Q&A with Zara Potts for Dearreadermag.com


First of all, I want to ask how you’re doing? In your piece you say you are still trying to come to terms with your public humiliation, did writing the piece help?

I’m fine. I’m happily married with four kids and my home has been a safe haven throughout this ordeal.

In your piece you say that in the eyes of your critics you are beyond redemption. Do you think that the critics are even concerned about the idea of redemption anymore – or is it just a case of wanting a scalp?

It’s hard to tell whether people participating in a witch-hunt are genuinely morally outraged or just intoxicated with blood lust – probably a combination of the two, like Spanish Inquisitors. When people are hunting you in a pack, they don’t think of you as another human being, just as prey. Characterising you as irredeemable is part of that dehumanisation process.

In your piece you talked about your 30-year career and how you had written some “pretty sophomoric pieces” – but all journalists have written some fairly shameful pieces, or at the very least, pieces they’re not proud of, over their careers – is it fair for these to be used as evidence of ‘wrong thinking’ or poor character?

I don’t think it’s fair, but I don’t think I’m being judged on the basis of those pieces. In my article for Quillette I quoted Ben Shapiro, who made the point that the reason people become targeted by Left-wing outrage mobs isn’t because they’ve said terrible things. Rather, the hard Left decides up front that they hate you and then starts combing through everything you’ve written in order to find terrible things you’ve said to justify that hatred. Why did they hate me to begin with? Because I’m a Tory, because I campaigned for Leave during the EU referendum, because I’ve been an advocate for an education policy that threatens their hegemony over public education and because I’m a white, heteronormative male.

What about context? It seems to have become problematic to say “Well, they were different times” – but realistically, they were. Things change, opinions change, but a lot of people don’t believe that context or intent matters. They are only concerned with the consequence – so if someone is offended by something you say or write – then that is the issue and whether you intentionally meant to cause offense or harm doesn’t matter. But surely it is more problematic to hold someone’s past up for inspection by today’s mores?

I think that’s true in my case and it also applies to anyone trying to “cleanse” our history of “problematic” writers and public figures. Recently, a group of students at Manchester University scrubbed out a mural in a student union building made up of ‘If’, the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, and replaced it with ’Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou. Their rationale was that Kipling was a “racist”, an apologist for colonialism, and so on. But to condemn a writer for being insufficiently “woke” – for not conforming to today’s progressive orthodoxies – is to judge people in the past by the standards of a few activists in the present, to assume that today’s campus speech codes embody eternal verities, rather than fashionable dogma. Not only that, but it involves reducing Kipling to just one thing – the worst possible thing the activists can portray him as by their lights – when, in fact, like many great writers, he contained multitudes. After his son was killed in the First World War he became a critic of imperialism, not an apologist for it.

Is it particularly galling for you that fellow journalists seem to have become so politicised that they, as you say in your piece, “join the lynch mob?” – A friend of mine likened the modern-day media to the “children of Marat” – Do you think there is some truth in that?

It isn’t just journalists. Joining outrage mobs, or, at the very least, not sticking your neck out to defend those being targeted by outrage mobs, seems to be a defining characteristic of the liberal, metropolitan elite. We naively assume that the more educated a person is, the more independent- and fair-minded they are, but the opposite seems to be the case. The people who stuck up for me were, for the most part, ordinary, uneducated people. I don’t know whether this is a new development, or whether it has been ever thus. I suspect the latter. Those with power and influence are generally very reluctant to do anything to jeopardise it.

Anyone who knows a bit of history is well aware that periods in which the commentariat decide that they are, above all else, interested in promoting righteousness have never been fertile periods for art or literature or even good thinking – For instance, far better art emerged under Charles II than Oliver Cromwell. A Godly Commonwealth is rarely a fecund one. Do you agree with this?

I think there are lots of interesting parallels between puritanism in all its historical guises and the outrage mobs that spring up on social media and then spill over into the mainstream media. It’s always about punishing heretics.

