Reflections on a Bigoted Lecturer

I heard yesterday that the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cambridge has employed a new lecturer, Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics. Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. Take this piece for example, which included bigoted generalisations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often?

You can read the whole piece for yourself and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

The news about the appointment of Dr Wall, and some of the reaction to it, caused me to reflect on a few related issues.

The first is that some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private, as he has chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that its acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

The second point that occurred to me relates to freedom of speech. Every now and then in universities there arises something that causes tension between the freedom to express (possibly extreme) opinions and the requirement to treat colleagues and students with civility and respect. One view that I have heard expressed from senior members of staff is that if what a member of staff says is not unlawful then they should be allowed to say it, providing that does not involve inappropriate use of, e.g., university email by which it might be construed that what is being said is official rather than person.

I don’t agree with this view, for a number of reasons. The law relating to these issues is a bit of a mess, to be honest, but it does for example include provisions that outlaws the the use of language that harasses or intimidates. If someone uses that sort of language in the workplace then they should feel the force of the law as well as facing disciplinary action which, depending on the severity of the offence, could lead to dismissal.

But is that it? I don’t think so. The law should set a minimum standard for behaviour, but it is perfectly reasonable for any employer, institution, club or other organisation to stipulate its own code of conduct either as part of an employment contract or as a set of membership rules. You can be thrown out of a sports ground for behaviour that violates ground rules but falls short of being unlawful, and you should face disciplinary action if you violate the standards of the academic community too.

The last point is a bit more personal. I have mentioned before that I found the blog post I linked to above very offensive, but freedom of speech must include the freedom to offend and I respect his right to express his opinions through his blog just as I assert my right to respond here on mine. I do wonder, however, what the reaction would be if a university lecturer wrote a blog post expressing other forms of prejudice, such as racism, or a post mocking disabled people. In UK law sexual orientation is a protected characteristic alongside gender, race, marital status, etc. A good test is therefore to read an anti-gay piece by substituting `black’ or `female’ for `gay’ and working out if it would be offensive then. I think this one would. My own personal experience tells me that universities are far less likely to react to homophobic language than racist or sexist expressions.

Coincidentally, I today received full details of the programme of events for LGBT+ STEM Day at Cardiff University. Here is an extract:

We’re getting involved because LGBTQ people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) still struggle to be themselves at work and in their careers.

A lot of careers and workplaces are challenging for LGBTQ people. If we don’t feel comfortable or safe to be ‘out’ at work, we spend every moment monitoring what we say and how we say it. That takes its toll on a person’s mental health.

LGBTQ people working in STEM fields with better representation of women, for example, are more open about who they are – and so, biologists are more likely than engineers to be ‘out’ to their colleagues.

International research is giving us a sense of the challenges. In the US, LGB students are more likely to drop out of STEM degrees.

A few people have said to me that events like LGBT+ STEM Day are unnecessary because there is no longer any prejudice. Of course you won’t see prejudice if you turn a blind eye to it, but it is very much still around though usually not so obvious as the example I have discussed.

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23 Responses to “Reflections on a Bigoted Lecturer”

  1. Thoroughly agreed, Peter. I’m fully supportive of the right to publish such articles on their blog – and fully supportive of the obligation of the university to uphold appropriate standards for teaching staff.

    Surely ‘don’t publish religious condemnation based on race, religion or sexual orientation’ is a bare minimum that might be expected?

  2. Your perspective on this is very thoughtful and well-reasoned.

    In addition to the ones you mention, I find comparison with another protected characteristic, namely religion, to be instructive. Suppose that I were a member of a religion that strongly believed that all nonbelievers were going to Hell. I would have every right to believe that, but if I prominently proclaimed it, I would be creating an unacceptable environment for my students. I don’t think that my employer need allow me to poison the work environment in that way.

