Why I admired the Queen
Imagine life without expressing your views. Your country joins the EU. Your country exits the EU. Your children severely, potentially criminally, misbehave and do so publicly. You meet myriad governmental heads, some of whom intrigue you, others who leave you indifferent, and inevitably some who you abhor. And now imagine that you say and show nothing of your feelings. Even when your beloved spouse of more than seventy years dies, you curtail your emotion. Queen Elizabeth II lived this life.
Since 1689, Parliament rather than the English monarch has been sovereign, the seat of governmental power in the British Isles. The monarchy has persisted with the queen or king of the day serving as the head of state. Queen Elizabeth II steadfastly held to the letter as well of the spirit of this split. She recognized that policy was not her purview. She showed incredible discipline from a young age to maintain herself as a public figure absent of opinions on the questions of the day.
I marvel at how the Queen stayed out of politics despite being one of the most well-informed individuals in the world’s goings-on. I watched in wonder throughout the prolonged Brexit as the Queen never broke out of the role she viewed and accepted as hers. She never dropped a hint as to how she felt, what she believed was the best course of action for the country.
When I heard of the Queen’s death, I thought with great admiration of her discipline in the context of The University of Chicago’s Kalven report. The Kalven report, published in the unrest of the late 1960s, dictates that the University take no political stance. It is worth reading in its [short] entirety; I am challenged to choose a short excerpt but here goes:
“The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. … To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” – The Kalven report
The Queen recognized herself as institutional, akin to a university; and always acted in complete accord with Kalven principles. She did not see herself as a unit of dissent or of free expression. She recognized that the Parliament and the people trumped her in this regard. Her abstention from politics was the ultimate act of respect for her country.
Refraining from personal opining encourages discourse and free expression of the full diversity of opinion. Rather than promoting one version of public good, institutional neutrality promotes the most vigorous discussion of what constitutes the public good:
“The neutrality of the university … arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.” – The Kalven report
Full discourse, in turn, works to everyone’s advantage as it hones arguments, as so beautifully articulated by the great John Stuart Mill:
“”…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race … – those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” – John Stuart Mil, On Liberty
King Charles III promises to pursue a different path than his mother did. We are already hearing that he intends to continue to champion his preferred causes. While my personal views appear to align with his broadly stated goals, I rue this change. First, expressing personal and political views as the King is not respectful of the Parliament and constitutional rule of law. Second, to use a cliché: the Devil is in the details. What King Charles III believes advances his goal of combatting climate change, for example, surely differs from others’ beliefs, most notably the beliefs of all those in Parliament. The King’s own viewpoint holds exactly the same worth as does Jane Doe’s from Twickenham. Yet, any expressed opinion from the King would be afforded far more than Ms Doe’s.
I resonate with the Queen’s approach in my role as teacher. Despite being a highly (and I mean highly) opinionated person, I prefer to let neurobiology take the lead. To the infinitesimal extent that I am a public person – here on the campus of the University of Chicago, online through my MOOC, and in various media outlets – I would rather sacrifice my public opining in order to reach the widest audience possible with neurobiology. The worst case scenario for me would be someone who chooses not to further their interest in neurobiology because they were put off by my personal characteristics or viewpoints.
I am not in the Queen’s league as far as keeping who I am out of my teaching persona. Many students divine my thoughts; occasionally I outright share them. But I aspire to the Queen’s abnegation of self (to quote Fareed Zakaria’s recent WaPo editorial). In my case, this would be in service of neurobiology. In the Queen’s case, it was for the great nation she served.