Author: Emma C Williams

On Opinions and Entitlement

In the weeks before same-sex marriage was recognised in England and Wales, I spotted a local man handing out leaflets on behalf of the “Coalition for Marriage” campaign. Aware that this group was leading a crusade against Equal Marriage, I initially hurried past him, reluctant to engage. But half way home I turned around, walked all the way back there and challenged him – politely but robustly. The man seemed aghast and pleaded in a querulous voice that he was “entitled to his opinion”, the implication being that it was highly impertinent of me to question him. The notion that everyone is “entitled to their opinion” is often quoted, frequently misused and invariably insincere. Nobody is “entitled to their opinion” if this claim is cited in an attempt to deflect criticism – as it usually is. If we all demand the right to share our views in public, without also expecting and accepting dissent, we do not really support the idea that everyone is “entitled to their opinion” at all; rather, we believe that we …

Taking the Wonder Out of Science Education

A couple of years ago, the London Science Museum produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show”. It was reported enthusiastically on the BBC, with loud film-clips of zany, steampunk characters shrieking and leaping about the stage, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that – we’re endlessly told – will encourage our children to get into science. The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (sigh) took an audience of excited young theatre-goers through a range of whacky demonstrations. The hope was that they would be inspired enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they returned to the classroom and were reminded that they didn’t know or even care what a mole was. One voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head told me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be A Good Thing. But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling. …

The Disinviting of Dawkins

In my first year as an undergraduate, I was aware of the fact that we had a neo-Nazi on campus. I never met him, indeed to my knowledge I never saw him, for this was 1992 – years prior to the phenomenon of social media, when a university campus could be an anonymous place. As I was not heavily involved with the Students’ Union there will no doubt be others that remember the events far more vividly than I do, but the matter appeared to be handled with aplomb.  There was some fraught but brief discussion about the man’s appalling views and some members put forward compelling reasons why he should not be given a platform; there was precedent for no-platforming neo-Nazis (albeit in a political context), and in truth there were few who desired any exposure to such delusional poison. In the end, however, it was decided that free speech was so central to the Union’s principles that not even this odious member should be denied his request for a time-slot to speak. When …

Herd Mentality

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself. There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I find many people frankly depressing. Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the death of a young man in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials. Herd mentality – in all its forms, both …

Schools proposing to audit pupils’ characters should mind their own business

When did the world decide that the corporate model is the ideal template? The inexorable march towards business speak and a commercial style of operation appears to be infecting every aspect of our lives, from health care to education, from politics to the arts. Sometimes, it feels as if we’re all becoming a part of somebody else’s branding exercise. Last month, my husband quit his engineering job, severing ties with a company he has been with for over ten years. There were several reasons behind his relatively sudden decision, but most of them relate to the increasing prevalence of what one might call “corporate bullshit”. “Nobody helps each other out any more,” my husband said to me. Everyone’s time has to be logged on a spreadsheet; as a result, nobody is motivated to give their time for anything other than what will get a tick in the box. Engineers are under ludicrous pressure to provide “accurate estimates”, the oxymoron apparently lost on a management team that seem to have little to no understanding of what …

Je suis George Lawlor

“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.” George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press”. We had it so good. Those of us that attended university prior to the 21st century not only had our fees paid (thank you, tax payers of the past), but we found ourselves in an environment where ideas were encouraged and lazy thinking was challenged without resentment. As far as we were aware, there was no status quo in the Union – with the exception of their regular appearance on the playlist at …

On Privilege and Being Human

Thinking itself is the privilege of being human. Our intellectual ascendency defined us as a species and is inextricably linked to our success and our ability to connect with one another. Everything that nature can bestow upon us in our human lifespan is also a privilege: intelligence, youth, a healthy mind in a healthy body. The most basic human rights that we take for granted are, in reality, privileges afforded to the most fortunate members of our species: adequate shelter, a clean water supply, an education and freedom. As Aristotle acknowledged, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that a basic level of comfort is usually necessary to facilitate any real freedom of thought. If every scrap of our energy is spent upon basic survival or averting imminent disaster, there is precious little time for navel-gazing. Genius though he was, Aristotle’s world was culturally narrow in comparison to ours; yet he realised that the times he spent frequenting the shady colonnades of the gymnasium were opportunities afforded to him as a result of his privileged lifestyle …

When Safe Spaces Collide with Germaine Greer

Twitter has spoken. Germaine Greer is both hateful and an irrelevance, a washed up old has-been with nothing more to offer us but some poisonous views on her narrowing world. Strident, inflammatory, provocative, opinionated – in numerous ways, Greer is difficult to like. She annihilates men and belittles other women, shooting down feminist allies from Friedan to Weldon. She wrote off Susanne Moore as nothing more than “fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage.” In short, she is terrifying – to all of us, not just to trans women, about whom she can be so breathtakingly offensive. But when people are putting their names to an online petition accusing her of “misogynistic views” it’s hard not to feel that the world has gone mad. This is not the first time that Greer’s unpleasant stance on trans women has led to controversy. Recent events at Cardiff University reflect a similar row some months ago when the Cambridge Union was petitioned to withdraw Greer’s invitation to speak. Greer has long refused to acknowledge the identity of …