Time and again, the political battles at University of Brighton are concerned with silence.
Speech scares us. It’s why, when we discuss freedom of speech, we become obsessed with the limits we should place on it rather than the obligation we have to encourage it. Speech affects things; it has effects. Aristotle said that speech is the defining characteristic of the “human animal” (1992: 60), distinct from the mere “voice” (Ibid.) of all non-human animals. As Rancière pointed out (1999), this distinction has been the fault line around which all politics has occurred: the great and the good say: you are not in possession of speech, you are incapable of articulating “what is useful and what is harmful, [...] what is just and what is unjust”; all I can hear emanating from your mouths are expressions of “pain and pleasure” (Aristotle 1992: 60). Hopefully, we demonstrate why they are wrong.
There are two key effects of the lack of speech on the part of Professor Julian Crampton, Vice-Chancellor of University of Brighton. First, Julian’s speech could do things. Julian, more so than most people, is seen as a political animal. He is recognised as being capable of discussing the useful and the harmful, the just and the unjust. This is because he is a Vice-Chancellor: someone at the top of an institution; someone who earns over two-hundred thousand pounds a year. Julian’s speech affects the debates surrounding higher education. He could say “what is happening at London Metropolitan University is wrong” or “what is happening at the University of Sussex is wrong”, but he does not. He could even say what is happening at these institutions is right, which would be unusual given the near universal outcry against the fundamentally racist decision of the United Kingdom Borders Agency at London Met, or the outsourcing of services and the privatisation of over two-hundred jobs at Sussex. Even the wrong speech would be better than no speech. Which brings me on to…
Second, Julian’s lack of speech affects all those who would like to talk with him. When we try and talk to Julian, he doesn’t listen. His response is a stony silence. We can chatter away all we want, but we are treated as nothing more than Aristotle’s animals voicing pleasure and pain. At best we might be seen as parrots, mimicking the speech of those who are gifted this quality. The fight over silence is thus a fight over recognition. Because we are not “gregarious animal[s]” (Aristotle 1992: 60): we share a “common view” (Ibid.) with Julian, as equal members of the University of Brighton. If Julian said “I think the potential expulsion of thousands of students from our country is great!” then we could tell him why he is wrong, we could challenge him to justify his opinion, we could demand that he revoke his opinion due to the harm that it might cause. In short, we would be able to act. Julian’s silence is stultifying: it reinforces the myth that we are not capable of having a say in how our university is run, of what it should be doing, of when it is doing something wrong.
Which is why we can wait for recognition only so long. Because Julian does not have the monopoly on our ability to act. We do not have to wait for Julian to recognise us. We can do Julian a favour and force him to recognise us, if we need to. It can be good to be polite: despite previous evidence to the contrary, perhaps in this fresh academic year – this brave new world of £9000 tuition fees – Julian will set aside some time in his busy diary to allow students to come and speak to him as one equal to another. But let us not wait long: far too much is at stake.
Aristotle (1992), The Politics, London: Penguin.
Rancière, Jacques (1999), Disagreement, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.