    One can clearly imagine borderline cases. If I quietly expressed my belief to a few friends outside of the work environment, I think that that would be acceptable. If I talked about it in the classroom, that would clearly be unacceptable. Somewhere between those extremes, there’s bound to be a case that’s difficult to decide. If I understand your position correctly, it’s something like this: if the expression is prominent enough that others, particularly students, will be made to feel unwelcome or unsafe or discriminated against, then it’s not OK. I think I agree with that.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I should have mentioned that religion is a protected characteristic (and that includes `no religion’ as a belief). However, it’s not reasonable for an atheist to expect to be allowed to work for a religious organization if he/she makes derogatory statements about that religion in the workplace.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I agree with quite a lot of that! Several points, not necessarily related:

        * I ask for no protection for my religion. I’d rather have the verbal freedom to risk offending people in return for the risk of being offended.

        * Not all religions are the same. Their sacred books are often incompatible with each other on core issues.

        * Atheism is not a belief system, but is by definition the absence of belief in a god – by which I mean a spirit being able to powerfully influence human life. Some atheists reject the supernatural, whereas some (eg New Agers) accept it but believe it does not include any god (in the sense I have specified). Atheists nevertheless do believe many things that they cannot prove by reason/logic from more basic tenets – and, even if they could, they face a regression problem, since where do those tenets come from? Atheists do therefore believe many things by faith. Most atheists in our culture appear to have faith in Man (ie, the human race) – secular humanism. That seems to me a most irrational belief, for human history is largely written in human blood; people make informed decision to marry each other because they are crackers about each other but often then divorce; and in the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was no longer any existential threat to our way of life, while postwar affluence and the Welfare State meant that essentially everybody had food, a roof and medicine: yet still people were growing *less* happy. And thinkers like Martin Rees reckon that we are still very likely to blow ourselves up…

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, one can imagine very easily causing offence unintentionally, especially when dealing with religious belief. When I’m teaching cosmology, for example, I talk a little bit about the history of the subject and how some of the issues addressed by cosmology overlap with aspects of religious belief. I think it quite important to get students to think about that overlap, but equally important to do it without being disparaging. Actually, I think many of the overlaps are superficial and should not lead to too much controversy. After all, there are religious cosmologists and non-religious ones and they seem to be able to work with each other quite happily.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I find it extraordinary that some Christians argue against the Big Bang given the the steady-state alternative of an eternal universe is ruled out by the first sentence of the Bible!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Like Peter, I encourage everybody interested in the matter to read Aron Wall for themselves at the link provided. His words are mainly about the notion of gay marriage in relation to society. That is an interesting issue from any perspective – conservative evangelical Christian (Wall’s perspective), liberal Christian, pre-war-type secular, modern secular (Peter’s) or Muslim. His words include this: “if any people in gay relationships are reading this, I don’t hate you; I want only good things to happen to you. It’s just we don’t agree on which things are in fact good.”

    The issue here is the difference between respect for a person and respect for their views. (Wall might in turn find some of the material on Pink News’ website offensive.) The two are not equivalent. For instance, I am a physicist; a heterosexual; a bibliophile; a cricket-lover; yet I have no difficulty getting on with – and greatly value my various friendships with – people who are suspicious of science; homosexuals; persons who say that reading books is a waste of time; persons who find cricket boring – and, finally, people having differing political views from mine. How boring life would be if I did not meet people of other opinions! I believe that it is not good to identify too closely with any single facet of one’s life, for life is multifaceted.

    In short, why not agree to disagree provided that there is mutual respect for the other person?

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree with quite a lot of this, but will comment on two things.

      One is that I found the opening statement to be of the ‘I’m not homophobic but…’ type that one hears very frequently from people who are exactly what they deny being, cf ‘I’m not racist but…’

      The other point is that people who don’t read books usually don’t campaign to ban other people from reading them; people who find cricket boring don’t usually think that cricket should be banned; but people who disagree with equal marriage *do* tend want to have it banned for other people.

      For me equal marriage is very simple. If your religion tells you that you shouldn’t marry someone of the same sex then don’t marry someone of the same sex. Religion does not however entitle you to dictate to others what they should or should not do.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I agree that “Religion does not entitle you to dictate to others what they should or should not do”. The core book of Wall’s religion, the New Testament (NT) says simply, to believers living under any jurisdiction, to offer the message and do not press further those who reject it.