I know people who hold what I deem to be pretty reasonable viewpoints who are frightened to express them in case they’re held up as some kind of bigot or Nazi or idiot. Given your own experience, do you think they are right to feel that way?

Not necessarily. One of the interesting things about the current thought police is that they’re not state actors. Rather, they’re individuals spontaneously combining to form censorious mobs that end up intimidating powerful institutions to do their bidding, whether state bureaucracies or large corporations. It’s like a crowd-sourced Big Brother, a Big Brother created by the kind of liberals who, a few years ago, would have complained about the state’s intrusion into private life. In theory, that means standing up to them should be easier since they don’t actually possess the power to arrest and imprison people whose views they disapprove of (although in the UK people have been prosecuted for telling inappropriate jokes). But challenging them requires all of us who value freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity to act in concert. Individuals acting alone cannot do it.

There’s an instructive anecdote from Scott Alexander here, relayed on his blog: “Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said ‘Probably for the same reason I did’.”

There does seem to be a mob mentality on the rise at the moment – particularly on social media platforms. And it doesn’t seem to matter which way your politics lean – I’ve seen academics like Mary Beard get absolutely hounded for things she’s written, which are just historical facts, but she is somehow held accountable for it. More recently I’ve seen Alison Moyet get hammered on Twitter over transgender issues where she has been called a transphobe and worse. What’s really concerning about this, is that the attacks seem to be focused on people who are naturally sympathetic to these causes and yet these people, who are probably natural allies of their accusers, are suffering the modern-day equivalent of being run out of town. Apart from your own experience, do you see instances of this happening?

Yes, you see it all the time. What’s that old saying? The Right looks for allies, the Left looks for traitors. Not always true, but broadly true. I’ve had a few debates with fellow conservatives recently about whether we should embrace the shaming tactics of the Left in order to force them to act more reasonably. But I think it would be better to eschew those tactics and defend anyone accused of wrong think, whether on the Left or the Right. Let the regressive Left turn on the moderate Left and, hopefully, the moderate Left will distance itself from this ideological inquisition. If we attack the Left, by contrast, it will just create a mood of solidarity and prolong this awful trend.

One of the unnerving things that I see happening is the false equivalence around opinion versus expertise. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you actually have knowledge or facts about a subject, another person’s feeling about the subjects seems to hold just as much weight. I have a theory that this has emerged with the rise of the opinion column in place of news – do you have any theories on why this has happened?

It’s the legacy of post-modernism – a whole generation of university graduates in the humanities and social sciences has been taught there is no meaningful distinction between facts and values, between knowledge and belief. There is no such thing as objectivity or truth, just competing narratives. That was the message of an orientation pamphlet given to freshmen at Brown University in 2015 which condemned quantitative data, statistical information and written documentation as tools of “systematic oppression”. This isn’t asserted as a truth in its own right – all ‘truth’ is suspect, after all – but as a kind of religious dogma. Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, has just written a book linking post-modernism to the rise of Trump that looks interesting. He’s the first post-truth President.

I spoke to an Australian writer recently who compared the modern-day media to the new morality police who seem to be insistent on punishing wrongdoers or wrong thinkers. Is there something in that, do you think?

I don’t think media commentators are the prime actors. Rather, they’re doing the bidding of the secular religious police, who are, for the most part, hard Left university professors and public intellectuals.

I think the term that you use in your piece – offense archaeologists – is a very good one. Do you believe that the majority of these people who trawl through your old articles and twitter feed are not really offended – but are just simply trying to find anything they can to cast you in a bad light?

No question. As I said in my Quillette piece, if they were genuinely upset by the various thought crimes I’ve been accused of, why would they spend hours sifting through all my work to find them? And if they think they’re genuinely offensive, why go to such lengths to broadcast them as widely as possible? Do they want to upset people? No, they’re shocked in the sense that Captain Renault was shocked when he discovered gambling going on at Rick’s Place in Casablanca.

