Arguments are won only by giving your opponent a hearing

Published 9 February 2002
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ONE of the greatest 19th-century historians, Lord Acton (the man who said “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), had a glittering academic career. Awarded honorary doctorates by Cambridge (1888) and Oxford (1890), he founded the English Historical Review and became in 1895 Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. Yet he never earned an academic degree.

The reason was simple. He was a Roman Catholic. In the mid-19th century, Catholics were not admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. Change, though, was in the air. In 1826 the University of London — now University College London — was created so that people who were not members of the Church of England could take degrees (it was duly vilified as “the Godless Institution of Gower Street”). Eventually – in 1871 in England, 1892 in Scotland — religious tests were abolished and universities became what they have aspired to be ever since: places where doctrinal differences are irrelevant and where a certain kind of truth (independent of commitment, tested by evidence, open to criticism) can be pursued.

There is something noble about this ideal and I, for one, owe much to it. I will never forget my undergraduate years. They were a time when I met people from backgrounds I had never encountered before. Almost all the beliefs I held sacred were challenged, but openly, honestly, impartially. Eventually — by reflecting on and meeting those challenges — they and I grew.

I learnt that if I wanted to persuade others, I had to argue my case, face uncomfortable facts, read the works of writers who held views antithetical to my own, test every hypothesis, expose my conjectures to refutation, and at times modify or abandon ideas that were no longer tenable. I learnt that being defeated by truth is the only defeat that is also a victory. We need places like universities, where we can meet and argue and treat one another as equals, whatever our faith, creed, race, or sympathies.

So it disturbs me that there have been serious attempts made to outlaw Jewish student activities on British campuses and to blacklist academics with Israeli connections, not merely because this is to see the current conflict in the Middle East as a simple matter of black and white, but because it is an assault on the very principles of freedom of speech and association on which the university (and a free society) depend.

It is not the first time it has happened. It occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when campuses throughout Europe and America were in turmoil. It happened again in the 1990s under the new McCarthyism of political correctness.

For a while, at least, some universities became places where certain voices could not be heard; where truth, objectivity, criticism, argument, respect for opposing positions and the civility of reasoned discourse were held hostage to the imperatives of whatever revolutionary discourse was in the air, and universities were plunged back into the Middle Ages when your very ability to study was made conditional on your holding certain views.

A century before the birth of Christianity, Jewish scholarship was riven by a series of controversies between the schools of two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Eventually, the views of Hillel prevailed. The Talmud explains why: “because the disciples of Hillel were kind and modest, and because they taught the views of their opponents as well as (and before) their own.”

They knew that arguments are won only by giving your opponents a respectful hearing. Acton would have agreed.

(First published in The Times)