First female head of Oxford: It’s not my job to make students feel comfortable.

As reported very recently in the Oxford Times, Louise Richardson has said, “I have had many conversations with students who have come to me and say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don’t feel comfortable being in the classroom with somebody with those views.

“And I say ‘I’m sorry, but my job is not to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. In fact, I’m interested in making you uncomfortable. And if you don’t like his views, you challenge them and engage with them and figure out how a smart person like that can have views like that. And figure out how you can persuade him to change his mind’.

Interestingly, she expressed such views sometime ago, in Jan 2016, as you can see in the video below.

Her recent remarks were met with the sort of views one would think would have already led her to modify her speech at least. As the New Statesman said:

Richardson’s advice to “work out how you can persuade him to change his mind” relies on the false assumption that hatred can be overcome by a sophisticated line of argument. It takes a special kind of arrogance to think that a “smart person” can only hate others based on their sexuality (or race, or religion) because no one has debated them skilfully enough to change their minds…

It’s hardly surprising that, at a time when 20 homophobic hate crimes are reported every day, university students feel uncomfortable about tutors who disagree with homosexuality… Her comments also demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how power relationships work. There is, on occasion, some value in exposing bigoted views by preserving freedom of speech, but a tutor-student scenario is vastly different from usual contexts in which this could occur. How is a student meant to feel confident enough to debate their own identity with the professor who will mark their final exams?

Richardson is a representative of a university known to be a reserve of the straight, white, male elite. Her comments are symptomatic of an institution which encourages marginalised groups to see no structural problems, but only problems with themselves. They reinforce the idea that students who are members of minority groups are only welcome in academic spaces if they conceal their identities, or offer them up for debate.

As of now, however, there seems a standoff of sorts, one that leaves on unclear about how she sees the relationship between speech and action.

From the Telegraph:

Meanwhile an open letter to the vice-Chancellor, which gained over 2,000 signatures from students, staff and alumni, warned that her remarks could make gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students feel “unsafe” at university.

Now Prof Richardson has now issued a statement on the university website saying it is a “matter of great regret” that her comments are “being used to call into question this impressive, sustained endeavour to make Oxford a diverse and inclusive university”.

24 thoughts on “First female head of Oxford: It’s not my job to make students feel comfortable.

  1. I’m surprised that there are so many (apparently) instructors of various sorts at Oxford who express opposition to homosexuality. Who are they studying with? John Finnis? The ghost of Elizabeth Anscombe? But in any case, I wish there were more discussion here of what, exactly, was at issue. What are the courses? When is this stuff coming up? What, exactly, is being said? Without this information, its hard to know how to evaluate the claims here. Merely making people “feel uncomfortable” is surely not enough. (I have had students claim that I made them “feel uncomfortable” for being “anti-Christian”, where the context was a grossly misunderstood remark about the difference between with and between institution diversity.) So, at this point, it looks like, at best, not enough information to draw a conclusion on.

  2. The New Statesman seems to make a false assumption that Richardson is telling students to figure out how to argue (or to roll over and take it). Based at least on the remarks quoted here it seems more like she’s telling students to learn how to communicate to affect change (which usually needs to take structural issues into account). I do think she seems to be shirking her responsibility as someone with power in an educational context to help make frames, processes and organization for effecting change easier for students to understand, access and participate in. But it seems like her statement could also be interpreted as “if you want change, you have to figure out how to make it issue those professors have to deal with. And if you want my help, you have to figure out how to make it my problem.” In my view, learning those things is an integral part of education.

  3. Do you think that people who oppose eating meat on moral grounds hate meat eaters? No? Then why is it so common to hear people say that those who oppose homosexuality on moral grounds hate people who practice homosexuality? People often charge feminists with being blinded by their ideology. I think this criticism is often mistaken. In this case, however, I’m convinced that it’s correct. Only someone in the grip of ideology could fail to see that the mere fact that someone opposes a practice on moral grounds does not entail that that person hates people who engage in that practice.

  4. I’m troubled by the New Statesman’s move from “X has expressed views against homosexuality” to “X hates homosexuals.” Not only is that uncharitable, but it’s groundless and likely false. Consider: I have expressed views against eating meat, but I don’t hate meat eaters. Or, I have expressed views against functionalism, but I don’t hate functionalists. Uncharitable (and false) interpretations like the Statesman’s only serve to further polarize us. Instead of saying silly things like the prof. hates homosexuals, why not think about how we can best make homosexuals feel comfortable at Oxford while acknowledging that some smart folk have differing moral views?

