Open Letter to Cambridge Divinity Faculty

Open Letter to Cambridge Divinity Faculty

230 have signed. Let’s get to 500!
Petition to
Cambridge University Members

Why this petition matters

Started by Divine Dissent

Following the murder of George Floyd, the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge released a statement on ‘Race, Theology and Religion’. There, the Faculty recognised the peculiar responsibility of theological and religious studies, and affirmed that ‘we are challenging ourselves – as staff and students – to think more deeply about race and to learn from those who have been marginalised’.

It is difficult (impossible?) to reconcile this affirmation with recent actions and events that have Faculty members at their centre. These events not only undermine the credibility of the Faculty’s claim to ‘stand in solidarity with our BAME students and with our BAME colleagues’, but also indicate complicity in the active promotion of racist views.

  1. There is, first and most obviously, the recent decision to invite Jordan Peterson to Cambridge. Beyond whatever benefit students may have gained from his (closed) seminars and (open) talk on the ‘divine ideal’, Peterson’s visit attracted most attention for his appearance on Question Time. During his appearance, Peterson repeatedly used ‘air quotes’ when uttering the word ‘racism’, albeit with the obscurantist defence that he did not mean to imply that racism did not exist, but rather that the word’s use is ‘indicative of low-resolution thinking’. His behaviour rightly drew the consternation and condemnation of fellow panellists.

    On the one hand, attempts have been made to present this invitation as not an institutional one. Rather, Peterson’s visit occurred ‘through the personal instigation of James Orr’. On the other hand, it has been consistently implied that the invitation enjoys some kind of institutional imprimatur. For example, the Eventbrite listing of Peterson’s talk, ‘Imitation of the Divine Ideal’, announces that the event ‘will publicly mark the renewal of his invitation to the University of Cambridge’, an invitation initially extended (and rescinded) by the Divinity Faculty. Indeed, students in the Divinity Faculty received an invitation to the event (signed by Orr) from the Faculty Office. The implication is that Peterson’s recent visit represents a change of heart on the level of the institution itself. More to the point, there has been a concerted effort by a group of Cambridge academics affiliated with Peterson to present this visit as a triumph for the University.

    Dr Orr is free to ‘personally’ invite whomever he likes to Cambridge and the University’s amended Statement on Freedom of Speech means he could probably have done so officially. But given: Dr Orr’s affiliation with the Faculty; the ambiguous institutional status of Peterson’s visit; and above all, Peterson’s appearance on Question Time, the Faculty should at least explicitly declare its distance from the decision to invite Peterson, if its statement on ‘Race, Theology and Religion’ is to merit any credence.
  2. More concerning, there is the recent report that Dr Orr has also extended a (presumably ‘personal’) invitation to Charles Murray, notorious author of The Bell Curve (1994). Murray is a major fixture in the development of conservative policy in America, and no doubt this influence is the pretext/justification of Dr Orr’s invitation. But Murray’s positions on genetics, intelligence and the alleged ‘dysgenic pressure’ of immigration are patently adjacent to eugenicist pseudoscience. His policy proposals perpetuate structural racism and Murray’s work has become a significant vector for white identity politics. The threat to students of colour and other minorities, represented by Murray’s invitation, once again stands completely at odds with the Faculty’s explicit commitment to its minority students. As with Peterson’s invitation, the Faculty’s silence concerning Dr Orr’s hosting of Charles Murray cannot be reconciled with its purportedly active solidarity.

Both these invitations suggest that what is at stake in the ongoing chatter about ‘free speech’ is not the freedom not to ‘respect’ ‘patently false views concerning vaccination or climate change’, as claimed in the amendments to the University’s Statement on Freedom of Speech. Instead, the amendment can be seen as a trojan horse. In the case of both these invitations, we are tending toward a ‘freedom of speech’ that is nothing other than a freedom to promote racist views, as well as to deny the viability of racism as both theoretical concept and lived reality. As the same recent reporting has shown, this affiliation of ‘free speech’ activism and racism is indeed institutional. In particular, the Free Speech Union (of whose ‘Advisory Council’ Dr Orr is a member) enjoys an uncomfortable association with racism and eugenics.

The Faculty cannot hide behind the fact that, in both cases, Dr Orr has acted ‘personally’. Not least because the success of both invitations depends upon his membership of the Faculty. More importantly, these invitations represent an active resistance to the kind of anti-racist commitment espoused by the Faculty in its statement of June 2020. Indeed, their result is that the simultaneous promotion (Murray) and denial (Peterson) of racism has a home in Cambridge. This behaviour cannot but have a considerable impact on the Divinity Faculty, especially in terms of the experience of minority students, support staff and faculty members.

Moreover, Orr’s invitees simply have no expertise in matters of religion, notwithstanding Peterson’s enthusiasm for the theme in his podcast. These invitations cannot have the furthering of religious studies in Cambridge as their aim, despite the subject of Peterson’s public lecture and Murray’s speaking under the auspices of the shadowy Trinity Forum. Instead, they are simply a catalogue of instigators of unrest and conflict in universities in the US and elsewhere. It seems difficult to deny that they are thus intended to provoke conflict within the University community, with Dr Orr using his position in the Divinity Faculty as a platform for doing so. All members of the Faculty, students and staff alike, have a right not to be co-opted as members of a right-wing policy thinktank. Especially as the harm done to the Faculty’s reputation – unless addressed by Faculty Officers – has the potential to affect the wider reception of the Faculty’s research and the employment prospects of its postgraduate students.

There can be no doubt that the Divinity Faculty now faces a crisis of credibility, especially as it purports to be a centre for moral and ethical enquiry. As members of both the Divinity Faculty and wider University, we urge Faculty Officers to take the concrete steps necessary to remedy the ills wrought by the behaviour of one of its senior members.

230 have signed. Let’s get to 500!