Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Now it’s war on the wiggas

Cultural appropriation is re-racialising campus life

Forget frat boys, transphobic feminists and Twitter trolls — the latest victims of modern PC madness are the wiggas. Those well-bred kids who like to don a do-rag, blast Fetty Wap and, worst of all, grow dreadlocks have been getting it both barrels of late.

Canadian popster Justin Bieber has recently found himself in the firing line. After unveiling his new dreaded fringe at the IHeartRadio awards last week, he’s been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ – the mortal modern crime of daring to stray outside of your racial-cultural bracket.

Bieber’s got form here. Three months ago he set the offence-taking thinkpiece generators into overdrive when he revealed his new cornrows. Worse still, the teeny-bopper star caught flak for saying he ‘identified’ with black people, and even came to the defence of Kylie Jenner’s controversial braids.

‘Saying [Jenner’s] being racist because she has her hair in braids is ridiculous’, he said at the time. And he spoke for every non-nutter everywhere when he met the latest round of scorn about his own dreads with the words, ‘It’s just hair’.

When Justin ‘Baby, baby, ooooh’ Bieber is the voice of reason, you know something is up. But the Biebs’ nonchalance only fanned the flames of a dreadlock debate that has been preoccupying the internet for the best part of a week (an age in Tumblr time).

It all kicked into gear when a video surfaced online of a black San Francisco University student squaring off with a white, be-dreadlocked peer. Corey Goldstein, with a head full of natty ginge-tinged locks, is seen arguing in a stairwell with the girl, who accuses him of stealing her culture.

Goldstein, gesticulating like a suburban G-Unit fan, tells her where to go, adding that dreadlocks trace back to Ancient Egypt. The enraged student, identified as Bonita Tindle, asks him if he’s Egyptian, and things escalate. He tries to walk away, with an indignant ‘I don’t need your disrespect, yo’, but Tindle grabs his wrist.

The video has gone viral – and with good reason. It’s a stark reminder of how the newfound obsession with offence-taking has re-racialised cultural life. The whingeing about cultural appropriation – whether it be Beyonce’s bindis or Iggy’s blaccent – has revived the idea that cultures should never mix, that they are assigned on the basis of skin colour.

This has been particularly potent on US campuses, where sections of middle-class minority students have embraced this nonsense as a way of shoring up victim points. At a campus conference in Washington, DC I attended last week, students wouldn’t stop going on about it. Donning bindis, bandanas, sombreros, you name it, were held up as ‘dehumanising’ acts of white theft.

Like so many of these new ideas, cultural appropriation is easy to swat down. Goldstein – another unlikely source of wisdom – made the crucial point: that is, cultures mix, change and influence each other over time. Dreadlocks, as he nodded to, can be traced back to Egypt, India and Scandinavia.

So-called cultural appropriation isn’t only inevitable — it’s good. In the mixing of cultures, universalism blossoms. Goldstein’s hair or his affected slang may not be a shining endorsement for cultural exchange. But a little cloying wigganess is the price we pay for keeping culture a race-free zone.

There was something else to this scandal, too, which shouldn’t escape us. The backlash was almost as big as the original outrage. The anti-PC elements of the internet continued to tear Tindle a new one days after the fact. It’s what kept it in the news and the subject of innumerable radio phone-ins almost a week after this otherwise insignificant event happened.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with calling out campus pillocks on their divisive logic. It keeps me in a job. But the reaction to PC dust-ups is running the risk of becoming just as kneejerk and bratty as that which it takes aim at. Various reports have called Tindle a ‘thug’. Many refer to her wrist-grab as ‘assault’. And a petition has been launched to have her expelled from the college for ‘bullying’.

Not only is this the same sort of crybaby tactics the PC brigade itself routinely engages in, it also risks clouding the issue. The reaction to PC-gone-mad scandals is often personalised and petty. Just as, after the Tim Hunt scandal, fuming hacks spent months digging up dirt on Connie St Louis, the feminist academic with a liberal definition of the truth, so, too, has Tindle become a punching bag for anti-PC bloggers to get their moral rocks off.

