It seems to some that universities, which used to boast that their courses would explore controversial ideas, are nowadays keener to reassure students that they will not be disturbed by anything too worrying. But safe spaces for students make dangerous spaces for dons. Doctors and professors have been subjected to harassment and no-platforming because of their unfashionable opinions on a range of topics including colonialism, transgender rights and abortion. Earlier this year Noah Carl lost his research fellowship at Cambridge (where he was looking into the links between genetics and intelligence) after hundreds of fellow academics signed an open letter accusing him of “racist pseudoscience”. Now a group of academics is ready to launch ‘The Journal of Controversial Ideas’: peer-reviewed research by authors who can choose to remain anonymous because they fear a backlash that could endanger their careers or even their lives. Opponents of the journal say it will provide a safe space for dangerous and offensive ideas published under the cloak of anonymity. Should there be any constraints on the freedom of academics to make discoveries and interpret them as they choose? How should academic research be treated if it is deemed to support theories that are viewed as unacceptable? Do universities have a moral duty to protect and platform views with which the majority disagrees? Or are universities morally entitled to censure or dismiss academics who flout the norms of decency and respect? Is academic freedom genuinely under threat? Featuring Dr Myriam François, Dr Francesca Minerva, Dr Arianne Shahvisi and Dr Joanna Williams.
Producer Dan Tierney.
The Morality of Anger
The political pressure cooker is rattling, steaming and whistling. MPs on all sides are venting outrage over the language used by their opponents. It’s like a real-life Twitter. The PM’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has said the atmosphere in the country will get ever more toxic unless the result of the referendum is delivered. Meanwhile, opposition MPs blame the current fury on what they see as the government’s pig-headed refusal to compromise. Aristotle said: “Those who do not show anger at things that ought to arouse anger are regarded as fools.” Is fierce public rhetoric at a time of political crisis justified or counter-productive? When does the healthy expression of political anger become incitement to riot or murder? Anger is often described as ‘the moral emotion' – the one most likely to affect our behaviour for better or worse. It can be constructive if it’s harnessed to redress an injustice, but what if the fight against the ‘injustice’ is driven by the destructive desire for revenge? Is there a moral distinction between anger expressed in solidarity with the oppressed and anger directed to punishing our enemies? Is it always virtuous to control our anger? George Orwell defined the English character as one of extreme gentleness, “where the bus conductors are good tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers.” Is that national character now changing? Is it too late to recover it? And should we even try?
Guests: Brendan O'Neill, Mark Vernon, Rosie Carter and Thomas Dixon.
Producer: Dan Tierney
Love and Relationships
Whether you watch it or not, it’s hard to ignore the TV reality show ‘Love Island’, which puts a bunch of semi-naked heterosexuals in a villa and tells them to ‘couple up’. It is firmly part of the zeitgeist and now set for two series a year. There’s a clear generational disagreement about the programme: 16-34 year olds are addicted to it; geriatrics can’t stand it. What does the success of ‘Love Island’ say about the state of television, and what does the state of television say about us, the viewers? Love Island’s detractors say it’s vacuous, vulgar and exploits its vulnerable young participants in a format designed to play with their emotions. They argue it’s also morally corrupting for those who watch it – many of them impressionable adolescents with unrealistic expectations of relationships. Those who stick up for the show, including many parents of teenagers, say it contains moral lessons about modern relationships: fidelity, consent and dating etiquette. It is, they believe, both the Jane Austen of the post-millennials and a sex education primer for the over-50s. We live in the era of Tinder and Grindr where partners are selected with the swipe of a phone screen. Some worry about the effect this is having on the emotional intelligence of young people, while others say nothing’s changed; young lovers were always awkward fumblers and there’s nothing new about our obsession with good looks. Social psychologists talk about passionate love – the kind that grips a couple in the first heady phase of their relationship; and companionate love – the calmer state that follows, based on friendship, intimacy and commitment. Have we got our priorities right when it comes to love and relationships?
Producer: Dan Tierney
The anti-Semitism crisis engulfing the Labour party has been described by leading Jewish figures as “a taint of national and historic shame”. Jeremy Corbyn has acknowledged failures in dealing with allegations and the party has now published new materials designed to educate members about anti-Semitic tropes. Nevertheless, Labour is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for racism – an indignity that brackets them with the BNP. According to President Macron, anti-Semitism in Europe is at its highest level since 1945. Stereotypes and ignorance abound. A quarter of the 7,000 Europeans who took part in a recent CNN/ComRes poll believe Jews have too much influence in business and finance, while a third admitted that they knew little or nothing about the Holocaust. Less clear cut is the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. There is an argument about where the line is, and who has the right to draw it. Since Zionism has at its heart a belief in the Jewish right to self-determination, many Jews believe that those who oppose the state of Israel are anti-Semites. Others – many Jews included – don’t think that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic, and argue that saying so is merely a way of ignoring Palestinian grievances. Anti-Semitism may be the oldest ethnic hatred, but is it just another form of racism? Or is it a distinct and uniquely pernicious prejudice which must be understood in the context of centuries of violent oppression, dehumanisation and genocide? Anti-Semitism: what is it? what isn’t it? and how can it be defeated?
Producer: Dan Tierney
Surveillance and Human Freedom
Big Brother is watching you. George Orwell’s chilling words are now a reality. In China’s Xinjiang province, Uyghur Muslims have been described by one official as laboratory mice in an experiment of “advanced, predictive, algorithmic surveillance”. The comments were made to an undercover film-maker, whose documentary, “Inside the Chinese Digital Gulag”, airs this week. The film depicts a society based on phone surveillance apps and a vast network of cameras tracking individuals and even reading their body language to determine their ‘threat level’. The Chinese authorities insist these are necessary security measures; human rights watchers say they are inhuman. Closer to home, civil liberties campaigners are unhappy that several UK police forces are trying out facial recognition cameras. What level of state surveillance is morally acceptable in a liberal democracy? While we’re busy pondering that question, let’s not ignore the fact that most of us accept being spied upon in our own homes by our smartphones and computers. Some of us believe it is a price worth paying for convenience and inter-connectedness. Others warn that information is power and power corrupts. The recent eruption of dystopian drama on our TV screens could point to a deeper unease about the current threats posed to human freedom. Are we giving away too much control to artificial intelligence? Are we sleep-walking into our own Orwellian nightmare? And do we care?
Producer: Dan Tierney