When the online cancel mob came for him, Professor Eric Kaufmann felt little sense of surprise—only irony.
As a leading researcher into cancel culture in the world of academia, he knows all too well that these days simply championing free speech can be seen as an act of fascism by some radical students and academics.
Kaufmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities. He also has been a pioneer in using surveys to research “authoritarianism and political discrimination” in universities in both the United States and the UK.
When radicals at his own college started recently trying to oust him from the university, it followed an all-too-familiar pattern, he says.
“They basically put out this thread of Tweets saying that I’m some kind of a white supremacist,” he told the Epoch Times. “Which is just kind of funny, obviously, because my own background is half Jewish and part Chinese and Latino, but also because the things that they were calling ‘far right’ were things like writing for Quillette and Unherd or doing reports for Policy Exchange (which is a mainstream conservative think tank) and also for criticising wokeness.”
The Epoch Times has verified the existence of these Twitter posts.
Kaufmann said that the radical student group has had him in their sights for several years and also has some limited support among radicals at the faculty.
‘The Upper Layers Matter’
But he isn’t overly worried, and he doesn’t blame the university itself. He says that because his college specialises in mature students it is more insulated from radicals than many other academic institutions, where younger generations rule the roost.
“The upper layers of a university do matter. And these decisions, I think, when the upper layers are very much beholden to the woke agenda, which we see in places like King’s College or Cambridge, then it’s more likely that you’d find trouble.”
Kaufmann also says that he is lucky to be also less reliant on his position at the university than some of his peers. He also says that with his conservative views long since out in the open, he has much less to lose.
A seminal study by Kaufmann earlier this year found there was a crisis of free speech at universities, mostly manifesting as discrimination against conservatives. This kind of “hard authoritarianism” involves “no-platforming, dismissal campaigns, social media mob attacks, open letters … formal complaints, and disciplinary action,” according to the research published by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI).
Kaufmann says that the campaigns can appear somewhat organically, but that they often have an organising nerve centre too, with students and allied faculty members stirring up the mob.
‘Like Calling Out a Witch’
“It’s partly about signalling to each other.” Participants gain ideological kudos from fellow travellers and get a kind of moral thrill, he says. “It’s partly a religious experience—a bit like calling out a witch or calling out a sinner who’s been possessed by the devil or something like that. It has that same dynamic.”
Kaufmann describes the driving force behind cancel culture as “left modernism,” which he says is the contemporary hegemonic ideology in elite institutions.
He says it is a blend of liberalism, Marxism, and the therapeutic ethos of universities—the so-called snowflake mentality.
“[It is] liberalism, which had always focused on acquiring rights for minority groups—religious, racial, sexual—fused with a sort of Marxist outlook, which is that of victimhood and oppression and a zero sum conflict between victimhood and oppressor and this need for radical revolutionary almost transformation, to achieve some sort of a utopia,” he says. Overlaid on top, he says is a “Freudian therapeutic ethos that focuses a lot on subjective feelings and empathy and, and harm and safety.”
The Courage to Speak Your Mind
Kaufmann says that the attempts to label him as racist are typical, with the radicals simply changing the definition of racism to suit their ends. “They are almost insulating themselves from criticism—if you criticise us, you’re a racist, essentially.”
He says these days it takes courage as an academic to simply say what is on your mind.
“In academia, it’s almost impossible to get a job, and certainly once you’ve been the subject of one of these campaigns and in the area where you live. People are very skittish about sticking their neck out if there’s any risk at all.”
Then there’s the psychological impact.
“I’ve had internal complaints that have been launched by the same network, which they mentioned incidentally in their Tweet stream. Those, of course, do take a psychological toll,” he says. “They know that and they sort of lean into that for that exact reason: even if they’re not going to succeed, they want to put you through the wringer.”
This creates a general chilling effect on free speech on campuses, he says.
Not About the ‘Silent Majority’
A study published by Kings College London earlier this month showed that a quarter of people aged 16–24 in the UK support the idea of no-platforming. That number drops with age.
Kaufmann says he is encouraged by the UK government’s recent pushback against cancel culture in universities, and its plans for so-called free speech champions. But with a growing appetite for cancelling people among young people, he thinks things are going to get worse.
“All the data I’ve seen shows that this is a battle of ideas— it’s an ideological conflict.,” he says. “It is not simply about a silent majority afraid to speak up.”
“Even though support—active support—for cancel culture is only around 10 percent amongst faculty, there’s about a 40 to 50 percent share—I’ve done this in a number of reports—that are sort of equivocal. They like the social justice aims of the cancellers but they don’t really like firing people. They’re kind of torn, therefore they’re not going to speak up.”
There is a chink of hope, he says.
“There is some evidence from Britain that the very, very youngest aged 18 to 20s are, are somewhat more sensible than 21- to 28-year-olds, he says, “So there’s maybe something happening amongst the very, very youngest that we’re picking up in the surveys.”
But he thinks intervention is needed.
“We’re in a phase where the governments in the West are going to need to start intervening in institutions, like universities, and even backing workplace legislation that makes it easier to essentially enforce free speech rights of employees.”