Neither Tindle, St Louis nor Biebers’ Twitter-bound haters are the source of our moral rot, however. They’re idiots, thrashing about in the vacuum left by grown-up politics. The idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous – and we shouldn’t mince words in saying so. But it springs from the disarray of the ideal of universalism and the long, slow entrenchment of identity politics, not from the attitudes of a few PC loudmouths. We must resist the urge to whinge about ‘far-left bullying’ or set about twitch-hunting the twitch-hunters.

Remember: politics shouldn’t be personal. After all, that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.


At my university, censorship is out of control

An Edinburgh student on how even head-shaking is now being banned

My first experience of being censored was at football grounds. As a Tottenham fan, I chanted the word ‘yid’ at stadiums around Britain during my teenage years. The Y-word is part of Tottenham’s footballing identity. It speaks to the Jewish heritage of much of the team’s fanbase. Using it is also a way of deflecting the anti-Semitic chanting of other fans. Then, in 2013, the police threatened to arrest those who uttered the Y-word at games, even if they were using it to define themselves. I found myself facing possible arrest for chanting a word that means a lot to me. So I came to know that speech in Britain is not always free.

However, one place where I imagined people would not be punished for what they said was at university. I now realise how foolish that hope was. Soon after I arrived at the University of Edinburgh in September 2015, I learned of the bizarre ‘safe space’ and No Platform policies on this campus and other campuses across Britain. So at the end of 2015, I launched a campaign to change the speech codes at Edinburgh, which, among other things, give the students’ union the power to rescind invitations to speakers with whom they disagree. My petition received over 1,000 signatures and was supported by several public figures.

I’ve spent the six months that I’ve been at university trying to work out why so many students’ unions support censorship and think they have the right to deem what is acceptable and unacceptable speech. The student leaders who push these policies are the obvious culprits here, but actually censorship on campus has a longer history. Many of today’s student leaders have inherited ideas from earlier generations of student radicals. As Brendan O’Neill has argued, they are in many ways the ‘bastard children’ of their equally illiberal predecessors in the 1980s and 90s, who No Platformed racists and Zionists and later sought to silence religious fundamentalists and even rap artists.

Those students of the last century who argued that speech needs to be policed and that offensive ideas are a form of violence are now grown up (well, kind of) and they have influenced, and in some cases are teaching, the new generation. Today’s student radicals think censorship is acceptable, and even progressive, because many of their lecturers or left-wing heroes hold a very similar view, and have done so for years.

If today’s student leaders differ to those of the past, it is that their support for censorious policies is even less intellectual than their predecessors’. Many seem to have abandoned rational thought in favour of screaming down people they oppose and constantly expressing outrage. So at Yale, Nicholas Christakis was encircled and screamed at by shrieking students. His crime? Supporting his wife, Erika Christakis, after she sent out an email defending the right of students to wear whatever they want on Halloween.

Other students have run screaming into pro-Israel gatherings or have burnt far-left literature. At Edinburgh last week, at a meeting of the student council, the students’ union vice-president Imogen Wilson had a safe-space complaint made against her after she raised her hand to denote disagreement. Another safe-space complaint was made in relation to her ‘negative head motions’ (ie. she shook her head). Remarkably, when I asked Imogen about this incident, she defended the safe-space policy, and agreed with her accusers that her gestures could indeed have been ‘intimidating’.

So, not content with doing what many other students’ unions do and banning speakers for being ‘dangerous’ and newspapers and songs for being offensive to women, while also clamping down on the wearing of certain costumes on the basis that this is ‘cultural appropriation’, Edinburgh’s student leaders now threaten to punish people for raising their hands or moving their heads.

