We’re facing a tsunami of censorship
Column for the Spectator about the surge in censorship that followed the death of George Floyd and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was published on 4th July 2020.
It’s open season on mavericks and dissenters at the moment. If you publicly challenge any of the sacred nostrums of the social justice left and you work in a school, a college, a university, an arts company, a public broadcasting organisation, a tech company, a charity, a local authority or, indeed, Whitehall, you are at risk of being cancelled. How do I know? Because in February I set up the Free Speech Union to protect those being targeted in this way and in the past month we’ve been contacted by people in all of these fields who have either been fired, suspended or are ‘under investigation’ for having said or done something controversial, usually on Facebook or Twitter.
And by ‘controversial’ I don’t mean they’re guilty of hate speech. One person who asked for help was Mike McCulloch, a maths lecturer at Plymouth University, who was being investigated by his employer for having liked a tweet saying ‘All Lives Matter’. Then again, the definition of ‘hate speech’ is so nebulous and broad that it’s increasingly common for mainstream views to be labelled as such. For instance, another FSU member, the feminist campaigner Posie Parker, started a petition on Change.org asking the Oxford English Dictionary to keep its definition of ‘woman’ as ‘adult female human’, and the moderators took it down on the grounds it was ‘hate speech’. J.K. Rowling knows all about that, of course.
I thought it was bad when I set up the FSU, and it was. According to the Telegraph, the police in England and Wales have investigated and recorded 120,000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’ in the past five years. That’s more than 65 people a day being interviewed by the authorities for precisely the kind of thing Mike McCulloch was investigated for, e.g. liking a tweet that dissents from fashionable left-wing dogma. Once that’s on your record, it shows up on an enhanced DBS check, which means you might not be able to get a job as a teacher or a carer. But things are worse by an order of magnitude since the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the FSU, we used to get half a dozen requests for help a week. Now we get half a dozen a day.
Last Sunday, for instance, I was contacted by a man called Nick Buckley, who has been fired by a charity for vulnerable young people in Manchester for writing a blog post in which he took issue with some of BLM’s policies, such as dismantling capitalism. When he republished his post on LinkedIn, a ‘poet’ called Reece Williams wrote the following comment: ‘Please know that we will be doing everything in our power to have you removed from your position. Expect us.’ Nick wasn’t all that worried because he founded the charity, has been running it successfully for nine years, and was awarded an MBE last year. But in the current Maoist climate that wasn’t enough to save him. A week later he’d lost his job.
What can be done about this tsunami of censorship? I’m tempted to say: make it illegal to fire someone for exercising their lawful right to free speech — but I don’t want to encroach on private companies’ freedom of association. What about limiting the protection to those who express political views? At present, people’s religious and philosophical beliefs are a ‘protected’ characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and firing someone because of those beliefs is supposed to be unlawful. But in a recent case a judge ruled it was perfectly fine to sack someone for saying ‘men cannot change into women’, because that particular belief ‘is not worthy of respect in a democratic society’. The problem with legislating to protect free speech is that the law has to allow for some wiggle room, and that will give the courts all the latitude they need to find against you if you’ve said something Afua Hirsch or Owen Jones would disapprove of. You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service have been captured by the social justice cult and the Courts and Tribunals Service is not far behind.
The pro-free speech forces do win the occasional victory — Plymouth has dropped its investigation of Mike McCulloch. But the authoritarian tide is rising and every time you think things can’t get any worse, the ground goes out from under you. We need the government to defend this age-old liberty, but since when has a Conservative government actually conserved anything?
The Intellectual Dark Web is more liberal than you’d think
Column for the Spectator about a survey showing the IDW isn’t as conservative as many on the Left have portrayed it as being. Published on 26th October 2019.
In February last year, Spectator Life ran an article by Douglas Murray on the arrival of a new group of unorthodox thinkers who were challenging the dogmas of the authoritarian left. People who maintained, among other things, that there are fundamental biological differences between men and women, that free speech is under siege on campus and elsewhere, and that some aspects of western civilisation — in particular, the values of the Enlightenment — are worth defending.
Murray’s list included Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers: all members of what they jokingly referred to as the ‘intellectual dark web’ (IDW). When the New York Times’s Bari Weiss used the same moniker in an article about these thinkers a few months later, it entered the mainstream lexicon. The IDW went global.
Needless to say, this oddball collection of writers and broadcasters were immediately dismissed by the defenders of progressive orthodoxy as beyond the pale. A piece in the Guardian described the IDW as ‘the thinking wing of the alt-right’. Other left-wing commentators have said much the same, pointing out that most of its members are middle-aged white men — proof, apparently, that they want to withhold power from women and minorities. Peterson’s defence of the patriarchy is often cited as Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.
Michael Shermer, the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine and a self-described ‘card-carrying member of the IDW’, decided to put these claims to the test. He teamed up with a couple of social scientists and devised a questionnaire that he sent to the 34 people most commonly linked to the group to find out where they stand on a series of wedge issues like gun control, abortion and free speech. I know this because I’m in that group of 34, thanks to my role as an associate editor of Quillette, an online intellectual magazine that Weiss described as ‘the publication most associated with this movement’. I also tick another of the boxes mentioned by Weiss: someone who’s been ‘purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought’.
Before getting to the results of Shermer’s survey, it’s worth saying that only half the group bothered to complete it. But there’s no reason to think the 18 who did, of which I was one, are different to the 16 who didn’t. And it turns out, we’re not the goose-stepping fascists our critics would have you believe. True, 83 per cent of us are male, 72 per cent are white and 67 per cent reported having a household income of $140,000 or above. But in spite of belonging to these suspect categories, most of us are liberals in the old-fashioned sense of the word. On social-cultural issues, 61 per cent of us actually identified as ‘liberals’, 22 per cent as ‘moderates’ and only 17 per cent as ‘conservatives’. On various key policies, we broke down in a similar way, so 67 per cent believe gun control is necessary, against 22 per cent who think it’s not; 56 per cent think abortion should always be a woman’s choice (22 per cent strongly disagree); and 33 per cent think income inequality is a serious problem, while 22 per cent don’t.
The issue that commands the most consensus, not surprisingly, is free speech, with 89 per cent of us agreeing it should always be allowed and 83 per cent believing ‘people should be allowed to say and believe whatever they want, even if others think those words or beliefs are hurtful’. We’re also very respectful towards those who disagree with us, which is what you’d expect from a group committed to viewpoint diversity. More than half the respondents said they had a high tolerance for members of the political party opposite to them and wouldn’t mind if one of their children was going out with someone with diametrically opposed views.
What struck me on reading this is that most of us hold opinions that 70 years ago would have placed us to the left of the Overton window and 20 years ago would have put us squarely in the middle. But the shift to the left among the educated intelligentsia has accelerated so significantly in the past ten years that it’s now commonplace to describe a group of ‘moderate secular liberals’ (Michael Shermer’s phrase) as ‘alt-right’ extremists. For the health of our democracy, we need to resist this Maoist intolerance and, for that reason, I’m setting up a membership organisation for mavericks and dissenters — a kind of mass-market version of the IDW. If you’re interested in joining, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is hate crime really on the rise?
Blog post for the Spectator questioning the data saying hate crimes are increasing in the UK. Published on 15th October 2019.
The Guardian ran a story on its website today headlined: ‘Hate crimes doubled in England and Wales in five years.’ Alarming if true, but is it?
The story is based on some data released by the Home Office today which, on the face of it, does appear to show the number of hate crimes increasing. The number of hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2018-19 was 103,397, up from 94,121 in 2017-18, a rise of ten per cent.
But drill down into the report, and the picture becomes more hazy. The word doing most of the work here is ‘recorded’. Yes, the number of recorded hate crimes has increased year-on-year, but how do we know that isn’t due to the police being more likely to record hate crimes? In fact, the Home Office acknowledges that ‘increases in hate crime over the last five years have been mainly driven by improvements in crime recording by the police’.
One way to resolve this is to look at unrecorded hate crimes and then ask whether the combined total of recorded and unrecorded hate crimes has increased. David Goodhart and Richard Norrie were able to do that last year in an article for Policy Exchange, thanks to the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW), which compiles data about unrecorded and recorded hate crimes. According to the CSEW, the estimated combined totals for 2016-17 and 2017-18 were ~184,000. That’s 40 per cent lower than the estimated combined totals for 2007-08 and 2008-09, which were ~307,000.