        We live in a democracy in which people vie to influence Parliament, and virtually all the fallings-out are between opposing lobby groups. But that is not different from what I said about disagreeing with people over politics while (hopefully) appreciating their company.

    • “yet I have no difficulty getting on with”

      I first parsed this as “getting it on with”. 😀

    • His words are mainly about the notion of gay marriage in relation to society

      “if any people in gay relationships are reading this, I don’t hate you; I want only good things to happen to you. It’s just we don’t agree on which things are in fact good.”

      Both of which sound much different than:

      “the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community”

      As a side note, Wall has perhaps overlooked that there are promiscuous heterosexual folks as well. 🙂

      I’m also not sure that there is a gay community as such; certainly there isn’t a non-gay community. Both groups contain quite a range of behaviour, sexual and otherwise.

  4. I don’t agree with his opinions! But he has the right to his, and has the right to express them. He does not have the right to discriminate, to incite violence or hatred. Some of this text is getting close to the last item. But on balance, there is not enough there for a ‘berufsverbot’ (and at what point does that become discrimination in reverse?). I also note that the piece you refer to is several years old. A lot of people would be in trouble if their student writings were held against them. I think this seems a case for dialogue rather than diatribe.

    • That’s a constructive approach, although I disagree with you and believe the post contained hate speech relating to a group protected under English law (LGBT). Dr Wall will have to undergo initial Equality and Diversity training prior to starting substantive work, like all new employees. However, given the seriousness of the issues raised, it may be advisable for him contact the university’s E&D team and begin a dialogue ASAP.

      • I’ve just found out that Cambridge U. E&D works with the University’s Faith and Belief in Practice group. They may provide useful advice, training and/or conciliation in this situation.

  5. Francis Keenan Says:

    A difficult one. Don’t think the comparison with sexual harasser is fair, as sexual harassment is illegal but believing that same-sex marriage is wrong is not. My issue with his opinion – which someone else has referred to – is that he thinks gay marriage is wrong. Fine, no one is forcing him nor his religion/church to marry gay people. What happens in a civil ceremony Is nothing to do with him. Christians often talk about freedom of religion and how their beliefs are targeted – well, freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion, as our local (N Ireland) politician Naomi Long has said.

    On balance, i don’t think his views would justify not appointing him; provided he is respectful to LGBT people – and everyone else – he comes in contact with.

  6. It is interesting to substitute words and see if the effect is the same.

    “We live in a culture which is shockingly unrooted from the past. Those who seek to normalize gay relationships should start by taking a long and hard look at previous cultures in which it was culturally tolerated for many generations, and ask whether they would really want to live in a society like those.”

    “We live in a culture which is shockingly unrooted from the past. Those who seek to outlaw slavery should start by taking a long and hard look at previous cultures in which it was nonexistent for many generations, and ask whether they would really want to live in a society like those.”

  7. “Straight marriage was already on the rocks, and its boundaries had become disordered to the point where many people could no longer tell what was the difference between it, and another union based primarily on romantic thrills.”

    What a false dichotomy!

  8. “About Aron Wall

    In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John’s College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford.”

    Interestingly, before coming to Germany as an exchange student (who ended up staying), I had been accepted to St. John’s (which at least at the time had only the Great Books programme), although at the Annapolis campus. This was the only university I had applied to, since at the time it had seemed really interesting (and aspects of it still are). However, mainly because I wanted to return to Europe but also because I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I left St. John’s after two weeks (and later ended up studying physics and astronomy in Hamburg and, at least as important, having what I regard as a normal life).

  9. That picture at the top of his blog looks pretty gay. 😉

  10. […] reblogging this important and affecting post from Peter Coles. (See also his Reflections On A Bigoted Lecturer post from a few weeks […]

  11. […] may recall that a few months ago I wrote a post about Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics, and who is moving to […]

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