Deborah Orr: How to prove that white men are hardly superior to other humans

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Dr Frank Ellis, lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies at Leeds University,recently launched himself as a poster boy for freedom of expression. When he spewed out a stream of racism and sexism to a student journalist, he gained far more attention than his academic work ever had, and far more attention than he had bargained for.

Yet all he had to do to mollify his employer was to apologise for his tasteless lies, and undertake not to repeat them in public again. This he refused to do. In contending that whites are cleverer than blacks, and men are cleverer than women, Ellis appears to have somewhat damaged his own argument. If white men are so clever, then why would one of then be dumb enough to risk his career and reputation in order to spread hateful playground nonsense?

This, however, is what he has done. Leeds University at first stood by its loose-tongued lecturer, with reports claiming the body believed it could take no action against Dr Ellis unless he could be proven to be actually discriminating against black and female students. The issue has refused to go away, since quite a number of the aforementioned black and female students, along with a goodly number of the white males Dr Ellis has such enthusiasm for, pointed out that they didn't want to be taught by a man with such low opinions of them.

Dr Ellis was suspended earlier this week while the university considers whether he has broken the public body's "obligation to promote racial harmony under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000". I know that as a mere woman I may be missing something here. But to me it looks like an open-and-shut case.

For Dr Ellis the suspension is simply proof that he is right. He claims that it is "academic spinelessness and chicanery which makes it possible for political correctness to flourish". Perhaps he will be joining today's march in London, which defends freedom of expression, in the wake of the controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohamed.

If he is, he will not be a constructive presence. Freedom of expression is not a fundamental human right. It is an essential tool in the safeguarding of dignity and freedom. It does not mean that people must be defended if they choose to be deliberately offensive - as both Dr Ellis and the Danish editor who commissioned those feeble cartoons have been.

Dr Ellis is entitled to hold his views, but he is not entitled to have them taken seriously. This is what the ardent defenders of freedom of expression at any cost fail to understand. Being free to make claims does not mean that you are also free of responsibility for what you say.

What it means to be a father

Who can deny that the pictures of Freddie Flintoff and his baby son are beautiful, even if they are tardy? The 27-year-old cricketer decided not to return to Britain for the birth of his son two weeks ago because he had been asked to captain the England cricket team in Australia.

At the time there was a great furore about his decision, and much discussion of how society had changed since the 1960s. Back then men were expected to stay out of the delivery room, and now their presence is an indication of how seriously they take fatherhood.

I think it's an indication of how people are taken in by tokenism. Being present at the birth should be encouraged if it's what a couple want. But it's being prepared to stay off work and mop brows that will really indicate that fatherhood has changed.

When men start taking career breaks, badgering their bosses for time off during the school holidays, and explaining that they have to leave early to pick the children up from school, we'll start to see the pay gap shrinking. But when you can prove your paternal credentials by simply turning up and watching childbirth, why put yourself out any further?

* Meanwhile, Jacques Chirac has been striking a blow not just against free speech but even against free language. He stormed out of an EU meeting because a French delegate elected to speak in English, Europe's language of business. He, on the other hand, communicates like a sulky teenager, with slammed doors, sulks and pouts. The international language of total jerks, if I'm not mistaken.

Children need to learn at their own pace

Margaret Drabble, writing in a journal for the teaching profession, this week made an impassioned plea for mixed-ability classrooms. Her conviction, she said, was based on her experience at a school reunion, at which she was surprised to find "lasting bitterness" among those schoolfriends who had been placed in the lower stream.

The novelist also said that she couldn't bear school and hated her teachers, so there is a possibility that "lasting bitterness" was bequeathed in some form or another to all of the pupils, simply because it wasn't a decent school with good teachers.

But it also made me wonder if part of the problem with the debate over "mixed ability" isn't just the negative way in which it is described. Those who are against streaming often say that those in favour of it think only of how it benefits the bright and not of how it disadvantages the less bright.

But wouldn't it be better to adopt the language and methods of the Montessori system? Under this teaching method - which The Independent highlighted recently as have had stunning success in turning round a failing primary - no one talks of the "lower stream" or of "mixed ability".

Instead children are encouraged to learn at their own pace. They are not expected - whether they are easily distracted, dull witted, or whatever - to keep grinding through the next prescribed educational stage, whether they are ready to or not. Perhaps the children at Ms Drabble's school would not have been lastingly embittered if their school had been able to show in the classroom that they put the child's needs first. Maybe part of the problem is that the system is too hung up on age as the benchmark.

* The murder last year of the young aspiring model Sally-Anne Bowman has remained in the public domain thanks to a ceaseless supply of professional-standard photographs of her. The belief that it is in any way appropriate to gaze weekly at shots of this pretty girl is an odd one. But even more upsetting is the news that the other visual elements of this "story" have been so dreadfully botched.

A photofit of a suspect has been splattered all over Croydon, where the crime took place, for many months now. But it turns out that the man portrayed in it was only one of several suspects seen in the area at the time.

The strongest suspect, in the opinion of those closest to Ms Bowman, is an Australian who had been stalking the 19-year-old for many days. He looks nothing like the first photofit.

A second one has been issued now, showing features that correspond with the appearance of this man, say witnesses from the hairdresser where Ms Bowman worked, and where this stalker sometimes visited. Let's hope it is being pasted all over Australia, as well as Croydon.

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