While it’s true that there has been an increase in the number of recorded hate crimes in the last five years, as the Guardian headline claims, the Home Office believes that’s due to changes in recording protocols following a review in 2014, not a rise in the number of actual hate crimes. Today’s report says:
increases seen over the last five years are thought to have been driven by improvements in crime recording by the police following a review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services in 2014 and the removal of the designation of police recorded crime as National Statistics. It is also thought that growing awareness of hate crime is likely to have led to improved identification of such offences.
That last sentence is important. A big factor in the rising number of reported hate crimes – and the corresponding fall in the number of unreported hate crimes – is that members of the public have been bombarded with information alerting them to the fact that certain types of anti-social behaviour can be designated as ‘hate crimes’ and encouraging them to report this behaviour to the police, as well as making it easier for them to do so. This is a point well-made by the author Ben Cobley, who wrote a piece for Quillette earlier this year about the alleged upsurge in hate crimes around the time of the EU referendum, a data point often referred to by Brexit’s opponents:
Labour party and pro-Remain politicians, such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, heavily promoted the reporting of hate crime in the summer of 2016. Khan’s own office added to the proliferating number of reporting mechanisms by setting up a web page urging people to telephone or send an email about hate crimes ‘following the referendum result’. Meanwhile, police forces and local councils were busily engaging with ‘community forums’, encouraging group and community leaders to report hate incidents.
One final point. In 2014, the College of Policing issued new operational guidance to help officers determine whether a report of anti-social behaviour constitutes a ‘hate crime’. The crucial passage reads as follows:
For recording purposes, the perception of the victim, or any other person, is the defining factor in determining whether an incident is a hate incident, or in recognising the hostility element of a hate crime. The victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief, and police officers or staff should not directly challenge this perception. Evidence of the hostility is not required for an incident or crime to be recorded as a hate crime or hate incident.
In other words, someone can report a hate crime, and the police are obliged to record it, without them having to provide any evidence that a hate crime has taken place.
So it’s possible that the rise in recorded hate crimes in the past year is, in part, due to a rise in perceived hate crimes, simply because more people have become primed to detect them, particularly Remainers who have persuaded themselves that the EU referendum has ‘unleashed demons’, to use David Cameron’s phrase.
It’s also possible that the nebulousness of the definition, with complainants not being required to provide any evidence to back up their claims, has led to an increase in vexatious reports. Which may explain why the number of successful prosecutions for hate crimes remains low — around 12,000 a year for the past few years.
I’ll give the last word to the Home Office. It notes that between 2017-18 and 2018-19, there has been a 25 per cent increase in recorded sexual orientation hate crimes, a 14 per cent increase in recorded disability hate crimes and a 37 per cent increase in recorded transgender identity hate crimes. But it then adds:
These large percentage increases across all three strands are partly due to the smaller number of these crimes. However, they may also suggest that increases are due to the improvements made by the police in their identification and recording of these hate crime offences and more people coming forward to report these crimes rather than a genuine increase.
Why I Want to Set Up a Free Speech Trade Union
Piece I wrote for Quillette about why I want to establish a free speech trade union. It was published on 1st August 2019.
Last April, the historian Niall Ferguson called for a NATO of the pen. Inspired by the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty in which 12 Western democracies agreed that “an armed attack against one or more…shall be considered an attack against them all,” he suggested that “professional thinkers—academics, public intellectuals, writers of any stripe” should sign a “Non-conformist Academic Treaty” in which they promise to come to each other’s defense if one of them is “called out” on social media or “investigated” by their employer. Among the victims of these modern-day witch-hunts Ferguson cited Bret Weinstein, Bruce Gilley, Nigel Biggar, Roland Fryer, Samuel Abrams, Peter Boghossian, Jordan Peterson, and Roger Scruton, and said the lesson was clear: “we either hang together or we hang separately.”
This struck me as an excellent idea, but I could also see a practical difficulty. One of the reasons NATO succeeded in deterring Soviet expansion into Western Europe is because it didn’t require any individual country to make the first move in response to Soviet aggression. Rather, NATO provided an institutional framework that enabled the signatories of the treaty to respond collectively, thereby pooling the risk.
What would the equivalent mechanism be in a NATO of the pen? In the event of a dissenting scholar being attacked in an ‘open letter,’ the intellectuals who’d signed Ferguson’s treaty wouldn’t be able to speak with one voice. Rather, they’d each have to stick their heads above the parapets, thereby exposing themselves to similar attacks. Indeed, Ferguson’s list of heretics includes one such casualty. The transgression committed by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, was to write an article in the Times of London in 2017 defending Bruce Gilley, a Professor of Political Science at Portland State, who’d been mobbed by his colleagues for writing a polemical essay in Third World Quarterly setting out the case for colonialism. (The essay was withdrawn after the editor was threatened with violence.) That resulted in two ‘open letters’ condemning Biggar, both signed by dozens of academic historians. (That reaction will not surprise those familiar with the left-wing bias in the humanities. According to a study carried out by Econ Journal Watch in 2016 which looked at the voter registration of faculty members at 40 leading American universities, Democrats outnumber Republicans in history departments by a ratio of 33.5 to one.)
Even when scholars band together to defend intellectual freedom, they’re still at risk. More than 30 academics wrote a joint letter to the Sunday Times in June condemning the atmosphere of Maoist intolerance in Britain’s universities around transgender issues. Within days, petitions were being circulated by trans activists calling for some of the signatories to be fired and the following week a ‘counter letter’ appeared in the Sunday Times, this one signed by over 1,000 academics, each specifying their preferred gender pronoun.
Is there a way of operationalizing Ferguson’s proposal so it doesn’t run afoul of the collective action problem? According to him, there is. His plan is to set up an umbrella organization that brings together different freedom-loving institutions from across the Anglosphere. It will be these institutions that collectively rally to the defense of dissenters when they come under attack, not the individuals associated with them. That sounds like a good solution and Ferguson is the right person to set up such an organization, given that he’s the author of The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, an historical account of just how effective international networks can be.
However, Ferguson’s article prompted me to come up with a slightly different idea, which is to set up a trade union. The apposite Cold War analogy here is not with NATO, but with Solidarnosc, the Polish trade union born in in the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980. Among the 21 demands drawn up by the Inter-Factory Strike Committee and its chairman Lech Walesa was freedom of speech—that is, a guarantee that workers wouldn’t lose their jobs for publicly criticizing the Communist regime. It officially registered its existence on 10th November 1980 after signing the Gdansk Agreement with the Polish government and was one of the first cracks to appear in the Soviet control system in Eastern Europe. Ten years later, Solidarity won the first semi-free election to be held in Poland since the Second World War, setting off a chain of event that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
What I have in mind is a British Solidarnosc (although it won’t be called that, obviously), a membership organization for people who earn a living through writing or performing, primarily for the purpose of expressing ideas. (A bit like PEN before it was captured by the ‘woke’ Left.) So membership will be open to academics, intellectuals, columnists, pundits, novelists, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, songwriters, comedians, and so on—“writers of any stripe,” in Ferguson’s phrase. And not just those who’ve achieved some professional standing in those fields, but those with ambitions to do so—students as well as practitioners, even older schoolchildren. After all, it’s on university campuses and in high schools that so much contemporary censorship takes place.
If a member is targeted for defenestration by an outrage mob, it will be the union that comes to their defense—the organization, not the other members. I don’t mean it will provide the person in the dock with legal representation. To offer legal insurance of that kind would make the membership dues prohibitively high and trade unions that do offer that service usually rely on internal officers to provide support to members involved in legal disputes—not the type of support that would be much help in a complicated case. Rather, the union will provide them with access to an approved list of defamation and employment lawyers, expert guidance on how to crowdfund their legal costs, access to lists of potential donors, PR advice on how to generate favorable media coverage—most importantly—access to a network of sympathetic colleagues, many of whom will have been through a similar ordeal.
