“What use the scorching summer
That burns the buds of spring?
And these intense obsessions
That with them despair bring?
What good the freezing winter
In which viruses survive?
Oh! take the seasons as they come
It’s good to be alive!”
From Great Expectorations by Bachchoo
Philosophy quibbles over words? If language is the avatar of thought, then ideas, propositions and proofs are the recipes in the avatar’s cookbook. No, not cardamom pods, but cinnamon sticks? Not “ambiguity” but “ambivalence”. “Generalisation” is the foundation of science, “generality” the enemy of it. And thus, we philosophers (Kabh sey? Pack it in yaar! – Ed. Arrey kuchh tho pretension karney do sethji- fd) purify the dialect of the tribe.
Long years ago, in my teenage in Pune, there was an establishment at one end of the cantonment’s Mahatma Gandhi Road called the Punjab Book Service. It had a display window in which were arranged books such as Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, several literary hard-covered tomes and titles which made the Punjab Book Service (PBS) look like it was in any street in Oxford or Cambridge.
But those titles were not what the clientele wanted and were not the titles stocked in the body of this lending library. The front room had packed shelves of detective stories, Perry Mason courtroom sort of stuff and “Westerns”. There was a back room which you entered through a heavily beaded curtain, with shelves full of brown-paper-covered pamphlet-like books with titles such as Confessions of a Russian Princess, Forget the Hocus Enjoy the Pokus and The Nun’s Delight. All to be borrowed overnight or so for a few annas.
Gentle reader, I beg you to believe that I only became aware of these titles when my friend Dara Cama borrowed them. I never crossed the beaded curtain.
Then a fateful day Dara went to the showcase and brought Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy to “Punjabi”, as we called the proprietor, at the book-borrowing counter.
Punjabi stared at the hard-covered volume as though he had never seen it before. There was a long pause because he couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to read the stuff that he used as decoy material for his chaaloo lending library. He looked up.
“Arrey vah Kyemah! Thoo flaasfy pudthai?”
And yes, it was the moment when I converted from addiction to Earl Stanley Gardner to “flaasfy”. And then it was I came to appreciate, as perhaps Socrates did, that substituting one word for another changes the world.
This memory of such realisation came to me when in September of this plague year Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor issued a sort of fatwa on free speech demanding of the university staff and students that they “respect” all opinions. His bulletin was widely interpreted as the outlawing of any arguments or contentions which would offend any group. The fatwa was probably issued as a caveat to opponents or those who would argue against the “reality” or achievability of gender transformation. The call to “respect” the insistences of “trans” people and their supporters was interpreted in some quarters as a ban on expressing any opposition to them. This could, if extended, apply to a ban on countering the arguments of anti-vaccers, people who oppose vaccination.
A professor of philosophy at the university, Arif Ahmed, saw this fatwa as a mandated opposition to free speech. He proposed a simple amendment: substitute the word “tolerate” instead of the word “respect”. That would recognise the right to live with, but not agree with, opinions which seemed to you either ridiculous, contrary to scientific fact or unacceptable for some reason of faith, or otherwise.
Prof. Ahmed calls the vice-chancellor’s directive a policy and labels it as “academic McCarthyism”. The injunction to “respect” an opinion could merely mean to support the fact that it exists. But it could also mean to refrain from publicly contradicting it.
Prof. Ahmed began alone but soon signed up a fair number of academics and students to his amendment to the directive. He is certainly motivated by the acute opposition to the recent practice in British universities of banning (they call it “no-platforming”) people whose views they feel will offend one or another minority.
Prof. Ahmed sees that as an infringement of free speech within institutions which should be the champions of it and of vociferous arguments against offending ones. He told London’s Times that there is the risk of “self-censorship”, that there are now views and opinions in British academia that dare not speak their name.
He goes controversially further, saying that it’s right for academics to engage with white nationalists or even Islamic fundamentalists and that people should be able to hear their, possibly toxic, reasoning, and “make up their own minds and criticise as disrespectfully as they want”.
Myself? If I was president of the Cambridge Union and Osama bin Laden (Fish be Upon Him) was still alive, I’d send him an email asking him to speak about why Donald Trump -- sorry, I mean America -- is in his opinion The Great Satan. I’d perhaps invite Richard Dawkins or someone more militant to speak against him and let a thousand flowers (followers?) fight it out.
I shall not cease from mental strife… etc.
P.S. -- As we go to press, Cambridge announces that the Arif amendment and others were passed with a huge majority.
Should tolerators and repliers, supporters of all free speech, now be termed “Arifists”?...