In his 2016 paper, “Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Nick Haslam lays out “concept creep” as the gradual semantic expansion of harm-related concepts that refer to “negative aspects of human experience and behavior” claiming that these concepts “have expanded their meanings so that they now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” Haslim describes six negative concepts that apply to his theory: abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice. From Haslim’s observation of specific ideas expanding in definition to embrace behaviours far afield of their original modality such as bullying which used to refer to children’s behaviour and is now expanded to adults, he notes that concept creep is not necessarily good or bad but he does underscore one of its dangers:
A possible adverse looping effect of concept creep is therefore a tendency for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence, and who have diminished agency to overcome their plight. The flip-side of this expanding sense of victimhood would be a typecast assortment of moral villains: abusers, bullies, bigots, and traumatizers.
Haslam goes on to note that many of these conceptual shifts have involved a movement from objective appraisals or appraisals of intent to subjective judgments where today what matters is not the intent of the actor but the perception of the receiver.
Nowhere today is the expression of concept creep better witnessed than on the university campus from where the fomentation of harm-related concepts has taken a hold of not only the classroom but of the institutional pathos which often manages how students should be coddled and their identities “respected.”
Case in point: the independent review conducted by barrister Akua Reindorf and released by the University of Essex yesterday tells the story of how the university allowed itself to be ensnared by the lobbying efforts of Stonewall. Reindorf’s report details how two professors, Jo Phoenix (Open University) and Rosa Freedman (Reading University) were de-platformed from talks at the University of Essex after being accused of “hate speech” despite having views which, though critical of gender identity, simply do not transgress the current laws on gender identity. If anything, what was revealed yesterday is that the real protagonist of Reindorf’s report is neither Phoenix nor Freedman—it’s Stonewall, an organisation that has effectively exercised a stranglehold over private and public institutions through its scrutiny of institutional moral purity.
On its website, Stonewall lists 121 universities as members of its highly criticised “Diversity Champions,” a scheme which includes more than 850 companies, governments departments, public authorities and charities according to barrister Naomi Cunningham writing on the feminist lawyer collective, Legal Feminist. Of the various bodies who have signed up to Stonewall’s “Diversity Champions” are the Crown Prosecution Service, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, various Government Departments including the Home Office, dozens of police forces and NHS trust hospitals, and the Ministry for Justice where the Equal Treatment Bench Book (the guidance to which judges refer) mentions Stonewall 27 times. As Cunningham writes in her evaluation of Stonewall’s “Diversity Champions” which collects heavy fees for membership and training which involve time-consuming tasks to prove “compliance” to this organisation’s ideology:
It’s easy to see what’s in it for Stonewall. They’re a lobby group. Persuading people to their way of thinking is what they’re for; and if people are willing to pay them substantial sums of money for the privilege of being intensively and elaborately lobbied and then catechised on the degree to which they have absorbed and implemented the lobbying, what’s not to like?
Despite this scheme having come under criticism in recent months, yesterday’s report is the latest nail in the coffin for Stonewall and perhaps is its most definitive sign that this lobby group’s hold on power is quickly waning. With new lesbian and gay organisations emerging around the planet that push back on the inclusion of gender identity such as LGB Alliance in the UK, Stonewall’s days are numbered as more and more gay men and women are jumping ship signalling to Stonewall that it no longer speaks for them. Oddly enough, Stonewall has also unintentionally hinted that something is rotten in the state of Denmark since a few days ago it’s Diversity Champions programme was publicly visible and now is hidden from public visibility, a tactic that GLAAD in the US also recently employed after it came under fire for creating a blacklist of the unwoke.
Because of the Reindorf report, the University has now been humiliated and forced into issuing an apology admitting that its treatment of these two professors infringed on their academic freedom. The most damning recommendation of this report makes a deeply damaging assessment of public and private bodies that ally themselves with lobby groups like Stonewall: “If the University considers it appropriate to continue its relationship with Stonewall, it should devise a strategy for countering the drawbacks and potential illegalities.”
The Reindorf report raises many more questions which range from how lobby groups are allowed entry into private and public institutions only to take on a stealth role within these institutions of “moral advocacy” without full transparency and consensus among the very employees within these organisations who will invariably be affected by such moral footnotes put into their work environment. How Stonewall has been able to successfully affect policies that contribute to the atmosphere of blacklisting and mobbing within the place of work in and out of academia is one question that needs to be answered. Another question that we must investigate is this: why have institutions become the new quasi-religious overseers of morality where incoherent definitions of personality are being indoctrinated within the workplace?
Despite the enormity of the Reindorf report, there are many questions left to answer starting with the University of Essex’s role in evaluating its alliance with Stonewall as demonstrated by its actions statement developed in response to the recommendations of the Reindorf report:
Stonewall has been a valued University partner and we have been working with Stonewall across a wide range of issues. We will review how we address the specific issues raised in the report. We want to work with Stonewall and others, as the University takes steps, within the context of Action 10 [Consult with the community to devise and ensure implementation of a strategy for repairing relationships amongst University members], to repair relationships amongst University members.
There are several possible readings to this proposed action. One is that Essex has failed to understand the dangers posed to academic freedom through its partnering with Stonewall by expressing a desire to continue to work with this lobby group. Another possible reading is that the University of Essex fully understands the dangers that its alliance with Stonewall entails as it genuinely seeks to repair its relationships amongst students and staff while refusing to let Stonewall off the hook. This means that the university is consciously not setting up Stonewall to become a scapegoat while eliding its promises of institutional change.
As Jo Phoenix tells me, “I actually think Essex is being extremely brave—an independent review that confirms they broke the law and they haven’t tried to bury it! They also offered open apologies when they could have chosen to pay us off.” She notes what drives this ideological machinery within academia is a power dynamic amongst colleagues and not necessarily of the higher-ups: “Cultures of fear as born from below. The university staff weren’t afraid of the executives—they were afraid of each other.”
Where many private and public institutions have allied themselves with lobby groups like Stonewall that trade in ideological creep while contravening the freedom of expression for ideological non-adherents, universities have likewise not been spared the threat to academic freedom. It is vital that these institutions recognise and address their mistakes while repairing their relationships with the various communities affected, both inside and outside the university walls.
One thing is certain: there can be no balance between freedom of expression and any institution’s “commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion” if the access to such freedoms is held within a moral purity litmus test where the “valued partners” are lobby groups set up to dismantle all freedoms of expression that fail to mirror its ideological, anti-scientific doxa. Perhaps The University of Essex will be the beacon of light in these ideological dark times?
An excellent and I think a rather important piece, many thanks.