Do you have a theory on why the commentariat seem to be completely unaware of historical parallels? Particularly the Soviet era style of blackening someone’s name and dragging out any utterance as a sign of guilt? Or are they aware and they just don’t care?

They’re blissfully unaware. They think anyone comparing the current climate of intolerance on university campuses to life behind the Iron Curtain is a hysteric. They think that all this talk of “Twitter mobs” and “thought police” and free speech being in peril is just Right-wing rhetoric. A moral panic. Until they find themselves targeted by a Twitchfork mob, obviously. Then they change their minds.

I’m interested in your views on the polarisation of politics and how it has become so divided. I would consider myself to have pretty traditional Left leaning views. I don’t support capital punishment, I support a welfare state, I am a supporter of equal rights for all, I believe in freedom of choice and so on. Confusingly for me, those views now don’t seem to be Left enough – and in fact on many issues, I’m accused of being “far Right” which is a surprise to me. When did the lines for Left and Right move to such extreme positions do you think?

I think the regressive Left has always existed and has always had contempt for social democrats, going back at least as far as the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. But it was in retreat until the twin victories of Trump and Brexit. I think Trump’s victory in particular radicalised social democrats, convinced them that the regressive Left may have been right about capitalism inexorably leading to fascism and, even if it wasn’t right, that they need to keep up a united front until Trump and other right-wing demagogues have been defeated. In effect, Trump’s victory, and the electoral victories of other populist parties and causes across the West in the past 10 years or so, has empowered the regressive Left and disempowered social democrats.

In New Zealand at the moment, we are having public debates around issues of freedom of speech. But in some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate ‘missing of the point’ – so advocates of freedom of speech who defend another person’s right to think or state their opinion are being accused of defending the actual viewpoint, which is an entirely different thing. But that crucial point is being somehow lost. Does this simply reflect an abandonment of conceptual thinking or is it a wilful conflation of the issues to distract people.

I think the Neo-Marxist, post-modernist Left has succeeded in enlisting a lot of useful idiots by persuading them that allowing non-identitarian viewpoints to be expressed is a direct threat to the security and well-being of women, people of colour, trans people, and so on. But I think it’s just a rhetorical device. It’s really just about asserting their power and delegitimising anyone who opposes them.

It strikes me that humour has become a victim of the times. Society is becoming less and less humorous and certainly there seems to be no place for humour or irony in politics on either side. If we lose the ability to make jokes or laugh at things where will that lead us?

The only humour that’s permitted is ridiculing and satirising traditional, Christian, conservative points of view. Comedians act as the tribunes of powerful elites, delegitimising anyone who challenges progressive orthodoxies. They punch down, never up. Sacha Baron-Cohen is a case in point.

I’m interested in your thoughts on America – you spent some time there, which you document in your book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People – and one of the things that struck me about it was the fact that your English humour was not really appreciated in the US. There seemed to be a big difference in English and American culture. And it seems that for all its excess and freedoms, America is still a relatively puritanical society – do you think that with the western world’s eagerness to adopt American culture that we’ve also unwittingly imported that puritan streak?

I think puritanism is latent in all Western societies, not just the United States. It doesn’t take much to bring it to the fore.

You said in your piece that one of the great disappointments from you having to resign your public positions – particularly in the education field – was that you now don’t have the opportunity to discuss the problems that you believe are afflicting Britain’s universities – soaring tuition fees, grade inflation, the growing intolerance for unorthodox ideas – Do you subscribe to the idea that more is not necessarily good?’

Yes, I do. One of the consequences of 50% of school leavers going to university is that universities have ceased to be about the production and transmission of knowledge and become about instilling the ‘right’ values. I’ve just written a pamphlet for a British think tank about technical/vocational education, arguing that we need to value it more highly and stop seeing it as just suitable for those who aren’t “academically bright”.

Universities have always a bastion of free thinking – where students have been encouraged to think for themselves and even come up with theories that may be disagreeable – do you think this has changed in the last decade or so? Have universities become frightened of encouraging free thinkers?

