#Cancel culture

With the rise of cancel culture and no-platforming, UCL President & Provost Dr Michael Spence argues that we need to learn how to disagree well

A hand holding a microphone with lots of wires going across a purple backdrop

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

President & Provost of UCL. Dr Michael Spence, stands in the grounds of the university smiling at the camera

UCL should and must be a place where everyone can bring their whole selves without fear of discrimination or disrespect. But that’s not the same as being a place where people are shielded from views that they find challenging or uncomfortable. There can be no safe space for unchallenged thinking; in fact, I would argue that it is the job of a university to make everybody feel uncomfortable and wonder if they are wrong. That is how we progress.

UCL should and must be a place where everyone can bring their whole selves without fear of discrimination or disrespect. But that’s not the same as being a place where people are shielded from views that they find challenging or uncomfortable. There can be no safe space for unchallenged thinking; in fact, I would argue that it is the job of a university to make everybody feel uncomfortable and wonder if they are wrong. That is how we progress.

UCL should and must be a place where everyone can bring their whole selves without fear of discrimination or disrespect. But that’s not the same as being a place where people are shielded from views that they find challenging or uncomfortable. There can be no safe space for unchallenged thinking; in fact, I would argue that it is the job of a university to make everybody feel uncomfortable and wonder if they are wrong. That is how we progress.

The core issue is that we have forgotten how to disagree well.

It has become something of a trope that free speech is under threat at universities. I’m not sure that’s true; it’s hard to find examples of real censorship on campuses. The bigger problem is the way we disagree. Too often, complex issues are reduced to simple sloganising. People who express different views are subject to vilification and shouted down. Listening to an alternative opinion and attempting to understand where it is coming from is rare. This is a problem across the political spectrum.

From its foundations, UCL has been a place that is ahead of the curve. It was founded as a different kind of institution and ever since, we’ve been involved in asking the difficult questions and in considering the implications of the answers for social change. As a consequence, we have a great tradition of student activism that is central to who we are and what we do.

The core issue is that we have forgotten how to disagree well.

It has become something of a trope that free speech is under threat at universities. I’m not sure that’s true; it’s hard to find examples of real censorship on campuses. The bigger problem is the way we disagree. Too often, complex issues are reduced to simple sloganising. People who express different views are subject to vilification and shouted down. Listening to an alternative opinion and attempting to understand where it is coming from is rare. This is a problem across the political spectrum.

From its foundations, UCL has been a place that is ahead of the curve. It was founded as a different kind of institution and ever since, we’ve been involved in asking the difficult questions and in considering the implications of the answers for social change. As a consequence, we have a great tradition of student activism that is central to who we are and what we do.

The core issue is that we have forgotten how to disagree well.

It has become something of a trope that free speech is under threat at universities. I’m not sure that’s true; it’s hard to find examples of real censorship on campuses. The bigger problem is the way we disagree. Too often, complex issues are reduced to simple sloganising. People who express different views are subject to vilification and shouted down. Listening to an alternative opinion and attempting to understand where it is coming from is rare. This is a problem across the political spectrum.

From its foundations, UCL has been a place that is ahead of the curve. It was founded as a different kind of institution and ever since, we’ve been involved in asking the difficult questions and in considering the implications of the answers for social change. As a consequence, we have a great tradition of student activism that is central to who we are and what we do.

An image from a 1977 flyer for an education cuts protest

An image from a 1977 flyer for an education cuts protest

An image from a 1977 flyer for an education cuts protest

An image from a 1977 flyer for an education cuts protest

Despite the digital revolution, the great traditions of physical protest continue: students still gather to shout slogans, hang banners in the quad and put posters on my door. Everything in student life has always been urgent, important, the subject of tremendous, passionate energy. We see all of that in spades now.

