Friday, March 31, 2006

Link Dump

Some people have been getting excited about Frank Ellis, the quite obviously foaming-at-the-mouth racist who got sacked by Leeds University for saying various foaming-at-the-mouth racist things, on the grounds of suppression of his freedom of speech. As I said here, he broke the terms of his employment contract, and so of course the university were entitled to sack him. Beyond that, I just wanted to say, there's a degree of irony in a lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies attempting to resurrect the category of the untermenschen.

The Virtua Stoa has had up, for a while now, a set of questions Chris thinks might be interesting in light of Madeleine Bunting's much-commented on confusion about exactly what the Enlightenment is. They are interesting questions, but I think they actually miss the point somewhat, because they, like Bunting, don't distinguish fully between the Enlightenment, series of historical events, and the Enlightenment, touchstone of a particular set of values. By analogy, think about liberalism. When someone says, I am a liberal, we don't feel compelled to interrogate their agreement or otherwise with the pronouncements and projects of every major liberal thinker or movement in the canon, because they are referring to a set of ideas which have come to be called liberal, which might not necessarily have perfect correlation with every set of ideas which has ever been called liberal. Likewise, when someone says, I believe in the Enlightenment, it's not clear that they have to be in perfect agreement, were that even possible, with some original conception, were it to exist, of what the Enlightenment was. Which is not to say that asking what the Enlightenment was isn't interesting, or useful.

More briefly, Stumbling and Mumbling asks whether education is worth it, Indymedia claims the BBC is misrepresenting public views, Jonathan Wolff writes very sensibly about animal testing in the Grauniad, it would appear that the Herceptin story is being manipulated by drug companies, and apparently US Supreme Court Justices feel it's OK to tell reporters to 'go f*ck themselves', so long as it's in Italian.


Phil said...

As I understand it he's been suspended pending an investigation. Given his terms & conditions - particularly since the Race Relations (Amendment) Act - this seems entirely appropriate, not to say inevitable.

What does concern me (from my reading of the AUT activists' mailing list) is a sense that Ellis is seen simply as a Bad Thing who should be Got Rid Of: there's a slippage between opposing his views and treating them as unthinkably vile and to be suppressed. I'm not claiming the moral high ground or some kind of neutrality - apart from anything else, my personal opinion is that the man's a racist git and Leeds would be better off without him. The point is that repression creates the conditions for the return of the repressed; if you read Ellis's article, he's clearly banking on gaining some kind of anti-establishment credibility. Better, surely, to have Ellis in post with AUT members refusing to cover for him, students boycotting his classes and so on - and lots of publicity for just how bad his ideas are.

Rob Jubb said...

I'm not entirely sure about this. I mean, I do for example think that criminalising holocaust denial is acceptable, so I can't and indeed don't want to take the principled position that it's better to have things out than in, as it were. On the other hand, Ellis is, as you say, trying to position himself as some kind of martyr before the false idol of multiculturalism. The problem for him, though, with this strategy, is that he is quite clearly hysterical, and he obviously and wilfully violated his terms and conditions, so it's hard to brush him up as someone it's worth rallying round. Also, it's not clear to me that being systematically ostracised is any less of a martyrdom than getting suspended, investigated, and presumably sacked, while, since it could well drag on longer, it's likely to draw more attention to it which of course increases the chance of Ellis being able to depict himself as a martyr.

Ben said...

I hardly think it's a suppression of free speech. I haven't really followed the case, but as I understand from your presentation, they're not stopping him saying anything, merely not employing him. That doesn't seem objectionable to me. It's like if he wrote a racist letter to a newspaper, then complained at their refusal to print it. It doesn't deny his right to say what he likes, but others can choose how they want to respond...

(That's a rather quick and rough analogy, of course; and there would be problems if he was unable to find acceptable employment anywhere, etc)

As for the Enlightenment, I don't see how your analogy with liberalism works, unless what you mean by 'I believe in the Enlightment' means not 'I believe in a historical period/event' (like the Renaissance), but 'I believe in Enlightenment values', making it an ideology of sorts.

Rob Jubb said...


I disagree. I think that the sanction of loss of employment can be a suppression of liberty. It's not a question of people being free to respond, because it's not a response remotely in kind. One reason, for example, we have a secret ballot is that it makes it much more difficult for employers coercing their workers into voting one way or another. Presumably, we would think of people being sacked because of the way they chose to vote as unacceptable. Clearly then, there can be unconscionable terms of employment. The point is that Frank Ellis' conditions were not unconscionable: indeed, given his position as someone who would have to teach people he regarded as subhuman, they seem eminently sensible.

On the Enlightenment thing, the point of the analogy is that it is quasi-ideological, since talking about the Enlightenment as a distinct and concrete historical movement would, as Chris indicates, be perhaps rather foolish.

Ben said...

As I said, I haven't followed this case. My point was it doesn't seem like denying his free speech, even if it may be wrong on other grounds.

Suppose someone needs Tuesdays off for religious reasons, and an employer isn't willing to grant that. My interpretation, in normal circumstances, would be that the employer does wrong - by denying the person chance to have the job and practice his/her religion - but the employer doesn't deny the person freedom of religion - they can do what they like on Tuesdays, just not in this job.

I can see how one could still disagree with such a line, but I generally take a I-don't-think-threats-really-diminish-liberty-much-(unless-they're-really-bad?) type line

Ben said...

The CT link policy seems to catch something like what I mean:

"[I]f you’re a racist, or anti-Semitic, or homophobic, and/or you think that all Jews or Arabs ought to be forcibly expelled, or similar, we would prefer that you continue to practice your right to free speech without a link from us."

I suppose one can argue 'without a job from us' is a difference in kind (rather than degree) from 'without a link from us' - and I'd probably accept the former is more objectionable than the latter - but I don't see either prevent you saying what you want (in normal circumstances, where one has other jobs available rather than starvation)

Rob Jubb said...

Legal threats don't prevent you from saying what you want, but they are conventionally regarded as threats to freedom.

Ben said...

It depends how you see law. Imagine a law that imposes a £50 spot fine for racist remarks.

The law's point of view (as legal philosophers might put it) probably wants you to accept 'you can't make racist remarks', but I'd contend the recipient's viewpoint is 'I can say this if I pay £50'

On another note, what do you think of being described as a non-muscular liberal by Chris?

Rob Jubb said...

Alright, so a fifty pound fine doesn't seem like a huge burden, so it's hard to see it as a serious threat to freedom. We could arrange the thought experiment so that the loss of fifty pounds is a huge burden. The point is though, most laws don't involve the loss of fifty pounds. They involve the loss of larger sums of money, the possibility of imprisonment - where, after all, I suppose you're only kept in by the fact that you'd have to plot, scheme and possibly murder to get out - and associated reputational harms. The law is an obstruction to freedom because it imposes burdens on acts. It is a form of threat.

As I've already said to Chris, I can be muscular when I feel like it, just not about the crazy stuff that so-called msucular liberals get muscular about.