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St Cuthbert's Society


St Cuthbert’s is a large multi-disciplinary scholarly community of 1200 students: over 200 of these are postgraduates, many from overseas. The Senior Common Room (SCR) has over 200 members from university departments and also from the professional world and the local community, including alumni; their work and interests span a very wide range, including archaeology, modern languages, Old Norse, mathematics, astronomy, psychology, education, business, policing and prisons. As part of the University’s Research Strategy, colleges play an increasing role in the support of research activities and in linking research with education. The Principal, Elizabeth Archibald, is also a Professor in the Department of English Studies. She is responsible for the development of research activities in the college, with the support from the Deputy Principal, the SCR Committee and the Postgraduate Representative of the JCR.

The Principal

Professor Elizabeth Archibald is a medievalist who works both on comparative literature and on social and cultural history; her current project is on baths and bathing in the Middle Ages. She has published widely on the Arthurian legend, and is President of the British Branch of the International Arthurian Society. She is a member of the University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Centre for Medical Humanities, and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing, and is working with them on research events at Cuth’s also open to the wider university community.

Institute of Advanced Study

Each year, Cuth’s hosts a visiting Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies, who lives in the college and engages both formally and informally in our research activities. This year, our IAS Fellow is Professor Massimo Leone, who is Professor of Semiotics, Cultural Semiotics, and Visual Semiotics at the University of Turin, and is Director of the MA Program in Communication Studies. His work deals with visual embodiments of religion and law and he is particularly interested in comparative research about the visual imaginary of equity and justice. Professor Leone's IAS Fellow's Public Lecture will be taking place on the 3rd November 2016, from 17:30 to 18:30, in the Dining Hall in 12 South Bailey. For more information and details of the talk, please see here.

Postgraduate Research Fora

The JCR Postgraduate Committee organises regular research talks by current postgraduates and members of the SCR throughout the year. These talks are an ideal opportunity for Cuth's postgraduates to present their current research in an informal and relaxed setting, and this opportunity has often been extended to undergraduate finalists.The research fora are open to all members of St. Cuthbert's Society and past topics have included King Arthur, Molière, galaxy formation, string theory, Austrian novels, philosophy of science, plant science, and landslides.These informal sessions allow research students to practice presenting their projects to non-specialists; students discover what SCR members work on; undergraduates gain a better understanding of what research involves; and the whole community benefits from interdisciplinary discussion.

Symposia 2013 on ‘Sense, Sensation, Emotion’

We have recently launched a series of interdisciplinary symposia on ‘Sense, Sensation, Emotion’, bringing together speakers with very different perspectives. We began with ‘Colour and Vision’ (in collaboration with St Chad’s); the speakers were an artist, a blind person, a synaesthetic, a neuroscientist, a theologian, a medievalist, and a physicist. Next came ‘Taste’, with a scientifically trained food and flavour specialist from London, and a local team working on appetizing recipes for head and neck cancer patients, including ‘The Chemical Chef’ who produced some amazing samples. In April we have a symposium on ‘Remorse’, ranging from medieval incest stories to modern Irish politics, and we also plan a session with researchers from the Leverhulme-funded Durham research project ‘Hearing the Voice’. These symposia will continue next year, in collaboration with the Centre for Medical Humanities and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing: we shall explore more of the senses, and also return to Colour and Taste, which have proved very rich and exciting research areas.

Lectures and Debates

Cuth’s sponsors numerous lectures open to anyone interested.

Essay from Ben Hamer

‘Light often arises from a collision of opinions, as fire from flint and steel’

