I was recently due to speak at a conference on Understanding Others Though Narrative Practices at the University of Wollongong. Like the proverbial owl of Minerva, my plane had spread its wings with the falling of dusk; soon after it landed, half the conference had been cancelled. This was due to protests concerning a homophobic comment one of the speakers had posted on social media some years earlier, during Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. Sheikh Jamil El-Biza, who has since apologised for those remarks on repeated occasions, had been invited in part because of a powerful lecture he had recently delivered, on how the Muslim community should treat others with the same openness and understanding that Christians showed Muslims in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist mosque shootings.
“How can an intolerant person be invited to a workshop on tolerance?” protestors asked, evoking Karl Popper’s mantra in The Open Society and its Enemies that we have a right to not tolerate intolerance. Yet, as those lucky enough to secure a place on Wollongong’s new BA in Western Civilization will learn, Popper was completely against the suppression of intolerance, holding instead that it is unwise “as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion.” This is because, as John Rawls points out in his A Theory of Justice, a society with zero tolerance for the intolerant simply cannot function as a just society.
Toleration should only be jettisoned when it compromises someone’s security, as was the case with the rallying hate speech that led to the Christchurch shootings. Weeks before the conference, El-Biza had explained that “when they say rhetoric which puts the blame on you, because you’re a Muslim, and lifts the blame of others because of freedom of speech, it was only natural that this was going to happen.” Unfortunately, Australia’s own hate-speech laws do not extend to religious vilification, offering little protection to Muslims despite their being one of the most vilified groups in Australia. This enabled the National Tertiary Education Branch President to refer to El-Biza and “people like that” as “fundamentalist”, without fear of civil reproach.
A society of Western liberals chanting #jesuischarlie in unified support of the free speech right of French weekly Charlie Hebdo to mock Islam and blame ordinary Muslims for terrorist attacks is in no position to subsequently cry “zero tolerance” for alleged “hate speech” whenever they want to ban Muslim speakers from university campuses because they don’t share our values. Many signal the appearance of being woke, but how open is a society that only wants to champion those Muslims that share a Western liberal point of view? And how does it plan to police their thoughts?
In White, Brett Easton Ellis makes the same point with regard to the selective championing of gay people:
“Sanctimonious voices in the media tell us that all gay people should be canonized as long as they share the same uniform values – speak like this, express themselves within this range, only believe in this, only support this, vote for this … as long as the gay in question toes the party line, isn’t messy or too sexual, negative or angry and offers no contradictions and is certainly not conservative or Christian.”
Such voices have also objected to Wollongong’s new partnership with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization. These would-be moral crusaders against Western supremist and racist attitudes have, perhaps unwittingly, exhibited the very attitudes and behaviours they claim to fight against. They thwart academic freedom in a bid to protest a degree they view as a threat to this very freedom, despite both partners having explicitly committed themselves to upholding it.
Protesters wrongly conflate studying Western Civilization with promoting an ideology of superiority. They complain that the degree “is upholding the myth of western civilization being better or more civilised than other civilisations.” The accusation is as ludicrous as claiming that the Royal Shakespeare Company is “in favour of” Shakespeare, at the expense of Marlowe, Brecht, Soyinka, or Angelou. Anybody who reads the curriculum can see that while the new BA assumes that Western Civilization includes valuable ideas (does anybody deny this?), these will be explored in tandem with those of non-Western traditions, from Buddhism to the Quran.
Anthony Grayling’s new History of Philosophy was recently slated by Terry Eagleton for giving insufficient attention to non-Western thought:
“The book ends with a section on Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African philosophy, which might seem enough to refute the charge of provincialism. Yet one shouldn’t reach for the cigars too soon. Indian philosophy is summarized in around 15 pages, which is about the same amount of space devoted to John Locke, while African thought gets just short of seven pages, about half of what Grayling gives to Kant. All this lame gesture succeeds in doing is underlining how parochial the book actually is.”
The publisher’s mistake had been to bill the book as “The first authoritative and accessible single volume history of philosophy to cover both Western and Eastern traditions”. If an author lacks the knowledge or interest to write a comprehensive overview, it is best to name the book to “Western Philosophy”, “Eastern Philosophy”, “African Philosophy”, and so on. The same is true of general “Philosophy” programmes. Most of them contain mere tokenistic references to non- Western. UOW’s BA in Western Civilization is the mirror opposite of this, examining Western thought through a sustained historical and theoretical conversation with other traditions, including marginalised voices. At a time when humanities are under strain, programmes like this should be lauded, not attacked.