I know from my own experience that one of the hardest things about being mobbed is the feeling of isolation, of being a social pariah. I was able to fall back on the support of my family and close friends, but others have found the experience so traumatic they have attempted suicide—in some cases, successfully. This is a particular danger for people working as freelancers. That was brought home to me when I met Stephen Elliott, the writer and filmmaker falsely accused of rape on the Shitty Media Men list in 2017. He pointed out that many of the other men named by anonymous accusers in that McCarthyite document were full-time employees of reputable media companies and, as such, were able to clear their names after being put through a quasi-judicial process by their employers. (Although some lost their jobs.) As a freelancer, Stephen wasn’t entitled to any equivalent due process and he lost one gig after another, with people just assuming he was guilty. He lost potential Hollywood and advertising jobs, he was uninvited from conferences, his new book got almost no coverage, essays and fiction he’d written were unpublished, his literary agent dumped him, and close friends stopped returning his calls. He became a shut-in and a drug addict and decided to end his life. He put together a suicide kit and did a “trial run” that involved driving to the top of a hill near his house, smoking a lot of pot and fastening a plastic bag over his head. But thankfully he had a change of heart and, instead, decided to fight back. His defamation suit against the compiler of the Shitty Media Men list is currently wending its way through the New York courts.
If Stephen had been a member of the union I have in mind I hope his thoughts wouldn’t have turned to suicide. When thinking about starting a pro-free speech organization, I debated whether it should be a lobby group like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which defends individual rights at American colleges and universities, or something more like the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a membership group made up of approximately 3,000 academics, most of them conservatives, with affiliates in 46 U.S. states, as well as Canada and Guam. (Bruce Gilley set up an Oregon branch of the NAS after he was mobbed in 2016 for using the wrong gender pronoun of one of his students.) I lean towards the NAS model, mainly because it provides psychological support to its members, in addition to its other services. If you’re being attacked by tens of thousands of people on social media, including your colleagues, it’s reassuring to know you have an army standing by your side. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders need to band together too.
The President of NAS, Peter Wood, confirmed that this is the most important role his organization plays when I spoke to him for this article. “Our function is to offer our members psychological support and connections with like-minded people,” he said. “Typically, someone in the middle of one of these dramas doesn’t know where to turn.”
Unlike FIRE, NAS doesn’t file lawsuits on behalf of its members but Wood and his staff of six, as well as the heads of the state chapters, often get involved in disputes before they end up in court, sometimes offering detailed advice on how to navigate complaints procedures and the like. “It’s time-consuming and it’s an avenue that can lead us into a perplexity of detail that can be maddening,” said Wood.
But oftentimes, it requires involvement at that level to sort things out. Some faculty members have poor instincts of what to do when they find themselves ostracized. The first step is listening very carefully and getting hold of the records the individual faculty member has of the situation. There’s usually an extensive documentary record. Often, there’s something so compromising in the documentary record that simply finding it is enough to bring the matter to a close. For instance, an administrator implying that they’re treating the person as they would any other member of the faculty and there’s a memo somewhere saying, in effect, ‘Here’s how we’re going to get Charlie.’
I envisage my union playing a similar role, but what if the person being targeted is self-employed like Stephen Elliott? Another important function of a free speech trade union will be to lobby for anyone accused of a speech crime—or subjected to a complaint about their behavior prompted by their expression of a dissenting viewpoint—to be granted due process, whether they’re a full-time employee or a freelance. Trickier in the latter case, obviously, but not impossible. If a large organization like the BBC or Google is poised to terminate the employment of a freelance contractor, following a social media storm about something they’re alleged to have said or thought, the union could apply pressure for them to be put through the same process that a member of staff would be. Alternatively, the matter could be referred to an independent arbitration service. If the union was able to extend the principle of due process to the self-employed it would be no small thing. Alongside the massive explosion in the use of social media over the past decade we’ve seen the emergence of ‘cancel’ culture—digital show trials in which people are accused of having said something ‘offensive’ or taboo and immediately found guilty, without being given an opportunity to defend themselves. Ironically, the leaders of the Twitchfork mobs who initiate these witch-hunts often profess to believe in justice. ‘Social Justice,’ perhaps, but not natural justice. A free speech trade union that stands up for those who find themselves in the digital dock is urgently needed.
One of the reasons social media mobbings are so effective at destroying a person’s reputation is that they create the impression that the views of the targeted individual are completely abhorrent to the vast majority of people. However, I’ve long suspected that the dominant ideology in colleges and universities—a commitment to ‘Social Justice,’ a desire to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum, a belief in ‘safe spaces,’ ‘micro-aggressions,’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ prioritizing the ‘safety’ of students over the pursuit of knowledge, and so on—isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as its adherents would have us believe. And that’s another benefit of a membership organization—it would be a good way of conveying just how much support there still is out there for dissenting points of view, particularly in the academy.
Let’s not forget that the Intersectional Left has a vested interest in creating the impression that its views are more widespread than they really are since that makes it harder for anyone to publicly express dissent—that’s how you shrink the Overton Window. If you’re a maverick academic who doesn’t subscribe to some of the shibboleths of this ideology—that your liberal arts college is ‘structurally racist,’ for instance—you’re more likely to keep quiet if you believe no decent person could possibly dispute such a thing and anyone who does is beyond the pale. Indeed, maintaining that illusion is one of the reasons outrage mobs go after anyone who challenges identitarian orthodoxy.
George Orwell identified this type of self-censorship—fear of social censure for expression the ‘wrong’ views—as a greater threat to free speech than state censorship in The Freedom of the Press:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
The blogger Scott Alexander provided a real-life example of such self-censorship in 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.’
This is an example of what economists call “preference falsification”—disguising one’s real point of view for fear of the negative consequences of saying what you really think—and it surely plays a large part in the stifling of dissent on campus, not to mention the public square. Setting up an organization with thousands of members who are prepared to challenge the intellectual status quo is an effective counterweight to preference falsification.
Of course, there are already several such institutions in North America, including the Heterodox Academy. Another debate I’ve been having with myself is whether membership of the trade union I have in mind should be confined to residents of the United Kingdom or open to all-comers, regardless of where they live. Should it be British or international? My inclination is to fudge that issue. So the union will be based in London and the cases it takes up will be those of its British-based members—at least to begin with. But membership shouldn’t be limited to a particular geographical location. Why? Because in my experience the support of people from around the world is often crucial to winning these fights, particularly when it comes to attracting signatories to ‘counter-petitions’ and crowdfunding legal costs.
For instance, I’ve been informally advising the British scholar Noah Carl on how best to wage his campaign against St Edmund’s College, Cambridge—Noah was fired by St Edmund’s at the behest of a left-wing outrage mob—and I’ve found it really useful to talk to John Roskam, the executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), an Australian think tank, about Noah’s case. Last year, when the physicist Peter Ridd was fired by James Cook University for questioning whether the Great Barrier Reef was being destroyed by climate change, John helped him crowdfund a lawsuit against his former employer, as well as drum up support from around the world. In April, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia ruled Ridd’s sacking “unlawful” and he is now petitioning the university for reinstatement.
Incidentally, Roskam confirmed just how psychologically important it is for people being mobbed to know they’re not alone. “Peter Ridd was tremendously enthused when he got emails from dozens of academics in the U.S. and the U.K. in similar situations,” he told me. “It is a support network.”
Given that the assault on intellectual freedom is not confined to one country but is happening across the Western world (see this letter signed by a group of French intellectuals, for instance), it makes sense for all of us engaged in this battle to pool our knowledge. So I think the need for Niall Ferguson’s network is as urgent as the need for the union I have in mind. But as Ferguson said when we compared notes about our respective plans via email, the two are complementary, not in competition. “Both NATO and Solidarnosc contributed to winning the Cold War,” he said. “The key is to create organizations that stick up for free speech and for individuals when the odious mob attacks.”
Before I draw this to a close, I’d like to raise a couple of other issues I’ve been wrestling with—and which I’d appreciate feedback on. (You can contact me here.) Should the institution have a political identity or be non-partisan? And should there be a code of conduct—a statement of values—that all members have to sign up to?
Peter Wood, the President of the NAS, says his organization initially tried to position itself as politically neutral, but that turned out to be a mistake.
We tried to strike a stand that would be seen to be outside any established political identity. In our case, however, we took a stand early on, which we’ve maintained, of opposing the use of racial preferences in college admissions. That became one of the litmus tests for the Left-Right divide in the U.S. and without taking political positions on anything else we found ourselves being defined by outsiders as a conservative organization. For many years, I went around saying we were not political, but my denials had no effect and, in fact, had the opposite effect, which was to persuade conservatives we wouldn’t represent them. So I’ve concluded that if you want to define the NAS as conservative, go ahead…I don’t think the fight against reputational pigeon-holing accomplished anything, other than to confuse our natural supporters.