These ideas, mad as they seem, have not come out of thin air. I have taken some sociology courses at Edinburgh, and in these courses I have found a lot of intellectual support for the idea of censorship as a progressive good. Many in the field of sociology seem to accept the dangerous idea that violence must be redefined to include hateful, ‘discriminatory’ or offensive speech. When I calmly criticised this idea, I encountered a lot of hostility. One tutor even felt the need to apologise privately to other students who had listened to me criticise laws in mainland Europe that outlaw Holocaust denial. The notion that words are violence, and censorship can be justified, is held in many areas of the academy; the safe-space brigade did not invent it.

The usual response to us students who argue for free speech on campus is defamation. So when I defend the right and ability of women to argue against misogyny, I am labelled a sexist; for defending the rights of minority groups to hear racist speech and challenge it, I have been branded a racist; I was called an ‘Islamophobe’ after Richard Dawkins supported my petition for free speech at Edinburgh. If students get this kind of abuse for standing up for free speech, then perhaps it is understandable that more professors — who have livelihoods and families to protect — aren’t putting the case for full academic freedom.

The illiberalism of today’s students doesn’t run through their bloodstreams. It isn’t natural. Censorship is not passed through genetics. Rather, their hostility to freedom reflects a broader cultural disdain for the idea of liberty and open debate. Standing up for free speech on campus will require challenging the censorious ideas that have taken hold there over decades — both in student-union circles and among many academics — and encouraging liberal students and professors to have the courage to stand up and be counted.


How the EU strangles scholarship in Britain

A Brexit would help us fight the bureaucratisation of universities

David Cameron’s choice of a university for last week’s launch of his government’s pro-EU propaganda booklet should come as little surprise: many academics and vice-chancellors are at the forefront of campaigns to keep Britain in the EU. Cameron used his platform to give universities a shout-out: ‘We think it would be a bad decision to leave – for the economy, jobs, investment, family finances and universities.’ Few from within the higher-education sector seem prepared to challenge the doctrine that EU membership is good for universities.

The project of rallying academics and students to the Remain cause has been led by Universities UK (UUK), a group of vice-chancellors and university leaders, which claims to be ‘the definitive voice for universities in the UK’. UUK argues that:

‘There are 125,000 EU students at British universities, generating more than £2.2 billion for the economy and creating 19,000 jobs, while 14 per cent of academic staff come from other EU nations. Research funding from Brussels is worth £1 billion a year, boosting the quality of research, benefiting the economy and helping British academics to tap into a continent-wide pool of knowledge.’

The frequent incantation of these primarily economic benefits has overshadowed questions about how EU membership has, over a period of several decades, fundamentally altered the nature of higher education and what it means to be a student.

In July 2015, UUK launched its Universities for Europe campaign with the stated aim of demonstrating how ‘the EU strengthens our already world-class higher-education system’. The campaign aims to ‘promote powerful evidence and highlight compelling stories about the benefits of European Union membership’. Did any of the 133 members of UUK question whether it was appropriate for British academia to hold a collective political position on EU membership? Or, indeed, what this stance might mean for the academic freedom of individual scholars who take an opposing view? The idea that ‘powerful evidence’ should be sought and promoted in order to prove an already determined political position is hardly a shining example of good academic practice.

This same pattern of paying lip service to academic values while pushing through an expressly political objective can be seen in Universities for Europe’s approach to debate. Having already made absolutely clear its intention to extol the benefits of EU membership, the Universities for Europe website then declares:

‘We also want to promote the role of universities as places of debate and sources of academic expertise. Universities will open their lecture halls to host public debates to give people opportunities to hear from all sides, to discuss the pros and cons of EU membership and discover more about its impact on universities and, in turn, how this affects them.’

The intention to debate is laudable. But in a context where the ‘definitive voice for universities in the UK’ has already made its view on Brexit abundantly clear, the proposed discussions can only ever be a charade designed to justify its own particular position. The professed support for debate is followed by a list of ‘common myths and misconceptions’ where selective arguments for Brexit are derided.

