In an environment where universities are portrayed as “madrasas of the left”, music appears to be a safe haven. How could you politicise something as abstract and ethereal as the rules of harmony? Yet with the rise of so-called grievance studies and calls for decolonisation, some fear that music is at risk of succumbing to the radicals.
On Twitter, the Scottish composer James MacMillan recently complained about students having “to endure so much political mind control” in their university experience – something he regards as a “monumental waste of time” and “a monstrous intellectual imposition”.
If Twitter is anything to go by, he is far from alone in holding these views. Comments reveal a surprising level of anger surrounding the pollution of higher education with pursuits such as critical race studies, feminism and queer theory that supposedly threaten its status as a disinterested place of learning.
I can’t help but think of the Cold War paranoia concerning infiltration, indoctrination and subversion so brilliantly satirised in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove by the figure of General Ripper, committed to defending “our precious bodily fluids” against an international communist conspiracy.
The libertarian fear is uncannily similar: subversive tactics practised on a global scale that might turn freethinking people into what the online alt-right mocks through its non-player characters meme as liberal, close-minded sheep.
The argument that this faction relies on is that as academics we have a responsibility to teach all manner of opinions on any given issue, prizing impartial rigour over political sympathy. Who could possibly disagree? If you do, then you’re clearly not an academic, but an ideologue who belongs in an advocacy group rather than an ivory tower.
Well, up to a point. For all its outward commitment to liberty, this line of argument serves the opposite end. It runs up against what Karl Popper referred to as the paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” In other words, if we are not prepared to defend political tolerance then it is at risk of disappearing under a rising tide of sanctioned intolerance.
In certain circumstances, he argues, we must exercise a right to subdue hatred in order to preserve democracy. It follows that work supportive of racism, misogyny or homophobia must be challenged and suppressed if reasoned debate is rejected.
In this light, the ostensibly benevolent call for balanced and objective rigour begins to look a bit flimsy, much like the arguments about race and intelligence in The Bell Curve. In fact, it risks legitimising not diversity of opinion but the reverse – illiberalism and irrationality.
We may even see it as a way of smuggling reactionary thinking into the academy under the camouflage of neutrality. This is precisely the tactic that Donald Trump uses to give credence to white supremacy, abusing the concept of equality to explain that there are “very fine people on both sides”. There is a bitter irony here that we would do well to name and resist.
We’ve come a long way from music, it seems. Or have we? Could the idea that music is simply a collection of notes on a page have a darker political undercurrent?
Writing in 1993, the ethnomusicologist Philip V. Bohlman made a simple but profound claim: the act of viewing music as an autonomous, apolitical object of study – what he refers to as “essentialising” it – is the most dominant way music has been politicised.
In consequence, musicology as a discipline is able to imagine itself into a world without politics – without music by women, by African Americans, by an array of colonised others across the globe throughout history. Although much has changed since the 1990s, what we have at present is still a largely segregated pedagogics of music drawn tacitly and thus all the more powerfully along lines of race, class, gender and empire. To avoid owning up to these shortcomings is to make a point about what matters in society at large.
There’s a bad faith in believing that scholarship and politics can be neatly uncoupled. Who, we might want to ask, are the General Rippers: those who, like Stuart Hall, aspire to understand and challenge injustice or those who resent the incursion of politics into something as pure as music? The answer, it seems to me, is obvious.