It’s certainly true that an organization of the kind I have in mind will inevitably be branded by some on the Left as conservative or “alt-Right” simply in virtue of standing up for free speech. Quillette has been branded “rightwing” in the Guardian and “reactionary” in the Huffington Post in spite of having no agreed editorial position on any issue apart from championing intellectual freedom. But I’m wary of labelling the trade union ‘conservative’ or ‘classical liberal’ for fear of putting people off who aren’t on the Right but whose intellectual freedom is under threat. Many of the scholars who find themselves being mobbed in universities are liberals or old-fashioned socialists who’ve swum against the incoming tide of post-modernism—Bret Weinstein, for instance. In the U.K., I’d like to see some gender-critical feminists become members. Numerous feminist academics in Britain have found themselves being mobbed by trans activists, as well as their ‘woke’ colleagues, for challenging trans orthodoxy, as the experience of the Sunday Times letter-writers demonstrates. Most of them are members of the largest academic union in the U.K., the University and College Union (UCU), but they’ve had little or no support from that quarter. Jo Grady, the new General Secretary, is a trans rights activist and used a service on Twitter called ‘TERF Blocker’ to block the accounts of gender-critical feminists. At the UCU General Congress earlier this year, a motion calling for the union to protect the academic freedom of its gender-critical members was defeated. In effect, an entire generation of feminists in British universities have found themselves disowned by their union. I’d like at least some of them to find a safe berth in the intellectual ark I want to set up, alongside ‘male, pale and stale’ conservatives like me. The union itself can model the viewpoint diversity and good-humored tolerance it’s seeking to promote.
Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at Sussex University and the organizer of the Sunday Times letter, was supportive when I ran my idea past her. “Currently, gender-critical academics face a hostile environment in U.K. universities for defending the primacy of sex-based rights and descriptions over those of ‘gender identity’,” she told me.
They face student complaints, defamation from colleagues, online harassment, campus protests, and in some cases, physical threats. Meanwhile, management are wary of losing Stonewall branding, and the General Secretary of the UCU has made it clear she thinks all gender-critical academics are bigots. This is really worrying, since universities are the engines of public policy, and these issues affect kids, teens, and vulnerable women in particular. We need to be able to discuss them freely, across a range of academic disciplines: law, medicine, psychology, ethics, sociology, social work, and so on. I think the idea of a trade union focusing on responsible free speech would be a welcome tool in this necessary fight.
But if the organization is to avoid any explicit political branding, does that rule out a declaration of principles? I don’t think it does and it makes sense to have some values that the members are expected to observe to prevent anyone joining likely to bring the organization into disrepute or undermine it from within. Getting this right is tricky since an institution committed to free speech shouldn’t exclude people—or kick them out—because they breach a particular speech code, which is precisely the kind of behavior the union will be created to oppose. Nevertheless, it should exclude people who do not regard free speech as a foundational value of all liberal institutions, one which takes “lexical priority” (in John Rawls’s phrase) over other values, including ‘Social Justice.’
I’m reluctant to set out the organization’s values here and if this proposal produces the kind of response I hope it will it’s something that can be debated by those interested in getting involved. But my provisional thought is that all members should agree to prioritize freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, and freedom of thought, and that, when engaging in discussions and disagreements, they should observe the norms of open, scientific inquiry, such as treating your opponents with civility, using logic and evidence to prosecute your case rather than personal attacks, crediting others for their work, and being honest and truthful. Acting in good faith is the key. As J.S. Mill writes in On Liberty:
The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.
One way around the conundrum of not wanting to exclude anyone for being politically incorrect but, at the same time, not wanting to admit too many wingnuts, will be to keep the membership list confidential. After all, no one will be put off joining because, say, Milo Yiannopoulos is a member if they don’t know he’s a member.
The difficulty with anonymity, though, is that it will be seen as a way of protecting the reputations of the members and that won’t help with the ‘preference falsification’ problem. A similar argument has been made against the Journal of Controversial Ideas—that offering an invisibility cloak to dissenters who want to challenge ‘woke’ orthodoxy confirms the impression that doing so publicly is a form of career suicide. It underlines the power of the Witchfinder Generals rather than challenging it.
There’s also a more practical risk: what if some troll hacks the membership list and publishes it on Reddit or Medium? If people join the union expecting their involvement to be a closely-guarded secret, only to see their name plastered all over the Internet (alongside Milo’s), they will be justifiably angry, particularly if their career does in fact suffer as a result. They might even launch a crowdfunding campaign to sue the organization!
I think the solution is to offer anonymity to those members that want it, but to urge as many as possible to allow their names to appear on the organization’s website, including any well-known people. To prevent the membership list being hacked, there will be no computerized database. Just a single hard copy, locked in a safe. Only I will have the combination.
One last question: What should this organization be called? All suggestions welcome, but I quite like the J.S. Mill Society.
Anyway, if you’re interested in getting involved, whether as a member or a founder or a donor, please email me at email@example.com. If the response is positive, the next steps will be to register a company, set up a website and start crowdfunding.
Ten years ago almost to the day I wrote an article for the Observer saying I wanted to start a new type of school that was as close as possible to the grammar school I went to—traditional curriculum, competitive atmosphere, zero tolerance of disruptive behavior—but with a non-selective, comprehensive intake. The response was so overwhelmingly that I arranged a public meeting at my house in London and, out of that group, a steering committee emerged. Two years later we opened one of England’s first free schools and today there are 442 of them with another 250 in the pipeline.
To the barricades, Comrades. It’s time to start another revolution.
I’m starting a trade union for intellectuals
Column in the Spectator about how a trip to the annual conference of the International Society of Intelligence Researchers in Minneapolis persuaded me to start a free speech trade union.
I have just returned from Minneapolis after attending the annual conference of the International Society for Intelligence Research. That’s ‘intelligence’ in the sense of general cognitive ability rather than spooks. It’s the third time I’ve gone, having been asked by the society to give a lecture in 2017 (a different journalist is invited each year to talk about how to improve the public understanding of the field). There are a lot of myths floating around about intelligence, such as the belief that IQ isn’t real. In fact, it is possible to measure intelligence using standardised tests, people’s scores don’t change much after childhood and they help to predict a huge range of lifetime outcomes, such as academic attainment, income, occupation, health, even how long you’re likely to live. The existence of a measurable intelligence quotient is probably the single most robust finding in the entire field of psychology, yet for some reason the public is more likely to believe in complete bunk that’s failed to replicate, such as growth mindset theory.
In retrospect, I feel a bit of a fraud for offering these academics advice about how to communicate their findings without becoming embroiled in controversy. Six months after my first lecture, I was targeted by a left-wing mob, in part because I’d written some supposedly outrageous things about intelligence. One of my sins, as enumerated at great length in the Guardian and elsewhere, was having attended an intelligence conference at UCL — not one organised by this society, I should say, but by the psychologist James Thompson, who was then hounded out of his university.
The only sure-fire way to discuss intelligence in the public square without jeopardising your career is not to be an academic, given how cowardly most university administrators are. That’s how the political scientist Charles Murray, one of the few public intellectuals prepared to talk about IQ, has managed to survive. For decades he has been a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-centre thinktank that still believes in intellectual freedom. Had he been an academic, particularly at a big prestigious university, he probably would have been defenestrated after publishing The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. His co-author was Richard Herrnstein, a psychology professor at Harvard, but he died of cancer just before the book came out.
The controversy over The Bell Curve, which was published 25 years ago, was caused by a chapter that discussed whether racial differences in average IQ — it’s higher for East Asians than Europeans, for instance — are genetically influenced. That’s the live rail of intelligence research. Murray and Herrnstein carefully parsed all the evidence and concluded that the differences may be genetically influenced, but we don’t know for sure. Unfortunately, just summarising the research findings in an open-minded, non-judgmental way was enough to ignite a fire-storm of outrage that is still burning to this day. Murray was attacked by a student mob at Middlebury College two years ago and his host, a professor in her fifties, ended up in hospital.
Murray was one of the attendees at the conference in Minneapolis and contributed to a symposium on college admissions, an area beset with scandals of its own. I was surprised when another of the panellists began by reading out a disclaimer, clarifying that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a vice-president of his university, and stressing that his participation in the panel did not imply endorsement of Murray’s views. I asked him about it afterwards and he told me that if his employer tries to punish him for appearing on a platform with Murray — not out of the question, unfortunately — he will be able to point to this statement to provide himself with some protection.