Benjamin Franklin, 1760

Words can incite hatred, inspire acts of violence, and silence those who most need a voice. Benjamin Franklin was not naïve in his support for free speech. He goes on to point out the benefit of ‘light’ from opposing opinions is not without danger: ‘heat’ is sometimes produced by controversy. Nonetheless, despite the risk, such collisions of opinion are important. The metaphorical light of clashing opinion reveals a new perspective on each, illuminating and informing those that advanced them. When Franklin wrote this quotation in 1760, free speech was an ideological and political battleground. The battle continues to be waged today and Franklin’s words still resonate. The central question that arises is whether the benefit of the light outweighs the danger of the heat. Should there be limitations on how we share our opinions? Should the flint ever be kept apart from steel? The first printing presses in Europe saw a revolution in the transit of ideas and news. The press spread views faster and wider than ever before. Coffeehouses were the preferred venue for such discourse: they provided free newspapers and soon buzzed with discussion from customers. By 1700, around half of all men in London visited a coffeehouse daily. The ‘world of letters’ was opening up the free exchange of ideas. Rational argument became the primary arbiter of debate, with appeals to God and heredity superseded. A defined public sphere opened up previously taboo topics and arcana imperii. It is not surprising this period became known as the Age of Enlightenment. The insatiable appetite for juicy political and personal information was fed by thousands of publications. The leviathan of mass media was whirring into life. Franklin contributed to this revolution. Early in his career he created the first American gossip column: revealing personal secrets and scandal under the pseudonym Busy-Body. He courted controversy – no doubt were he writing now he would be slapped with an interim injunction. Under another name, Silence Dogood, he lambasted the arrest of his brother for publishing anti-establishment material, echoing Cato: ‘without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech’. Free speech strengthens a free country. These are the values that would form a cornerstone of both the newborn American Republic and modern liberal democracy. One of Franklin’s fellow Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, went as far as placing a free press above all else: The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people […] were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter. For Jefferson, newspapers were central to the social fabric of free society and above the primacy of government itself. Jefferson did, however, add one proviso: ‘every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them’. This qualification implies access to information, and understanding of it, so as to have well-rounded opinions. Without access to more than one opinion there is no flint, and without understanding there can be no collision. In recent years there have been challenges to both areas. The Internet has changed the way we read the news and air our opinions. Sources are self-selected on social media: friends as much as newspaper feeds. Algorithms curate our digital worlds, unique from anyone else. Opinions are reinforced by comment pieces with which we agree. The irksome and ill informed muted or culled with the click of a mouse. Facebook has more active daily users than any country on earth. Most Americans are active on Facebook, with a recent study estimating 67 percent receive their news from the site. This translates to almost half of adults in the United States using Facebook as the platform for informing their views. A personalised algorithm serves the Facebook News Feed. The premise is simple: it selects items it thinks the user will want to see. This works well for interests and social matters, less so for political ones. It becomes a political echo chamber. Engagement with like-minded opinions causes a positive feedback loop, removing alternative opinions while amplifying similar ones. Rather than connecting the world, the ature of the medium is to polarise and segment its users. These same metrics allow fake news and clickbait to spread throughout networks, misinforming with a surfeit of information. Fake news from both liberals and conservatives, against which Facebook had few guidelines in place to combat, distorts facts and opposing opinions. This can have a huge effect politically, with much ink spilt on the phenomenon of a ‘blue feed’ and a ‘red feed’ in the presidential election: highlighting the separate and polarised political narratives pushed by News Feeds for liberals and conservatives. The feeds would have been better called a ‘flint feed’ and a ‘steel feed’ as per Franklin’s quotation. Where we only listen to other people with like minded views there can be only the elision of opinions already close together. There is no light to be had from a cacophony of agreement with a digital wall carefully segregating both sides. The spark of conflict and opposition Franklin spoke of should be found once more. Following the great populist victories of Brexit and the 2016 Presidential Election the losing side struggled to come to terms with the result. They reeled at how could the other side be so deluded. In fact, the failure to even grasp the grievances and opinions of opposing sides caused this breakdown. The focus on statistical engagement rather than balanced editorial content, and the ensuing separation of ‘flint’ and ‘steel’, is to the detriment of society at large. Facebook has already set up an inquiry team to look into the effect of fake news. It should go further and use its power to inform and balance views. Instead of suggested news and media being similar opinions or reports, why not present a short link to an article with a dissenting response directly below? The collision of opinions widens perspectives and assists the quality of a discussion. Even in universities, the natural seats of unbridled discussion and free speech, there are attempts to prevent collision of unwanted voices. ‘No-platforming’ in particular is a trend at universities whereby (often right wing) speakers are barred from attending or have their invitations to speak rescinded. The calls to no-platform are often from a vocal minority of student protesters. To allow them to influence the discourse available to the whole university is to remove the opportunity for criticism and rational argument. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, often conflicting opinions, rather than either being definitively true, ‘share the truth between them’. These flecks of truth blaze out from between the clash of flawed arguments. This search for truth is one of the key arguments Franklin supported. The light of free speech, while free from illegitimate censorship, should not be without a limit. It is at the extremes that the ‘heat’ of speech can far outweigh the ‘light’ it provides in compensation. There is often little loss of ‘light’ in the suppression of some stories. As Baroness Hale pointed out in Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe Sprl [2006] UKHL 44 at [147]: [Information of] real public interest […] is very different from information which interests the public – the most vapid tittle-tattle about the activities of footballers' wives and girlfriends interests large sections of the public but no-one could claim any real public interest in our being told all about it. It is right to prize the light of free opinions, but further, as Franklin implied, it should not be at the expense of disproportional harm. Conversely, and as other judges have noted, to rob newspapers of material that people would find interesting, and thereby sell fewer papers, would also not be in the public interest. The far edges of opinion can be protean and uncomfortable, with conflicting rights and liberties jostling for primacy. Under English law especially there are checks in place to curb the excesses of free speech without limit such as rights to privacy and safeguards against misuse of private information. In other areas, the balance is slowly shifting. The recent high profile case in the Supreme Court in support of privacy, the so-called celebrity ménage à trois case (PJS v News Group Newspapers [2016] EWCA Civ 100),saw the difficulties in applying limits to free speech in the Internet Age. Websites and social media have no borders, and when anonymised identities are so commonly known the purpose of an injunction can be obscured. Franklin’s words, something rare and precious, underpin the nature of free speech. The importance of rational debate and its fruits helped define the world we live in. The balance the ‘heat’ of controversy with beneficial ‘light’ continues to be at the heart of the deeply contested debate of where the limits of free speech should lie.

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