Sunday 11 December 2011

I just came back from a trip to Warsaw, where a leading Professor at the University’s Institute of Culture listened in disbelief to my account of the recent abandonment of Britain’s precious intellectual heritage to professional ‘managers’ and unrestrained market forces. What I found on my return was that the student occupation at Royal Holloway had ended, thankfully without any violence. The Principal had agreed to withdraw the legal action he was taking against the students. He also conceded that measures should be taken ‘to improve student involvement which should increase the number of legitimate means through which students can express their views’. I think the Principal sees this as a victory. He probably does not have the insight of King Pyrrhus of Epirus in the 3rd century BCE, who won a battle against the Romans in which his forces suffered so much damage that the world was given the idea of the ‘Pyrrhic victory’. Pyrrhus said reflectively, ‘If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined’. But Paul Layzell, rather than reflecting on the damage that has been caused to his own team over the last six months, can’t bear not to have the last word. In an email circulated round the entire college Intranet, he does not try to heal the wounds his team has inflicted on relationships within RHUL. Instead, he makes a pre-emptive and inflammatory strike against any further student activism, using the strong first person singular: ‘I want to make it absolutely clear that I will not tolerate any action that disrupts College life in a similar way next term.’ The phrase ‘I will not tolerate’ this or that is often used by career politicians setting out their stall as uncompromising rulers cast in the mould of Charles de Gaulle. After police arrested over a hundred activists occupying part of Boston a few weeks ago, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced, ‘I will not tolerate civil disobedience in the city of Boston’. As lawyers have been quick to point out, this puts Menino in danger of undermining the constitutional right, enshrined in the First Amendment, ‘peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances’. Script-writers know the tyrannical overtones of the ‘I will not tolerate’ cliché: it is a favourite phrase of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers’ movies. In The Spy who Shagged Me, when it is pointed out that he has cappuccino froth on his nose, he screams ‘I will not tolerate your insolence.’ Toleration is one of the most important topics within Political Philosophy, from Socrates’ insistence that only though freely expressed disagreement in dialogue can the truth be discovered, to John Stuart Mill’s classic formulation in On Liberty (1859), ‘the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ It is difficult to see what harm the students were doing, and to whom, when they peacefully occupied their own college.

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