Intellectual diversity and free speech

News emerged last week that students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) want to have the majority of ‘white philosophers’ removed from courses run by the university, in order to ‘decolonise’ the institution.

Further, they argued that ‘if white philosophers are required’ then they should be taught from a ‘critical standpoint’.

Just a little note on the latter point; shouldn’t all philosophers be taught from a critical standpoint? Are they implying by their assertion that the work of black philosophers should be accepted unquestioningly rather than critically analysed?

Getting to the point of this post, what, you might ask, does this news have to do with free speech?

First of all, as I alluded to in my first post, the right of free speech which is so important to our society can only be recognised as such if its origins are properly understood. That means learning about the writings of the likes of John Stuart Mill and others, most of whom happen to be white men.

So by relegating the importance of the likes of Mill, simply because of the colour of their skin, these students are asking to be deprived of some of humanity’s greatest works, and in the process will be ignorant about why the right to free expression is important.

They are, in fact, demanding to have a deciding influence in the content of their course, before they’ve even learnt about those figures they want to exclude. To me, that seems more than wrongheaded, and instead verges on authoritarian.

Sir Roger Scruton, an eminent philosopher and white man, put it well to the Telegraph when he said, in response to the news,  “You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy.”

“If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.”

Indeed, Scruton touches on an extremely important point. It is that the works of many of these now-pigeonholed “white philosophers” have universal appeal to all human beings everywhere.

Nothing speaks more to the human spirit than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s brilliant assessment of the modern state, that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”; or indeed John Locke’s somewhat apt pronouncement that “The mind is furnished with ideas by experience alone”. It certainly is.

What I find distressing is that our society has made significant progress towards judging people by the content of their arguments, rather than the colour of their skin, or any other physical characteristic. Yet this move by SOAS’ students’ union is another example of what seems to be a regression to where colour is again taking centre stage.

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