feelings of disrespect.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it makes perfect sense for a state or an institution or organization to regulate how a individual should behave, but it’s dangerous to attempt to regulate how an individual should think. Just ask any refugee who has escaped from an authoritarian regime. It is especially dangerous for a world-leading university (that became world-leading because it historically enabled a free exchange of ideas among free minds) to attempt to regulate thoughts. You may disagree with me. You may even not respect my point of view. But I’m cool with that. I’d have it no other way.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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