What I do think has changed is the external environment. There are fewer consensus positions and tremendous polarity in our political discourse, particularly around some cultural issues. That is reflected in campus life; there is a propensity in our conversation to identify and emphasise points of difference. Part of the role of a university is to say to students and the wider community: “It’s really good to be passionate and to protest, but at the same time you’ve got to be thinking in a more nuanced way about how the issues you care about play out in reality, which is inevitably more complex and contradictory than a slogan suggests.”

Despite the digital revolution, the great traditions of physical protest continue: students still gather to shout slogans, hang banners in the quad and put posters on my door. Everything in student life has always been urgent, important, the subject of tremendous, passionate energy. We see all of that in spades now.

What I do think has changed is the external environment. There are fewer consensus positions and tremendous polarity in our political discourse, particularly around some cultural issues. That is reflected in campus life; there is a propensity in our conversation to identify and emphasise points of difference. Part of the role of a university is to say to students and the wider community: “It’s really good to be passionate and to protest, but at the same time you’ve got to be thinking in a more nuanced way about how the issues you care about play out in reality, which is inevitably more complex and contradictory than a slogan suggests.”

Despite the digital revolution, the great traditions of physical protest continue: students still gather to shout slogans, hang banners in the quad and put posters on my door. Everything in student life has always been urgent, important, the subject of tremendous, passionate energy. We see all of that in spades now.

What I do think has changed is the external environment. There are fewer consensus positions and tremendous polarity in our political discourse, particularly around some cultural issues. That is reflected in campus life; there is a propensity in our conversation to identify and emphasise points of difference. Part of the role of a university is to say to students and the wider community: “It’s really good to be passionate and to protest, but at the same time you’ve got to be thinking in a more nuanced way about how the issues you care about play out in reality, which is inevitably more complex and contradictory than a slogan suggests.”

“There is a propensity in our conversation to identify and emphasise points of difference”
“There is a propensity in our conversation to identify and emphasise points of difference”
“There is a propensity in our conversation to identify and emphasise points of difference”

The university has to be able to challenge students to articulate their position in a way that is thoughtful; faithful to the evidence; able to be heard by the other side; doesn’t, from the beginning, make an enemy of the other; and chooses language that is commensurate with the goal of increasing understanding – because that’s how real social change happens.

Social media is often pointed at as a negative influence on public discourse, and certainly the limitations of a Tweet, plus the pile-ons that regularly materialise, have made disagreeing well more difficult, but that just gives us a more important job as a university. Passionate engagement in protesting for change and finding a slogan you can put on a banner and rally around are important, but need to be balanced with spending time in the seminar room, where you have to challenge the things that you put on the banner and maybe realise that, although you still believe in that slogan, the situation is more complicated.

The university has to be able to challenge students to articulate their position in a way that is thoughtful; faithful to the evidence; able to be heard by the other side; doesn’t, from the beginning, make an enemy of the other; and chooses language that is commensurate with the goal of increasing understanding – because that’s how real social change happens.

Social media is often pointed at as a negative influence on public discourse, and certainly the limitations of a Tweet, plus the pile-ons that regularly materialise, have made disagreeing well more difficult, but that just gives us a more important job as a university. Passionate engagement in protesting for change and finding a slogan you can put on a banner and rally around are important, but need to be balanced with spending time in the seminar room, where you have to challenge the things that you put on the banner and maybe realise that, although you still believe in that slogan, the situation is more complicated.

The university has to be able to challenge students to articulate their position in a way that is thoughtful; faithful to the evidence; able to be heard by the other side; doesn’t, from the beginning, make an enemy of the other; and chooses language that is commensurate with the goal of increasing understanding – because that’s how real social change happens.

Social media is often pointed at as a negative influence on public discourse, and certainly the limitations of a Tweet, plus the pile-ons that regularly materialise, have made disagreeing well more difficult, but that just gives us a more important job as a university. Passionate engagement in protesting for change and finding a slogan you can put on a banner and rally around are important, but need to be balanced with spending time in the seminar room, where you have to challenge the things that you put on the banner and maybe realise that, although you still believe in that slogan, the situation is more complicated.

