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Scorn hit one of the UK’s top universities this week after a new policy sought to force people to be “respectful” over each other’s arguments. Backed by Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor, it would require academics, students and visiting speakers to treat others and their opinions with “respect”. Over the course of the next week, around 7,000 Cambridge academics will settle the motion by voting on the controversial policy.
Already, more than 100 academics at the institution revolted against it, and backed a motion put forward by Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius college, to change “respectful” to “tolerant”.
High-profile names have supported the proposition, including Stephen Fry, who used a column in day Times to slam Cambridge and those who plan to support the policy.
Branding the move as “rather muddled,” Mr Fry argued that, “a demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt.”
He continued: “There are many opinions, positions and points of view which I find I do not and cannot respect. That is surely true for all of us.
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“Even if someone were to pull out a gun, point it at my head and demand respect for their opinion, I could not with any honesty offer it.
“Fear and dread would certainly elicit a trembling acquiescence — but real respect?
“That cannot be supplied to order.
“It comes from somewhere else.”
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The move appears to be in line with a burgeoning trend surrounding so-called “wokeness” – what Paul Embery, a trade unionist and “Blue Labour” member described to Express.co.uk as being “very pretentious about social causes,” coupled with “intolerance towards anyone who might disagree”.
His definition aligns almost perfectly with the consequences of the “respectful” policy at Cambridge University.
Mr Ahmed fears that the new code could be used to stifle views deemed to be “disrespectful” on subjects such as transgender rights, anti-vaccination, religion, race or climate change.
Mr Embery echoed a similar fear, this time in the vein of mainstream politics and the Labour Party.
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He said policies like this are “dangerous because whereas once upon a time people would disagree they would say ‘I disagree with you’, more and more often now people say ‘you mustn’t say that’ or ‘that is offensive’.”
He continued: “Views that were, until fairly recently, perfectly mainstream and acceptable, and conventional wisdom in some cases are now almost effectively outlawed.
“There’s a real authoritarianism that has crept into the Left and I think it’s now infecting large parts of the country including many of our public institutions and corporations.
“And because it’s being driven by the Left, the Left gets associated with it quite justifiably, and people don’t like it.”
And while Mr Embery reasoned that, “people in these working class communities don’t like it and so the party has got to move away from some of this rubbish because it’s damaging”, Mr Ahmed is concerned that academics who satirise certain views could be sacked.
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He uses the example of Richard Dawkins, the biologist who has become best-known for his dogmatic atheism.
Mr Ahmed says that essentially, under the new guidelines, Mr Dawkins’s way of teaching would be deemed as “disrespectful” to religion, and so he could not therefore continue as a professor at Cambridge.
He added: “If I teach a class on religion, could I show Charlie Hebdo cartoons in my class? That would be disrespectful to someone.”
Meanwhile, Mr Fry makes an attempt in his column to balance the ordeal.
He said: “A free mind is obliged to respect only the truth.
“There is so much passion and distress fomenting the debate on campus freedom and academic discussion that decisions are made and policies implemented on the basis of fear rather than reason or sense.
“This has nothing to do with ‘sides’ or particular issues.
“Think of the human attitude or political philosophy you believe to be among the most wicked and dangerous in the world.
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“Do you consent to being forced to respect it?
“Perhaps what is meant is that Cambridge wants decorum and politeness.
“These are codes, much like a dress code, to which any reasonable person might be expected to conform.
“But please do not tell us what to think and feel.”