  5. For the record, the New Statesman’s question – “How is a student meant to feel confident enough to debate their own identity with the professor who will mark their final exams?” – misunderstands Oxford examining. There is a very strict separation of teaching and examining in Oxford: the student’s tutor is pretty unlikely to be marking their exam and in any case there is a strict double-blinding of the marking process.

    (This is a relatively narrow point; I appreciate that there are other relevant power imbalances in a tutor/student relation, if perhaps none so sharp.)

  6. I apologize for not being part of the discussion. I’ll try to rectify this today and tomorrow. Let me first start by expressing suprise at the idea that one can disapprove of homosexuality without being homophobic. I see there is a superficial gap between the two, but is it more than superficial? I think one can’t think people of color are less intelligent without being racist. Similarly, one can’t think that women don’t belong in science without being sexist.

  7. @Anne: what are you taking “homophobic” to mean here? If it is meaning “hates homosexuals”, then the charge seems obviously false (for reasons above), but maybe you’re taking it to mean something else?

  8. Prof Jacobson, do you accept that most most vegetarians and vegans do not hate meat-eaters? If so, please explain how it’s possible, even usual, for vegans to oppose meat-eating without hating meat-eaters, while it is impossible (or very rare) for people to oppose homosexuality on moral grounds without hating people who practice homosexuality.

  9. Tyson and JC, I happen to think that it is immoral for people to have penises.* Accordingly, I think people who currently have penises should have operations to have them removed. If they don’t do so, they are behaving immorally. But I don’t hate people with penises. I just think that they are committing a great moral wrong by not having their penises removed.

    Do you think my position is plausible? If not, what’s the difference?

    *I don’t think this, to be clear.

  10. @Matt: Do I think your position is plausible? No. Do I think that you hate people with penises? No. Do I think that this is analogous to the case referred to above? No. (There’s no need to answer the “what’s the difference?” question given my second answer.)

  11. I think there are no good arguments againt homosexuality; many of them privilege heterosexuality and thus devalue homosexual tastes, views, etc.

    It is far from clear that homosexuality as a topic has any place in an Oxford syllabus; thanks, Matt. Making it a tutorial topic runs some significant pedagogical risks, such as unfairly increasing the cognitive load of some students.

  12. @Anne: Right. I think there are no good arguments for eating meat or for functionalism; many of them make use of dubious and silly premises. But how is that related to the current topic? (That S thinks that arguments for X are bad tells us about S’s psychology. Nothing more.)

  13. @Anne: I’m not sure I understand your point. Can you make it explicit how your reply answers the worries that I raised above? (I’m not trying to be stubborn. I mean that I’m just not seeing your point.)

  14. JC: your topic, “I’m troubled by the New Statesman’s move from “X has expressed views against homosexuality” to “X hates homosexuals.””.
    I suggested that in fact X’s arguments may seem to fall short of expressing homophobia, but they really are homophobic.

    They are homophobic bcaue they privilege the hetrosexul and position the homosexual from the start as abnormal, devient.

  15. @Anne: I grant that it’s *possible* that X’s arguments are homophobic despite appearing otherwise, but that’s something that needs to be *shown*. But I think it would be good if you made explicit what you’re taking “homophobic” to mean here. So, what are you meaning by the term? If it is something like “hate of homosexuals,” then I think you’re going to run into all the troubles mentioned above. But I’m not sure that’s what you’re taking it to mean.

  16. JC, I’ve run out of time. Why don’t you show it is possible to give an argument against homosexuality without privileging the hetero view by giving one. analogies with meat eating are too faulty to cut it.

    I think, by the way, your last comments suggests you want to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs. That’s not a good idea.