A 2020 trans solidarity demo with people holding placards

A 2020 trans solidarity demo

A 2020 trans solidarity demo

A 2020 trans solidarity demo

I’m really proud that UCL doesn’t have a history of no-platforming. This is a place that takes trans rights very seriously, for example, but it’s also a place that is home to many gender-critical feminists, and each of these communities has a platform. Prior to the pandemic, UCL hosted the Woman’s Place UK Women’s Liberation 2020 Conference, which included gender-critical views that many in our community find unacceptable. The event was able to go ahead and those who opposed it were able to protest and be heard, and that seems to me to be a victory for free speech. An even greater victory would be for the opposing sides to talk, listen and understand each other more, even if they continue to strongly disagree. University ought to be a place where staff and students encounter the other and where we model what it means to live with genuine diversity. That means a world in which not everybody thinks the same thing.

In the context of this debate, I find myself often quoting what philosophers call the ‘epistemic virtues’: choosing language commensurate with the goal of increasing understanding; recognising the professional or positional expertise of the other; listening with a purpose to try and understand what the other person is saying and being faithful to what they are saying; and looking for points of agreement and identifying with precision the areas in which there are disagreement.

In other words, the traditional courtesy and intellectual rigour that are fundamental to the kind of productive, constructive debate that advances understanding.

Dr Michael Spence is President & Provost of UCL.

Photography Stocksy, Enerzaya Gundalai

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

I’m really proud that UCL doesn’t have a history of no-platforming. This is a place that takes trans rights very seriously, for example, but it’s also a place that is home to many gender-critical feminists, and each of these communities has a platform. Prior to the pandemic, UCL hosted the Woman’s Place UK Women’s Liberation 2020 Conference, which included gender-critical views that many in our community find unacceptable. The event was able to go ahead and those who opposed it were able to protest and be heard, and that seems to me to be a victory for free speech. An even greater victory would be for the opposing sides to talk, listen and understand each other more, even if they continue to strongly disagree. University ought to be a place where staff and students encounter the other and where we model what it means to live with genuine diversity. That means a world in which not everybody thinks the same thing.

In the context of this debate, I find myself often quoting what philosophers call the ‘epistemic virtues’: choosing language commensurate with the goal of increasing understanding; recognising the professional or positional expertise of the other; listening with a purpose to try and understand what the other person is saying and being faithful to what they are saying; and looking for points of agreement and identifying with precision the areas in which there are disagreement.

In other words, the traditional courtesy and intellectual rigour that are fundamental to the kind of productive, constructive debate that advances understanding.

Dr Michael Spence is President & Provost of UCL.

Photography Stocksy, Enerzaya Gundalai

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

I’m really proud that UCL doesn’t have a history of no-platforming. This is a place that takes trans rights very seriously, for example, but it’s also a place that is home to many gender-critical feminists, and each of these communities has a platform. Prior to the pandemic, UCL hosted the Woman’s Place UK Women’s Liberation 2020 Conference, which included gender-critical views that many in our community find unacceptable. The event was able to go ahead and those who opposed it were able to protest and be heard, and that seems to me to be a victory for free speech. An even greater victory would be for the opposing sides to talk, listen and understand each other more, even if they continue to strongly disagree. University ought to be a place where staff and students encounter the other and where we model what it means to live with genuine diversity. That means a world in which not everybody thinks the same thing.

In the context of this debate, I find myself often quoting what philosophers call the ‘epistemic virtues’: choosing language commensurate with the goal of increasing understanding; recognising the professional or positional expertise of the other; listening with a purpose to try and understand what the other person is saying and being faithful to what they are saying; and looking for points of agreement and identifying with precision the areas in which there are disagreement.

In other words, the traditional courtesy and intellectual rigour that are fundamental to the kind of productive, constructive debate that advances understanding.

Dr Michael Spence is President & Provost of UCL.

Photography Stocksy, Enerzaya Gundalai

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.