Seeing these distinguished scholars cowed by the Maoist climate of intolerance in British and American universities made me more determined than ever to do something to fight back. For a while now I’ve been thinking about setting up a kind of trade union for intellectuals that will go in to bat for them if they’re targeted by an outrage mobs. It wouldn’t just be for ‘male, pale and stale’ conservatives, but for second-wave feminists and medical researchers at risk of being bullied by trans activists, and anyone else likely to be punished for dissent. If you’re interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll tell you more.
How to Take Out a Conservative
Peice I wrote for Standpoint on the sacking of Sir Roger Scruton as a Government advisor. It was published in the May 2019 issue.
The fall of Sir Roger Scruton was a drama in two parts. Act One began last November when the 75-year-old conservative philosopher was appointed Chair of ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’, a commission established by the Government to try and improve the design of new homes, villages and towns. The beady-eyed commissars of politically correctness immediately sensed an opportunity and, within hours, they were hard at work, digging through everything Scruton had ever said or written in the hope of finding material they could be “offended” by. Ideally, anything that would make him look like a racist, homophobe or misogynist, even if that meant wrenching it out of context. Given that Scruton has written over 50 books and enjoyed a long career as a prolific journalist and public speaker, they had plenty of material to sift through and, sure enough, they soon found a treasure trove of “hateful” comments. For instance, he’d once described “islamophobia” as a “propaganda word” and – in a column for the Telegraph in 2007 – said homosexuality was “not normal”. He’d also given a lecture in the United States in 2005 in which he questioned whether “date rape” – defined by him as when a woman has initially consented to sex but withdrawn it afterwards – should be a criminal offense.
I thought he was a goner, partly because I’d been taken out in an almost identical manner when the Government appointed me to the board of the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, eleven months earlier. As soon as it was announced, my enemies on the Left started searching for evidence that I’d once held “unacceptable” views and it didn’t take them long to find it. For instance, someone went through the Spectator’s archive and read everything I’d written dating back more than 20 years. Sure enough, they discovered a piece from 2001 entitled ‘Confessions of a porn addict’, which they then photographed and put on Twitter. Within 15 minutes, the Evening Standard ran an article headlined: “New Pressure on Theresa May to Sack ‘Porn Addict’ Toby Young from Watchdog Role.”
After eight days of this, with Labour’s front bench gleefully seizing every opportunity to denounce me, Downing Street began to wobble and I had no choice but to resign. I hoped that would draw a line under the affair, but I ended up losing five positions, including a Buckingham University fellowship and my full-time job running a free schools charity.
Sir Roger, it turned out, was less vulnerable. The Government was a little better prepared this time round, having been caught off-guard when my appointment was challenged, and a Cabinet minister went out to bat for him in the form of James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. That’s more than could be said for me. In addition, Scruton has a knighthood for his services to philosophy, teaching and public education, so it was an easier appointment to defend. Finally, he’d served on a public body before, having been appointed to the ‘Design Advisory Panel’ in 2015, and no one had objected then. In the end, the storm passed and the red-headed Englishman remained standing. I was delighted because it meant there was still a place in British public life for people who challenged the liberal-left consensus on cultural issues. For once, a Conservative Government had stood up for someone with robustly conservative views.
Act Two began on April 9th when George Eaton, the political editor of the New Statesman, posted a Twitter thread boasting about how he’d coaxed Scruton into making a “series of outrageous remarks” in an interview he’d just given to the magazine. He then quoted four of these remarks, although why he thought this was such a journalistic coup wasn’t immediately obvious as Sir Roger had expressed almost identical views before – describing “islamophobia” as a “propaganda word”, for instance. The only new “outrage” was what Scruton had allegedly said about “the Chinese” – “Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”
As soon as the tweets appeared, journalists started calling up Conservative leadership hopefuls and inviting them to condemn these comments. No context was provided and it would be two days before the interview appeared on newsstands, but that didn’t stop Johnny Mercer MP calling for Scruton to be sacked, along with half the Labour front bench. Dawn Butler, the shadow minister for women and equalities, accused Sir Roger of invoking “the language of white supremacists”. Someone who’d actually read the Statesman interview pointed out that Scruton hadn’t, in fact, made disparaging references to “the Chinese”. He’d prefaced his remarks with the following comment about the Chinese Communist Party: “They’re creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done.” In other words, he wasn’t invoking a racist stereotype about Chinese people – that they all look and behave the same – but condemning the efforts of China’s Marxist regime to enforce conformity. Eaton defended himself by claiming he’d “edited” the remarks he’d posted on social media “for reasons of space”.
Less than four hours after Eaton’s original Twitter thread, Scruton was fired. James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister who’d proved such a doughty champion last November, wielded the axe. A spokesman for the Prime Minister described the comments as “deeply offensive and completely unacceptable”.
So what was different this time? Why were the enemies of free thought able to claim Sir Roger’s scalp in April but not in November? My guess is it’s partly because Labour has stepped up its attacks on the Conservative Party for being anti-Muslim in an attempt to deflect attention from its own anti-Semitism problem, which has made the Government more sensitive to allegations of “Islamophobia”. And partly because Theresa May is even weaker now than she was. Whatever the explanation, it’s another blow against viewpoint diversity in public life. What right-of-centre person in their right mind would now apply for an official position, knowing that the Left has a tried-and-trusted method in place to humiliate them?
1. Dig up some “offensive” remarks
The first step, once the target has been identified, is to find something “offensive” they’ve said or written. Twenty-five years ago, that would have meant paying a seasoned political researcher thousands of pounds to do some “opposition research”, but not any more. Today, the Left can rely on an army of unpaid keyboard warriors. As soon as a prominent conservative gets a new job, even if it’s in the private sector, the offense archeologists set about their work, trawling the internet to find evidence of wrongthink so they can post it on Twitter. It’s like a crowd-sourced version of Big Brother. Kevin Williamson, the conservative journalist, discovered just how effective this machine is last year when he landed a job at the Atlantic, one of America’s most prestigious monthlies. Within days, someone had dug up a tweet he’d written in 2014 comparing abortion to murder and recommending it should carry the same judicial penalty. Twenty-four hours later he was fired. A similar fate befell Jordan Peterson after it was announced he’d been made a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge and some Torquemada found a photograph of him standing next to a young man wearing a “proud to be an Islamophobe” T-shirt. A day later the fellowship was withdrawn.
2. Whip up outrage
There’s never any due process when a dissenter is targeted in this way, but justice isn’t always as swift as it was in Williamson’s and Peterson’s case. Sometimes, as happened with me, the miscreant’s fate hangs in the balance. At this point, it helps to whip up as much outrage as possible. It goes without saying that no one is actually offended by anything you’ve said – it would be slightly odd if people went through your entire output with a view to finding things that genuinely upset them, and odder still if they then repeated them in the hope of upsetting others. No, it’s all an elaborate game. They’re offended in the same way that Captain Renault was shocked – shocked! – to discover gambling was going on at Humphrey Bogart’s place in Casablanca. But to sustain the illusion that something you’ve said is completely outrageous and beyond the pale, it helps to get up a petition on Change.org. A petition calling on the Prime Minister to sack me attracted 221,516 signatures.
3. Draw attention to the target’s race and gender
It’s no accident that Dawn Butler is Labour’s lead attack dog in these conservative quail hunts. As a black woman, she is ideally placed to highlight the sins of being white and male – or, in Scruton’s case, a “white supremacist”. In the Left’s intersectional hierarchy, sometimes known as the “oppression Olympics”, being a white male places you at the bottom of the moral pecking order. If you’re unlucky enough to possess these characteristics, then you’re the beneficiary of “unearned privilege” and it goes without saying that you are both a racist and a misogynist because, after all, how else could you justify having any career to speak of? One of my most dedicated critics was the black playwright Bonnie Greer, who wrote an endless stream of tweets about me ending with the hashtag #TimesUp. That phrase was originally coined by a Hollywood talent agency to encourage actresses to call out sexual predators in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, but the way Greer used it suggested she thought it applied to all men, particularly white men. Having said that, one of the curiosities of being “called out” for the offence of being a white male is that the people who denounce you the loudest are other middle-aged white men – in my case, almost the entire staff of the Guardian. It must be the same self-preservation instinct that prompted some male Tory MPs to join in the witch-hunt against Sir Roger Scruton.
