Anthony Grayling, a 72-year-old philosopher and honorary professor at the University of Oxford, believes that one of the great evils that plagues humanity is the inability to listen. Conversations without silence in which the interlocutors try to impose their arguments without any intention of change. He considers that this is the origin of hate speech and that it is never too late to train that ability to listen that “everyone should learn”. Born in Luanshya (Zambia), although he feels 99% British, he founded the New College of the Humanities in London in 2012, a university to value critical thinking, a “cliché” – as he defines it – that of not practiced will lead us to barbarism.
Concerned about the latest freedom of expression incident at the University of Sussex, where Philosophy professor Kathleen Stock had to go to the police after campus students hung up posters accusing her of “transphobia” and threatened that she would “die alone” after she published a book in which she questions people’s gender self-determination as a mere administrative act, Grayling believes that campuses should train their students in tolerance and believes that the best formula is the tutorials, a pedagogical model that characterizes Oxford and Cambridge in which the student sits alone with the teacher for at least one hour a week to reflect and “explore his mind”. Gayling participated last week in a debate on the diversity of ideas on campus within the Reinventing Higher Educaction event organized by IE University in Rome, where the voices of more than 30 university professors from prestigious international centers such as the British Imperial College were heard. or London School of Economics.
Question. The Rector of the University of Sussex has opened an investigation into the origin of the posters with threats and has assured that it will defend the academic freedom of all its professors. Should academic freedom have some moral limit?
Answer. The question is wrong. More than talking about the imposition of limits, we have to look towards a second formula. I give an example: you have a horse that you ride on weekends, as much as you appreciate it, do not sit it at the table for dinner. There is a place for that horse and it is not your living room. In the same way, there is a space for freedom of expression and if you choose the wrong place you can do harm with it. We have to take responsibility for measuring how and where we use our speech. Finding the right forum, that’s the lesson people must learn, absorb that skill. The great challenge of morality is good manners, taking others into consideration. Be principled and try to be a type of person. Demonstrate against the ideas and at the same time respect the person who has expressed them and not try to destroy them.
P. How do you explain that even the most educated generations who come to university do not measure the consequences of these extreme behaviors? Professor Kathleen Stock said the “culture of fear” is taking over campuses with threats that raise concerns for personal safety.
R. Even the most educated generations are falling into the trap. To defend their convictions, they attack a person, condemn his personality and morality instead of questioning the ideas that he has expressed. It is a frontal attack in which the consequences are not measured. There is a transfer of the stigma of the idea expressed to the person who expresses it. That is the most important problem. In the case of Sussex, of the 3,000 students on campus, probably around 20 started the campaign, the noise and hostility began and social media immediately amplified the lynching. How much time did Twitter users spend thinking about Kathleen and her true vision of transgender people? Maybe in three seconds they hit the button without thinking too much and contributed to the storm. They did not spend time investigating, if they had, they would have discovered that she defends that the trans community should see their right to legal equality strengthened or that there are violent acts against this group that should be prosecuted.
P. Can you teach at the University to exercise that freedom of expression without hurting third parties?
R. Without that it is impossible to have an education that deserves to be called that. Discussions cannot be censored. If people find it toxic to talk about the Nazis or Franco then they are losing access to an important part of knowledge. I always tell my students that they have to be prepared to be offended or hurt, but that this has to give them the conviction that they can argue better and push them back. Many times things make us uncomfortable because they are part of our prejudices. There is a very interesting book by human rights worker Suzanne Nossel, Dare to Speak [Atrévete a hablar] in which it details what elements are necessary by both parties in any dispute, how to get the other side to consider your point of view even if they hate that idea. Now you fight the enemy by silencing or excluding them. We can’t go that low. Trying to destroy someone’s career for having expressed an idea is one way to bullying The Sussex students threatened to stop paying the nearly € 11,000 a year tuition if they did not fire Kathleen.
P. Primary schools also have a responsibility in this imbalance.
R. In contemporary societies, in the primary and secondary stages, it is necessary to teach to be responsible with the use of social networks, which are the focus of disagreement. By the time they get to college, they must have spent a lot of time thinking about how they use them, what is acceptable and what is not. The internet has become a toilet wall where everyone can pour out their lies or conspiracy theories. In this tsunami of garbage our students have to be taught to differentiate what is acceptable from what is not.
P. How do you teach yourself to listen? Is empathy innate or can it be exercised?
R. All human beings, because we are social animals, are born with that capacity. One of the best ways is through literature. Being an attentive reader helps to cultivate the habit of listening, you exercise your empathy. There is a recurring joke: a masochist tells a sadist “hurt me”, and he answers “no” [para fastidiarle aún más]. Even to be a sadist you have to be empathetic and know what the other might feel. It is natural in humans. But if you haven’t trained, once you get to college, tutoring is an excellent technique for training your listening. This interaction between student and teacher in individual sessions is like kneading bread, the more you work on it, the better it comes out. There are hundreds of dialects of English and meanings have to be negotiated. Mentoring is the negotiation of a rigorous understanding of a concept.
P. Not all universities implement this methodology based on personalized sessions. I understand that the cost is high.
R. It is the core of our teaching model (at the New College of the Humanities there are about 800 students), in Cambridge they call it supervision. People learn differently and in addition to the master classes you have to work at another level. All of our students have at least one of these personalized sessions once a week, for one hour. You send them an assignment, they do research and write an essay which they then discuss with you. Your task is to explore his mind, find answers that serve him. Young people often have good ideas and struggle mentally to articulate them. To help them formulate them, you have to pay close attention and intuit what they are trying to say, where they want to go. Silences are very important in these meetings, you have to give space for reflection, train pauses. That is our added value.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.