Apparently, one ‘myth’ is that ‘European students and researchers will still come to the UK even if we are not in the EU’. Instead of exploring whether or not EU students will still want to study in a post-Brexit UK, those who think they will are simply chastised: ‘This is a careless, risky assumption to make.’ This closes down criticism. And Universities for Europe’s arguments warrant criticism. For example, the over-reliance on economic justifications for remaining in the EU presents universities as businesses rather than places concerned with the pursuit, preservation and transmission of knowledge. If universities are not primarily concerned with knowledge then it does not matter how much money they receive from the EU – they are no longer universities. Yet, stretching back decades, every EU directive on education has further contributed to eroding the significance of disciplinary knowledge.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) came into existence in March 2010. It comprises 47 countries and represents the culmination of the Bologna Process, a political project designed to ‘strengthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of European higher education, and to foster student mobility and employability through the introduction of a system based on undergraduate and postgraduate studies with easily readable programmes and degrees’. Although the Bologna Process was not directly overseen by the EU, and not all participating countries are EU members, it received substantial EU funding and direction via consultative members such as the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the European Students’ Union, the European University Association and the European Association of Institutions of Higher Education. The EHEA’s emphasis on economic competitiveness and employability changes the role of universities from education to training and contributes to the transformation of students into consumers.

Furthermore, the need to make each nation’s qualifications equivalent has increased the bureaucratisation of higher education. The EHEA acknowledges that ‘quality assurance has played an important role from the outset’. ‘Harmonisation’, or the erosion of national differences in approach, required the introduction of a European qualifications framework so that a degree in any EHEA country signifies a student has studied for the same length of time and to the same standard. This ignores the different prior educational experiences of students as well as different cultural traditions and expectations of what a university is for.

Worse, it ignores the distinctive nature of different subjects. In practice, it means that discussion of what students should know has been replaced with learning outcomes, instrumental goals a student can demonstrate having met, and credits, ‘a quantified means of expressing the volume of learning based on the achievement of learning outcomes and their associated workloads’. Inevitably, as with all attempts at standardisation, the danger is a race to the bottom – in this case other European countries have had to come in line with England’s shorter degree programmes.

The need to quantify and measure learning outcomes and credits means the pursuit of knowledge, for students and lecturers alike, becomes relativised and robbed of all significance. It becomes just one goal among many to be ticked off over the course of an academic year. Knowledge is presented as just as important as a range of other outcomes, relating to employability, sustainability and lifelong learning. Rather than knowledge, the EHEA is most committed to promoting ‘the social dimension of higher education’. For the most part, this seems to be about widening participation and the need to ensure people from disadvantaged backgrounds can access university.

However, it also embodies a distinct body of values such as the promotion of social justice, inclusion, global citizenship and sustainability. Individual academics have not been consulted on these values but, just like credits and learning outcomes, they are expected to make cursory reference to them in module and programme-specification documents. It should be for lecturers, not EU-funded bureaucrats, to determine what students are taught.

The replacement of knowledge with values is reflected in many of the arguments being put forward by the EHEA, UUK and others. The presence of EU students in UK universities and the existence of exchange programmes such as Erasmus are praised for providing students with an international university experience and opportunities to gain intercultural competence. There is indeed much to celebrate in having a diverse group of students, but university has to be about more than just bringing people into contact with each other. This should be a byproduct of going to university, not the main event.

UUK’s argument, that EU membership allows British universities to ‘tap into a continent-wide pool of knowledge’, suggests a very narrow and instrumental view of knowledge. Brexit will not stop scholars from being able to read books, attend conferences or communicate with academics from the rest of Europe. However a vote to remain in the EU may see the pursuit of knowledge further relegated behind numerous other political, economic and social goals. Brexit will not solve all the problems currently facing the British higher-education sector, but at least it will allow those working in UK universities more control over changing direction.


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