4. Isolate your victim
Which brings me to another important tactic – isolate your intended victim. If you’re a white, heterosexual, Brexit-supporting Tory, it may not prove all that damaging to be attacked by Caroline Lucas, as I was relentlessly. But orchestrate some blue-on-blue friendly fire and the target begins to look vulnerable. That’s why left-wing journalists immediately start calling round some of the wetter elements of the Conservative Party whenever a right-wing figure is in the stocks. Among those Tory MPs who joined the clamour for my head were Robert Halfon, Nicky Morgan and Sarah Wollaston. It was their denunciations in the House of Commons that persuaded Number 10 to throw me under a bus.
5. Celebrate victory
After the kill, it’s customary to organize a little victory parade just to let other conservatives know what fate awaits them if they stick their heads above the parapet. George Eaton, the journalist who was the instrument of Sir Roger’s downfall, posted a picture of himself on Instagram – since deleted – drinking champagne, accompanied by the words, “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.”
In my case, the “writer, satirist, blogger” who organized the Change.org petition posted an update headlined: “Gotcha.” Afterwards, I took some comfort from the fact that things would not always be this way and one day, in the not too distant future, conservatives would be allowed to play their part in public life again. Then I remembered that there’s actually a Tory Government in power and I shuddered to think how much worse things are likely to get if Jeremy Corbyn ever gets the keys to Number 10. No doubt “Islamophobia” and being a “porn addict” will carry custodial sentences. I just hope I’m sharing a cell with Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson.
The Conservative Hall of Shame
The technologist Brendan Eich was forced to step down as the CEO of Mozilla in 2014 after some online activists revealed he’d contributed $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, which called for the banning of same-sex marriage. Dan Cathy, the CEO of the American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, was also targeted by LGBT activists for making comments in 2012 opposing same-sex marriage. Protests and boycotts followed
The software engineer James Damore was fired from Google in 2017 for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” after circulating an internal memo arguing that the lack of gender parity in tech isn’t entirely due to bias and discrimination. The same fate befell the theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia, who lost his job at CERN earlier this year after presenting data at a “gender” workshop showing that the under-representation of women in physics couldn’t be attributed to gender bias since women are discriminated in favour of, rather than against, in the field.
Daniella Greenbaum, a right-of-centre American journalist, parted company with Business Insider last year after the magazine’s editor took down a column she wrote defending Scarlett Johansson’s decision to play a transgender man in the film Rub and Tug. A week later, Johansson withdrew from the film and apologized. “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive,” she said.
The pro-Trump conservative broadcaster Laura Ingraham was mobbed last year when she ridiculed David Hogg, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and a pro-gun control activist, on her radio show. Hogg posted a list of Ingraham’s advertisers on Twitter, where he has over half a million followers, and called for a boycott. Many of them obliged, including Nestle, Expedia, Hulu, Johnson & Johnson, TripAdvisor and Wayfair. Ingraham apologized to Hogg, but ad revenues have yet to recover.
Numerous right-of-centre academics have being targeted by campus outrage mobs, including the Nobel Prize-winner James Watson, the political scientist Charles Murray, and the historian Niall Ferguson. The latest victim is Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, who wrote an op ed for the New York Times last year pointing out that Democrat-supporting college administrators outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 12:1. As a result, a group of students calling themselves the “Diaspora Coalition” have demanded he issue a “public apology to “marginalized students wounded by his op ed”, particularly “black people, queer people and women”, and called for a “review” of his tenure by “three faculty members of colour”. To date, 40 of Abrams’ colleagues have endorsed the Coalition’s list of demands.
Earlier this year, the Catholic journalist Caroline Farrow was investigated by the police for the crime of “mis-gendering” a transwoman on Twitter, even though she automatically deletes her tweets two weeks after posting them. A Surrey Police officer summoned her to the local station to be interviewed under caution for an apparent breach of the Malicious Communications Act and said a warrant would be issued for her arrest if she refused to attend. Farrow went public with the story and the police dropped the case.
The Ones That Got Away
Occasionally, the outrage mob goes after a right-of-centre journalist or academic and they manage to brazen it out. Ben Shapiro, the American polemicist, was targeted for supposedly offensive things he’d said when he was 19 (he’s now 35). But he has kept his career nevertheless. “It’s not that these people are hated because they’ve said terrible things,” he said of conservatives who’ve been targeted by Twitter mobs. “It’s that they’re hated, so the hard Left tries to dig up supposedly terrible things they’ve said.” More recently, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson was attacked for making some sexually explicit jokes about a Miss Teen America contestant in a radio phone-in 12 years ago. Carlson said they were just “naughty words” made in “jest” and, so far, the network has stood behind him.
iPlod: Sajid Javid’s new internet rules will have a chilling effect on free speech
Feature I wrote for the Spectator on the British Government’s proposed new internet regulator. Published on 13th April 2019.
Monday wasn’t the best day for the government to launch Online Harms, its white paper on internet regulation. As Sajid Javid was proudly proclaiming that Britain would have the toughest internet laws in the world, it emerged that a British woman had been arrested on a trip to Dubai and faced up to two years in prison for describing her ex-husband’s new wife as a ‘horse’ on Facebook. So does the Home Secretary want the UK to have tougher internet laws than the United Arab Emirates? If so, he might find himself at odds with the Foreign Secretary, who has been working behind the scenes to secure the poor woman’s release.
You can see why Javid, one of the front-runners in the Conservative party’s imminent leadership election, thought this would be an easy political win. According to research by Ofcom last year, 79 per cent of UK adult internet users have concerns about going online and the father of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who committed suicide in 2017 after accessing unsuitable material on Instagram, has been campaigning for laws to purge the internet of harmful content. In addition, the role that ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ played in the EU referendum was highlighted in a recent report by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport select committee. Large social media companies such as Facebook, which owns Instagram, have been given ample opportunity to self-regulate and haven’t got the job done. Isn’t it about time a new sheriff stepped in to tame this Wild West?
But if you read Online Harms it soon becomes clear that it’s very difficult to ‘clean up’ the internet without encroaching on free speech. Like most people, I don’t want social media platforms such as Twitter to be used for sharing child pornography, recruiting Isis terrorists or disseminating fake news manufactured on Russian troll farms. But much of this activity is already illegal under a profusion of recent UK legislation, including the 1986 Public Order Act, the 1988 Malicious Communications Act, the 2000 Terrorism Act, the 2003 Communications Act and the 2006 Terrorism Act.
The new internet regulator proposed by the white paper — I call it iPlod — would not only be given sweeping powers to make sure tech companies are complying with these laws. It would also be able to levy fines of up to 4 per cent of worldwide turnover and jail company directors — and could use this leverage to prohibit speech that is perfectly lawful and which few would object to. The only way to prevent that is to delineate the scope of the regulator very precisely, and Online Harms fails to do that.
For instance, the word ‘harm’ isn’t defined, even though it appears in the title. That’s alarming because the white paper says the new regulator will ban online material ‘that may directly or indirectly cause harm’ even if the content in question is ‘not necessarily illegal’. As an example of what it has in mind, the government singles out ‘offensive material’, as if giving offence is itself a type of harm. In effect, then, iPlod will have the power to prohibit speech which isn’t unlawful but which it believes may indirectly cause harm because it’s offensive. That gives it almost limitless scope to prohibit the expression of opinions which some find disagreeable.
There’s much talk in the document of a ‘right of appeal’, but this turns out to apply to the tech companies only — individual internet users cannot appeal the regulator’s decisions — and would necessitate applying for a judicial review. Not only is that a lengthy and cumbersome procedure, but how could Twitter or Facebook demonstrate that a particular viewpoint won’t under any circumstances cause harm, particularly when ‘harm’ isn’t defined?
Merely showing that it hasn’t caused the complainant any tangible harm won’t be sufficient, since all the regulator will need to show is that it may cause them indirect harm. More or less anything falls into that category, particularly if iPlod can claim that causing offence is a form of harm.
Other undefined terms in the white paper include ‘unacceptable content’, ‘trolling’, ‘intimidation’ and ‘cyberbullying’. Judgments about what forms of lawful speech are ‘unacceptable’ or constitute ‘trolling’, ‘intimidation’ and ‘cyberbullying’ are almost wholly subjective, yet these are all activities that tech executives will be expected to ban on pain of massive fines or imprisonment. It’s a safe bet that they will err on the side of caution — extreme caution, given how high the stakes are.
Joy Hyvarinen, the Index on Censorship’s head of advocacy, says her group is ‘very concerned about the proposals to introduce fines and personal liability for senior executives because this will create a very strong incentive to restrict and remove online content’.