Well, not always. Oxford and Cambridge were centres of Christian orthodoxy 500 years ago and that’s also true of a lot of Ivy League universities in the US as recently as 100 years ago. I think we’re seeing a return to that pattern, except the orthodoxy they’re expected to uphold now is secular and progressive.

It seems that we have lost our ability to reason – do you agree? And why do you think this is so? Is social media to blame?

Logic and reason are just tools of white privilege, according to the identitarian Left. You think I’m exaggerating, but that’s exactly what Brett Weinstein was told when he tried to reason with the student mob who were hounding him off campus at Evergreen State University when he refused to comply with the ‘Day of Absence’ whereby all white people were expected to remove themselves from the campus.

You refer to Kingsley Amis’s rule about self-deprecating remarks in your piece in Quillette: “Memo to writers and others: Never make a joke against yourself that some little bastard can turn into a piece of shit and send your way.” – How do you think Kingsley Amis – or a Chris Hitchens – would feel about the state of society at the moment?

If either of them was still alive they would have been targeted by the #metoo movement. Look at the #metoo outrage mobs that went after Steven Galloway and Junot Diaz and they were entirely innocent. Amis and Hitch wouldn’t have stood a chance.

I want to ask you about Brexit. You believe that part of the reason why you were publicly shamed was because the British professoriat is passionately pro-EU whereas you campaigned prominently for Brexit. Watching from this side of the world, it’s interesting to see such denial among the academics and the liberal elite about the Brexit result. The idea, that all people who voted Brexit are dumb and racist and that they really didn’t understand what they were doing seems fairly offensive. But does it concern you that some people believe that the result was somehow illegitimate and by extension, referenda are also problematic? Does this kind of thinking dilute democratic principles?

What has shocked me about the reaction of the British intelligentsia in general to the EU Referendum result is how skin deep their commitment to democracy is. They really do think they know best and that elections are all very well if the public does their bidding, but the moment things don’t go their way the opinions of the hot poloi should be disregarded. I had encountered that attitude among European elites before, but not in Britain. It’s depressing.

You talk about the rise of identity politics and the idea of oppression Olympics, what do you think has contributed to this? I do see it in my social media feeds where people are almost falling over each other to be victims of something or other. Is this a generational thing do you think?

Identity politics isn’t new. The hard Left lost faith in the white working class as potential allies in the revolution about 50 years ago and has been trying to recruit beleaguered minorities ever since. What’s new is that the hard Left has captured the commanding heights of the information economy. How did it do this? By being single-minded and well-organised and utterly ruthless. Also, as I said, the rise of Right-wing populism has helped.

Do you think that there will eventually be a backlash from people, particularly the conservative or centrist voters, who feel that they are being told what to think?

I sincerely hope so, but things are bound to get worse before they get better. If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party wins the next general election in the UK things would get a good deal worse and might never get better. Incredibly, I’ve encountered some political centrists in Britain who think it would be a good thing if Corbyn had a spell in Downing Street because then everyone would see how terrible the hard Left is at governing and Labour would lose the next election by a landslide and the party would then replace Corbyn with a moderate. I expect some Mensheviks thought the same about Lenin in 1917. Once the hard Left gets its hands on the levers of power it’s not going to relinquish them without an almighty fight.

How confident are you that you will again be able to hold public positions? Are you optimistic about the future?

I don’t think I’ll ever be appointed to a public position again by an Establishment political party. The only way is if I ran for election and won, or campaigned for an anti-Establishment party and it won.

Finally, on a personal level, what would you like people to know about what the real effects of public shaming are? You’ve lost some of you’re livelihood, it affected your children and your wife, do people need to understand that these are not just Twitter avatars they’re punishing but real people with real lives?

I don’t think it will make any difference to my persecutors. On the contrary, they’ll be delighted to learn of the pain and suffering their witch-hunt caused. If anything, it will embolden them to go further next time they want to take someone out.


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