Pluralism in universities must make a comeback
Last week, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem), which produces the world’s largest democracy dataset with over 30 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2021, released its last report. His findings put what is happening in Ukraine into a much broader global perspective. The report finds that the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 has fallen to 1989 levels. Thirty years of democratic progress seems wiped out. Dictatorships multiply and govern 70% of the world’s population. This represents 5.4 billion people who live without the basic protections offered by the principles and values of democracy.
In 1949, the American philosopher Sidney Hook remarked that “the most curious phenomenon of our time” was the way in which totalitarian regimes sought to wrap themselves in the language of democracy. Perhaps the most curious phenomenon today is the way in which autocratic regimes no longer feel the need to hide behind a democratic facade.
Autocratization seems to be mutating into a bigger, bolder, more brazen form. But how can we understand what drives this process, without mentioning what the problem is and who is to blame?
Fortunately, the answer to these questions has already been provided. Last month, as Putin’s troops and tanks massed on the Ukrainian border, the British politician Oliver Dowden traveled to Washington to explain exactly why democracy was under threat and what needed to be done.
The problem was the “awakening” and the universities were to blame. Period.
“The universities, from which so much of this thoughtless revisionism has emerged, have, of course, for decades fallen prey to the excesses of the left,” Dowden said. “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elites to serve their own interests rather than serving the general public. But this ideology is now everywhere… It is a dangerous form of decadence. Just when our attentions should be focused on eternal enemies, we seem to have entered this period of extreme introspection and self-criticism and it really threatens to undermine our societies of their own self-confidence.
It is of course easy to dismiss such hyperbole. The fact that the speech was delivered at the right-wing Heritage Foundation and chaired by the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom makes it ripe for rejection, if not parody. If there is a threat to democracy, then every bone in my body and every cell in my brain tells me that it is predatory markets, rampant individualism and growing inequality that have frayed the bonds that hold democratic societies together. .
So why did Dowden’s rather desperate attack on “social justice warriors,” “pronoun politics,” and “decolonizing math” annoy me so much?
The answer came to me while reading the aforementioned (and rather grim) V-Dem report. The key shift indicated in the data and hard evidence is one that highlights the growth of toxic bias and a decline in respect for counter-arguments.
Political polarization has reached unprecedented global levels in 2021 as politics is increasingly defined in terms of “them and us”. Think Brexit, think Trump. The ““footballization” of politicsas LBC presenter James O’Brien described it. Once the moral basis of anyone who disagrees with us is thrown out, democracy inevitably implodes.
“Once political elites and their supporters no longer believe political opponents are legitimate and deserving of equal respect,” the V-Dem report concludes, “democratic norms and rules can be set aside to ‘save the nation’ “.
To make this point is in no way to take sides with Oliver Dowden and his theory of “democratic decadence”. And yet, it is almost impossible not to make the connection between the V-Dem data and the potentially positive role of universities as places of democratic socialization.
Could it be that universities themselves need to find a way to reframe the corrosive debate and thereby take control of the agenda?
Proactively moving the discussion from one that focuses on “cancel culture” and “no platform” to one that embraces critical positions and disruptive ideas surely fits the purpose of university life. Free speech defined by a commitment to pluralism and embedded in the civic mission of universities offers a way to end the Dowden attacks.
Some students will complain and grumble, petition and protest against the opinions and attitudes that others are allowed to hold, and a debate will undoubtedly emerge. Good. This is exactly how respect and understanding for the principles of democracy and for the right of others to disagree is forged. It’s learning by doing while being challenged by ideas that will broaden your thinking.
Discomfort in the realm of ideas is only the price to pay for living in a democracy, and pluralism is an antidote to radicalism. Promoting pluralism helps leave the Conservative Party obsessed with “culture wars” and “anti-woke” views when that particular ship may have already sailed. Universities will already have seen an opportunity to reinvigorate their role and position as politicians fuss about like ‘disaster men’ – to use Sir Bernard Crick’s term – not agitating but drowning in storms of their own making.
But the universities must themselves find the confidence necessary to defend the values of pluralism and have too often hesitated in this task. These are the contested universities. The alternative is for the government to press ahead with its plan to legislate free speech on campuses, which in itself is an even more ominous threat to democracy.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Center at the University of Sheffield, UK.
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