St Andrews university’s thought crime test for students is just the start, says Joanna Blythman

DO you subscribe to the biological view that only women have a cervix? Would you describe a person who is nourishing a baby as a “breast-feeding mother” or a “chest feeder”?

Choose wisely, or you could be denounced as a transphobe.

Would you actively choose to buy goods that are made in the UK or mainland Europe over Chinese imports?

Careful. Some sensitive soul might interpret your preference as a racist “dog whistle”.

Might you get grumpy if your car or van was blocked by well-pensioned retirees who had glued themselves to the highway to highlight their chosen strategy for cutting carbon emissions?

If so, grow a thicker skin and get used to being denounced as a climate crisis denier.

We are not reliving that old Second World War maxim – “Careless talk costs lives” – quite yet, although threats have been flung around. But language has become a battleground in a bad-tempered, febrile war started by vocal groups that espouse “identity politics”.

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That is, their world view is based on racial, religious, ethnic, social or cultural characteristics.

Unlike the broad-based civil rights, trade union, and women’s movements of the 20th century, which celebrated what people had in common and build alliances amongst diverse groups, these activists are too often narcissistic hair-splitters whose starting point for framing any issue is what divides us.

They spat endlessly over linguistic conventions. Their arguments are arcane, and largely incomprehensible to the vast majority of people who don’t share their obsession with non-binary pronouns. Will it be “they” rather than “he” or “she”?

No wonder Sir Keir Starmer floundered miserably when Andrew Marr asked him to explain his stance on cervixes. The Leader of the Lack of Opposition can recite a fashionable script on this topic but he doesn’t understand the tortured argument well enough to defend it.

Truth be told, most people are bemused by the struggle between “woke” and “anti-woke”. They don’t see that the contested territory impinges on their lives much, and hope that this semantic wrangling will soon blow over.

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But neutrality might not be an option for much longer. One careless word could get you into hot water. Without a prompt apology, mea-culpa breast-beating, and public recantation you might be “cancelled”.

Your publisher might stop publishing you. Your employer might dismiss you. Social media companies will ban you. By deviating from the orthodoxy you have committed “thought crime”.

Look at JK Rowling. Only her deep pockets and mega-reputation protected her from the wrath of certain transgender activists when she dared to reassert that the female-male biological difference is real and stick up for women’s single-sex spaces.

Identity politics groups know that they can’t win their argument out there with ordinary people. So they try to prevail by the back door, by capturing governmental and charity policy-making forums, academia, and threatening image-conscious companies with boycotts and bad publicity if they don’t get on board.

Consider the latest craziness at St Andrews University, which has introduced an unconscious bias test for students. They must now complete compulsory modules on sustainability, diversity, and consent. They are are asked to agree with certain statements and only allowed to enrol for their chosen courses if they give the ‘correct’ answers.

One statement reads: “Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful start point in overcoming unconscious bias.”

Anyone who cannot be guilt-tripped and so disagrees with the statement is marked down.

A trick question – “equality means treating everyone the same” – is surely designed to wrong-foot any cocky upstart with a less than complete grip of identity dogma.

This would make a good essay question for first year sociology students, encouraging a thoughtful analysis of the effectiveness of positive discrimination policies, labelling, and more.

But those who pick the bald ‘yes’ response are told they are wrong.

‘In fact,’ the course guidance states, ‘equality may mean treating people differently and in a way that is appropriate to their needs so that they have fair outcomes and equal opportunity.’

What would Reverend Martin Luther King make of that?

Thought-provoking role-play exercises, the sort that actors provide for workplace “away days”, have a value. In that doctor’s surgery scenario, the person of colour, or the woman, is the doctor. The white man is the receptionist. These games wake everyone up, for one thing, and they might out any lurking Alan Partridges.

But there’s a denunciatory aspect to the St Andrews induction modules that is quasi-religious, redolent of medieval catechism. Advancement and acceptance is predicated on intoning what the arbiters of correctitude want to hear.

Students who submit too many wrong answers fail the modules. They must resit them before they can begin their chosen course.

Thought re-education was a tool used by Chairman Mao to rid Chinese society of traditional sentiments deemed reactionary.

Now the university of St Andrews, surely an historic site of critical thought and intellectual debate, is applying a similar technique to its student body.

What next? Parades of self-flagellating students in St Salvator’s Quadrangle, purging themselves of their original sin in an act of atonement?

Of course, St Andrews snaps up highly intelligent young people who can see this exercise for the performative gesture that it is and cynically supply the ‘right’ answers.

“Posh” St Andrews, after all, has its pick of the world’s brightest minds. It is currently ranked as the top university in both Scotland and the UK.

Privilege, both colour and class-related, is something it knows all about.

In 2018, along with Cambridge, St Andrews was ranked by the Higher Education Policy Institute as the most unequal university in Britain in terms of diversity.

In 2019, Scottish students made up just 28 percent of its student body. St Andrews isn’t even representative of its home country.

I’d judge these unconscious bias modules as a cack-handed attempt at improving this university’s diversity credentials. As such, I’d score it as a definite fail.

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992