The part of the document concerned with fake news, which the new regulator is also expected to stamp out, is equally woolly. In a section entitled ‘Disinformation’, the white paper says tech companies will ‘need to take proportionate and proactive measures…to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation and to increase the accessibility of trustworthy and varied news content’. But who’s to say what content is ‘misleading’ and what’s ‘trustworthy’? The document suggests social media platforms should promote ‘authoritative news sources’ and make use of ‘reputable fact-checking services’, but terms like ‘authoritative’ and ‘reputable’ just beg the question. The only thing we know for certain is that fake social media accounts will be explicitly banned, so no more satirical Titania McGraths.
To a great extent, the threat to free speech posed by iPlod will depend upon how its employees exercise their discretion and whether they’re politically neutral. Unfortunately, it will be staffed by the same sort of quangocrats that run the Advertising Standards Authority, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and Public Health England, and we know from experience that these busybodies will use whatever powers they have to extend the reach of the nanny state. That nearly always involves enforcing left-wing orthodoxy, whether consciously or not. One ominous sign is that the Muslim lobby group Tell Mama is cited in the white paper as a ‘trusted flagger’, with the implication that it will help draft the code of conduct that the regulator will enforce. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. In 2014, Tell Mama unsuccessfully tried to sue Charles Moore for challenging the group’s estimates of the rise in Islamophobic hate crimes following the murder of Lee Rigby.
Some newspapers welcomed the publication of Online Harms, presumably because they think it will make life more difficult for Facebook and Google, who’ve been leeching away their readers and ad revenue for years. But it won’t be long before it dawns on them that the proposed regulator will actually entrench the monopolies of these online leviathans. After all, Google and Facebook are jointly worth about $200 billion so they can afford to comply with any pesky new regulations. It’s their less well-resourced competitors who will struggle. Alternatively, the big tech companies can simply reduce their operational footprint in the UK, thereby escaping the new regulator’s jurisdiction.
‘It would be very hard to impose fines on companies like Facebook and Google if they base their operations in the United States since they’ll be protected under the First Amendment,’ says Preston Byrne, a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and a practicing lawyer in the US. ‘In that scenario, it’s only their British-based rivals that will have a huge compliance bill. That means if you’re an ambitious Oxford graduate who wants to set up a social media company, you won’t do it in England.’
Another reason the British press may sour on this proposal is that the regulations will apply to them, not just Google and Facebook. In the section entitled ‘Companies in scope of the regulatory framework’ it says: ‘The regulatory framework will apply to companies that provide services or tools that allow, enable or facilitate users to share or discover user-generated content, or interact with each other online.’ So that’s any newspaper or magazine with a comment section. They could get around that by scrapping user-generated content altogether, including letters to the editor. But it’s hard to see how that would help them in their battle for eyeballs with the tech giants.
And who’s to say the deputy leader of the Labour party won’t propose an amendment to the internet regulation bill, bringing newspapers and magazines firmly in scope? Tom Watson, who led Labour’s efforts to introduce state regulation of the press in the wake of the Leveson inquiry, welcomed the white paper but claimed it didn’t go far enough. ‘This is a start but it’s a long way from truly reclaiming the web and routing out online harms,’ he said. We all know what comes next. Watson will argue that it would be absurd for Mumsnet to be covered by the regulator, but not the Daily Mail. It was the Mail, after all, that uploaded video footage by the Christchurch shooter, not Mumsnet. If part of the rationale for ‘cleaning up’ the web is to stop that kind of material ending up online it doesn’t make sense for the most visited English-language website in the world to be out of scope. I can hear Watson now: ‘Honourable members, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the gutter press to act more responsibly when it comes to children and other vulnerable groups and to stop them publishing the smears and lies that poison our democracy. We must seize it with both hands.’
Internet regulation may seem like a good idea — a way to safeguard children and stop the spread of terrorism online. But if it’s based on these proposals, it poses an unprecedented threat to free speech and could easily be used to impose a censorious code of conduct on newspapers and magazines. Sajid Javid was a staunch defender of press freedom as culture secretary from 2014-15 and has a lot of friends in the media as a result. But he needs to look again at these proposals or he’s in danger of losing that good will. As things stand, he’s beginning to look like Tom Watson’s useful idiot.
Now – as in Soviet-era Czecholsovakia – making a joke can be a dangerous, life-changing mistake
Column I wrote for the Spectator on the occasion of Milan Kundera’s 90th birthday. Published on 6th April 2019.
I was surprised to learn that the novelist Milan Kundera celebrated his 90th birthday on Monday. I had no idea he was still alive. He has taken up residence in that old people’s home that many former luminaries of western culture now occupy — the one with the sign above the door saying ‘Forgotten, but not gone’. In Kundera’s case, his decline into obscurity is probably connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Czech émigré was all the rage in the mid-1980s when he was a critic of his country’s brutal regime. Now that the Soviet Union and its satellite states are a distant memory, he seems less relevant.
I think the time is ripe for a Kundera revival, although not for the obvious reason, which is that communism is back in vogue. I think a good case can be made along those lines — and, indeed, the novelist Ewan Morrison has made it. In a recent essay, Morrison points out that Kundera warned of the dangers of airbrushing inconvenient facts from history in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. We see this today with attempts to gloss over the genocides perpetrated by Stalin and Mao.
In China, for instance, there is only one memorial to the victims of the Great Famine (1959-62), in which up to 43 million people died — a homemade structure, built by a farmer, about the size of a garden shed. As Kundera wrote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
But even more topical than The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Kundera’s first novel, The Joke. Published in 1967, it concerns the fate of a student called Ludvik Jahn, who falls foul of the communist authorities when he makes an inappropriate joke. On a postcard he dashes off to his girlfriend, who is at a Communist party training camp, he writes: ‘Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!’ When this is communicated to party officials back in Prague, he is dismissed from his post at the students’ union, then kicked out of his university.
That, in turn, means he can no longer defer his military service, and he soon finds himself in a special unit of the Czechoslovakian army reserved for young men considered ‘enemies of socialism’. As he’s labouring in a coal mine alongside his fellow ne’er-do-wells, he realises that a silly joke he didn’t give a moment’s thought to has completely changed his life — and not for the better.
A well-wisher sent me a copy of the book last year after I’d lost five positions as a result of making some stupid jokes on Twitter, including my full-time job, and it won’t surprise you to learn that it resonated deeply. During his initial interrogation, Ludvik is told that because he expressed these thoughts on a postcard, where they were publicly visible, they have an ‘objective significance’ that means they cannot be explained away as a momentary lapse in judgment. I was told the same by the people sitting in judgment on me — the fact that I’d said these inappropriate things on Twitter, where other people could see them, meant they were more reflective of who I really am than if I’d put them in a private letter. There are other similarities too: many of the people Ludvik considers friends end up joining the outrage mob; his enemies create a crude caricature of him that quickly acquires the status of immutable reality; the punishment is out of all proportion to the crime, etc.
But it isn’t just me, obviously. Scarcely a week passes without someone suffering a reversal of fortune when it’s discovered they made the wrong sort of joke, even if it was in the distant past. It’s symptomatic of a recent shift in Britain and America, whereby the left has acquired sweeping new powers in the cultural arena, in spite of losing at the ballot box.
What makes Kundera’s book so relevant is that he connects the intolerance of politically incorrect humour to the totalitarian mindset. He points out that we often laugh at inappropriate jokes. Indeed, it’s their tastelessness — the fact that the thoughts and feelings they express are at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy — that makes them so funny. Laughing at these ‘wrong’ jokes is a form of dissent. Little wonder, then, that the Maoist commissars of our era want to punish people for telling them. Milan Kundera’s book may be more than 50 years old, but it could not be more timely.
No, of course ‘misgendering’ a trans person shouldn’t be a crime
Blog post I wrote for the Telegraph about the Surry Police’s investigation of the Catholic journalist Caroline Farrow for misgendering a transwoman. Published on 23rd March 2019.
When will the police stop harassing people for failing to comply with transgender dogma? Yesterday, we learnt that Surrey Police have finally dropped their investigation of Caroline Farrow, a 44-year-old Catholic journalist, for ‘mis-gendering’ a trans women, i.e. referring to her as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’. But not before they’d contacted the mother of five and threatened to arrest her if she didn’t appear at her local police station to be interviewed under caution.
This is not the first time the authorities have over-reacted in response to a complaint from a transgender activist – in Farrow’s case, her Torquemada was Susie Green, head of Mermaids, a charity that campaigns for trans children to be given access to sexual reassignment surgery.
