The ‘Guidance’ document External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions put out by Universities UK (‘the Voice of UK Universities’) is attracting attention, and rightly so, for its proposed approach to ‘segregation’ of men and women at speaking events involving speakers whose religious views require such segregation.

The document in fact goes far beyond that. It is worth having a look at the, even if you find yourself quickly lost in its jungle of procedures and multifarious ‘considerations’.

Such as this assertion: “Institutions must ensure that their external speaker processes adapt in response to geopolitical or socioeconomic events, legislative changes and other factors”. What does that even mean? Why ‘must’ they ‘adapt’? The thought-process behind that  repulsive sentence is a totalitarian land-grab to bring intellectual activity under the direct control of those few anointed invariably progressive High Wizards who proclaim the correct ‘geopolitical and socioeconomic factors’ that fall to be considered.

It’s hard to decide what part of this text is the most horrible. Yes, it takes 44 pages to ‘guide’ Universities on how to invite a speaker. The winner by a clear head is the flowchart in the Chapter Effective External Speaker Processes (sic) that purports to describe the steps needed to invite a speaker to an event and then host the event: the ensuing detailed description of the different ‘steps’ needed to accomplish this task takes 11 pages of impenetrable micromanaged bureaucracy.

This whole section was drafted by Professor Ceausescu with helpful contributions from Rector Stalin and Sub-Deans Kafka and Khomeinei. It simply does not wash to open a document with the bold assertion that “freedom of speech lies at the heart of universities’ missions” (sic) but then propose procedures for bringing in external speakers that in substance are so convoluted and oppressive as to deter any normal person from wanting to take part in them. 

If you have somehow managed to get through all this rubbish, the main interest lies in the External Speaker Case Studies, where the text looks at possible tricky scenarios to suggest how they might be handled.

Let’s be generous here. Universities do have some specific problems in that assorted extremists and lunatics within the student masses (or the academic staff) are always looking to advance their respective causes by bringing to the University notorious fanatics and/or disrupting speakers they dislike. A precedent in one area will be seized upon to drive wedges in other areas. And merely managing the intended furore healthily and safely can be awkward if enough conflict is deliberately stoked up by rival views for PR purposes. So these Case Studies are of interest.

The first Case Study (No Platform Policy) has the British National Party being invited to speak, in the face of a ‘no platform’ policy adopted by the local student union. Here the advice appears to lean in favour of the event proceeding with some careful planning, as freedom of expression trumps the student union’s puny politics. Good.

The third Case Study (Controversial Views and Charity Legislation) looks at whether a speaker from Saudi Arabia who advocates the introduction of Sharia Law in the UK might damage the university’s reputation as a charity (why this reputation might be so damaged is not explained). Again, the advice leans towards letting then event proceed, “taking into account the Equality Act, including its Public Sector Equality Duty obligations”. Lawks.

The fourth Case Study features Israel and Palestine, where a pro-Palestinian speaker is threatened with disruption by pro-Israel hecklers and is indeed heckled by some people are asked to leave the meeting and do so voluntarily. The fact that in the real world of academic life it is overwhelmingly pro-Israel speakers who are shouted down by anti-Zionist elements is not used here. Still, once again the speaking event proceeds, albeit with some small excitement, and life goes on.

So what of the now legendary second Case Study, on Segregation? This is a belter.

Here the speaker is an ultra-orthodox religious type who expresses the wish that the event be segregated according to gender. Feminists and others oppose this. The idea offered is to have segregated seating organised in a way that no one gender is disadvantaged, eg by having an area for men and an adjacent area for women: “On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds”.

Hmm. Maybe there should be a non-segregated area side-by-side with those segregated areas, as without that the legal protection of feminist ‘beliefs’ might be undermined! But this in turn might lead to the speaker having his/her beliefs ‘curtailed unlawfully’. So on balance the views of those who oppose segregation do not require an institution to stifle (sic) a segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. Aaargh.

Reading through the tortured Guidance analysis showing wimpy academics dancing on the end of this pin I can not but recall Millie Tant and her Radical Conscience.

The conclusion reached by this Guidance in this Case Study is important for two reasons.

First and foremost, it is exactly the wrong conclusion.

Faced with a request for segregated seating, a University should just say no. There is no good reason in law, logic or practice why a speaker’s request to segregate people should trump the right of all members of a university audience to sit where they damn well like.

Why should your right to offend me by demanding segregated seating trump my right to be offended by your rudeness? You can have your way only by denying me reasonable options. That is unfair. If some women or men want to sit ‘separately’ to express their religious or other eccentric convictions, they can get their early and bag some seats accordingly. Then take their chances on who sits next to them, like everyone else.

Second, it defers to mumbo-jumbo. Those religions that insist on gender segregation of this crude sort are running on belief, not reason:

“Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims … what he seeks is power over reality and over men’s means of perceiving it.”

Giving in to this sort of thing by accepting gender segregation means ceding intellectual and moral space to irrationality at the expense of rationality, precisely what universities should not be doing.

Note that basing decisions on fairness and good sense does not deny any speaker the chance to speak, or ‘stifle’ his/her puny religious convictions. All it does is say that if some hard choices need to be made, we lean in favour of maximum freedom of choice for everyone.

And that’s that. If you don’t like that, too bad. Go and be irrational somewhere else.

Memo to University Vice-Chancellors: If you are thinking of promulgating guidance like this, don’t outsource it to lawyers. Get in on two sides at most. Civilisation and freedom are not about rules. They’re about principles.