  17. Matt W, bad analogy. Those who oppose homosexuality aren’t asking people to stop being same-sex attracted–the analogue to cutting your penis off. (Perhaps some extreme people are, but let’s not pretend that theirs is the standard view.) The standard Catholic view is not that same-sex attracted people need to change their attraction. Rather it’s that they need to refrain from having homosexual sex, just as married people need to refrain from having extramarital sex–even if they really really want to have it. On the Catholic view, everyone is called to exercise sexual restraint, not just same-sex attracted people. Liberals balk at this because they seem to think that one can’t have a rich and fulfilling life without sex. So they think that Catholics wish to deny same-sex attracted people a rich and fulfilling life. But that just shows that liberals have a radically impoverished view about what makes for a good life. A life of sex with a spouse is a good thing. But it’s not the best thing, and it’s not even close to essential for flourishing.

  18. Here’s your argument Prof Jacobson:

    1. Catholicism is true.
    2. If Catholicism is true, then it’s wrong to practice homosexual sex (but not to be attracted to the same sex).
    3. Therefore, it’s wrong to practice homosexual sex (but not to be same-sex attracted).

    You won’t find (1) plausible. Fair enough. But let’s not pretend that there are no arguments. You just don’t accept the ones that exist–including this one. Nor do you find them plausible. But these facts about your psychology entail nothing about the argument’s soundness or credibility.

  19. @Anne: I’m not the one making the claim that there is an entailment relation there, so I don’t feel obliged to make such an argument. But I guess I’ll make a quick remark: suppose (and I don’t claim to hold this view) that S does privilege the hetero view in the sense that she thinks that it is how humans ought to function, and that going against one’s function is immoral, hence. . . In this case, it does not seem to me obvious that S hates homosexuals. The argument certainly doesn’t explicitly entail it. Indeed, it seems perfectly compatible with S loving (or, at least, not hating) homosexuals. If it does entail it and the propositions are contradictory, then please make the steps explicit and show how the contradiction comes about.

    Finally, consider the following story: S thinks that homosexual activity is immoral (perhaps due to an Aristotelian argument, or perhaps not on the basis of argument), and S feels no ill-will towards homosexuals, is kind to them, and treats them in the very same way that she does heterosexuals. Is it really plausible to hold that S is homophobic here?

    Or one more real life case: Nicholas Wolterstorff recently came out in favor of same sex marriage. So far as I can tell, he treated homosexuals the same (and felt no ill will toward them) before and after his change in belief. Was there a magical point where he stopped being a homophobe? (Not that he ever was one.)

    None of this is meant to be abrasive, so hopefully it doesn’t come off that way.

    (Let the record show that I had to look up what it means to “suck an egg” and I’m still not exactly sure I understand it.)

  20. I am under the pressure of a number of deadlines, and I can’t respond to a lot that is being said.

    Let me remark, however, that the Roman Catholic views on homosexuality are a paradigm case of using heterosexuality to define what is natural and normal.

    the RC church has also failed on way too many occasions to respect homosexual lives. One can hope the current Pope can change some of this.

    Enough. I’ve run out of time.

  21. Just an example: both my parents are Christian and think homosexuality is a sin. They definitely do not hate LGBT people. I once asked my dad about this and he said he believed homosexual acts/beliefs are a sin, and so are immoral. But he also believes we are all sinners, per pretty standard Christian ideology. So against homosexuality, but not homophobic.

  22. One reason many of us do not find it entirely plausible that arguments like Tyson’s are really driving criticisms of homosexuality is that criticisms of heterosexual promiscuity (which Tyson’s arguments suggests ought to be equivalent) from the same people are usually so much more muted. It seems natural to think that there must be some motive for the considerably greater focus on homosexuality. Of course, this is a generalization; it may not be true of any given individual critic. And the motive may not be hatred of homosexuals; perhaps they are targeted because, being less numerous than promiscuous heterosexuals, they are less likely to push back (though that’s also a disturbing motive). But there are reasons to be suspicious of the good intentions of critics of homosexuality in general; the suspicion doesn’t come out of nowhere.

  23. I am closing comments. Philosophy is about taking a critical, examining stance toward issues. I think it is inappropriate to continue to provide a forum for views which take an entirely uncritical approach to the claims of people who participate in very anti-homosexual institutions.


    Q From Jonathan Downes: I wonder if you would care to explain a phrase in wide use but rather odd in its direct meaning: teaching your grandmother to suck eggs? (This has been in use by my parents, both in their 70s).
    A It does look odd, but its meaning is clear enough: don’t give needless assistance or presume to offer advice to an expert.

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