Miranda Yardley, a trans woman, was charged with committing a ‘hate crime’ after getting into a Twitter spat with the mother of a transgender child, but the case was thrown out at the beginning of March by the District Judge, who said the prosecution had failed to provide any evidence that the tweet constituted harassment.
In 2018, the West Yorkshire Police issued a verbal harassment warning to the comedian Graham Linehan for misgendering a trans activist on Twitter. You may think that’s an odd use of their time, given that the same force has announced it doesn’t have the resources to follow up 46.5 per cent of reported crimes, but they are not alone. In 2016, the British police detained and questioned 3,300 people for using inappropriate language on social media, which is more than nine people a day. If this is how the police spend their time, little wonder we’re in the midst of a knife crime epidemic.
No one should be investigated for misgendering. Trans activists say it is a form of ‘hate speech’ and anyone guilty of it on social media should be liable for prosecution under the Malicious Communications Act. That Act, passed in 1988, makes it illegal in England and Wales to “send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety” and applies to electronic communications. If someone using the N-word on social media should be prosecuted, why not Caroline Farrow, Susie Green argued?
The answer is because she was not acting maliciously. Farrow is one of those Catholics who thinks gender is inextricably bound up with biological sex and the sex you’re born with is an unalterable fact about you, not something that can be changed at will. Consequently, by using the gender pronoun associated with the alleged victim’s biological sex, Farrow was not trying to cause her “distress or anxiety”. Nor was she being “transphobic”, which suggests an irrational hatred of transgendered people. Rather, she was merely expressing her theological point of view. If the prosecution of her had gone ahead, that would be tantamount to criminalizing a particular belief system.
It isn’t just religious conservatives who reject the precept that transwomen are women. Linda Bellos, the former leader of Lambeth Council, opposes the inclusion of transgender candidates on Labour’s all-women shortlists, and preserving the integrity of single-sex spaces, like domestic violence refuges, has become a cause celebre for many traditional feminists, as has fending off male-to-female participants in women’s sports. These campaigners – like former Wimbledon champion Martina Navratalova – are demonized as ‘Terfs’ by trans activists (trans exclusionary radical feminists). Incidentally, the case for classifying that term as ‘hate speech’, as opposed to mis-gendering, is quite strong, given that it is nearly always used maliciously.
Apart from the principle at stake – the state has no business prosecuting someone who believes trans women aren’t women – it would be completely impractical to make mis-gendering a crime. In 2016, some English schoolchildren were sent a questionnaire by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in which they were given a choice of 24 genders. Is it reasonable to expect people to work out which of the 24 a person identifies with before selecting the ‘correct’ pronoun? And what about gender fluid people? How can you be expected to know how to address them from one day to the next? Nine times out of 10, mis-gendering someone isn’t an expression of discourtesy; it’s just an accident. As an exhausted father of four, I inadvertently mis-gender my children all the time.
No doubt a small minority of people who use the wrong gender pronouns are acting maliciously and their behaviour causes an already beleaguered minority a great deal of stress. But should the police be investing scarce resources in ferreting them out? Trans activists who compare mis-gendering to using the N-word are overlooking the fact that building a case against someone for inciting racial hatred is pretty straightforward. They either used racist language or they didn’t. When it comes to mis-gendering, by contrast, it doesn’t just turn on whether the accused used the wrong pronoun. There are numerous contextual factors that have to be taken into account. Even Hercule Poirot would be stumped in some cases. It’s ludicrous to expect the police to prioritise this.
So, please, will the state stop pursuing people for these thought crimes? The ontological status of transgendered persons is a matter for philosophers and theologians, not the constabulary. They have quite enough do to without being tasked with monitoring our beliefs.
Esquire falls foul of hashtag activism
Blog post for Spectator US about the mobbing of Esquire for sympathising with an adolescent white male. Published on 13th February 2019.
You have to admire the inexhaustible capacity of the social justice left for taking offense. This week, the straight white male in the stocks is Jay Fielden, the editor-in-chief of Esquire. His sin? To put a white teenager called Ryan Morgan on the front of the March issue, accompanied by the line: ‘What it’s like to grow up white, middle class and male in the era of social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity and a divided country.’ Turns out, it’s a lot harder if you appear on the cover of Esquire.
‘Really @esquire?’ tweeted Karamo Brown, a television presenter in Los Angeles. ‘“What’s it like growing up white, middle class and male…” How idiotic! It’s the same as it’s always been… full of privilege that women, people of color, lgbtq people & immigrants don’t have! I’m done.’ Another outraged tweeter, Leslie Mac, who runs ‘anti-racism boot camps’ in North Carolina, was even angrier: ‘Y’all – this Cover Story in @esquire is thee WHITEST SHIT I’ve come across all… well all week at least. I’m so fucking tired of press stories about poor white boys while marginalized people are actually dying because the current “era”.’
It goes without saying that both those commentators have blue ticks, Twitter’s imprimatur of approval. You’d have thought the blue-tick chorus would have learned its lesson after prematurely shaming Nick Sandmann, the 16-year-old Catholic schoolboy who was falsely accused of harassing a Native American protester at the Lincoln Memorial last month. But apparently this was not a ‘teachable moment’ for the Wokerati. After Esquire posted its March issue online, an author called Sarah Weinman – also the proud bearer a blue tick – compared its 17-year-old cover star to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine black worshippers at a church in 2015.
Jay Fieldon explained in an accompanying editorial that this article would be the first in a series about growing up in America and future installments would feature black, LGBTQ and female teens. But that did little to quell the anger of the left-wing mob. A common theme among the finger-wagging scolds was that Esquire should never have featured a white teen on its cover during Black History Month – even though that falls in February and Ryan Morgan is on the cover of the March issue.
‘I do not mind that there exists an article somewhere in the world about young white boys of privilege needing to relearn about masculinity,’ tweeted Abigail Collazo, a self-described feminist activist. ‘I do mind that it’s on the cover of @esquire during Black History Month.’
Zara Rahim, the former Communications Director of Vogue, tweeted: ‘Imagine this same ‘American Boy’ headline with someone who looked like Trayvon talking about what it’s like to have your mother sit you down to tell you how to stay alive in your own city during Black History Month. Just imagine. Shame on you @esquire.’
I know statistical data cannot hold a candle to the ‘lived experience’ of these oppressed television presenters and public relations executives – Zara Rahim was photographed standing next to Priyanka Chopra at the 2018 Met Gala, where tickets cost $30,000 per person – but the narrative that white teens have it easy compared to black teens in contemporary America isn’t as unassailable as they seem to imagine.
By almost every yardstick, racism is declining in the United States. According to Gallup, only four percent of Americans approved of black-white marriage in 1958; today, it’s 87 percent. In 1967, when miscegenation laws were repealed, three percent of all newlyweds were married to someone of a different race. By 2015, that number had risen to 17 percent, including 11 percent of white newlyweds. Next time an angry social justice activist tells you all white Americans are racist, point out that more than one in 10 white newlyweds have married a person of a different race.
Zara Rahim wasn’t the only liberal triggered by the Esquire cover to draw attention to police shootings of unarmed black teens, although she neglected to point out that the police officer who shot Trayvon Martin was a dual heritage Hispanic man. But the data about police shootings doesn’t support the Black Lives Matter story line. As the African-American Harvard economist Roland Fryer has painstakingly shown, blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to be shot by police officers than whites.
As for the claim that the 17-year-old Wisconsin native on the cover of Esquire is ‘privileged’ because he’s white, it’s worth bearing in mind that the victims of America’s opioid epidemic skew disproportionately white (which is why it’s known as ‘the White Death’) and African-American women have higher college attendance rates than white men, conditional on parental income. That’s one reason why 57 percent of black Americans now belong to the upper or middle class, according to the American Enterprise Institute, compared to just 38 percent in 1960.
When contrasting different countries, one way of measuring the level of racism is to ask whether people in that country would object if a person of another race moved in next door. By that metric, the US is among the least racist countries in the world. Less than five percent of Americans said they would object, compared to more than 50 percent of Pakistanis.
It’s also not true, as numerous angry blue ticks harrumphed, that teenage girls have a tougher time in Trump’s American than teenage boys. Women now comprise over 56 percent of students at American colleges and Ryan Morgan has a lower chance of being admitted to the University of Wisconsin than his female classmates.
The gender pay gap? Once you control for the fact that women are more interested in lower-paying jobs than men (only nine percent of US nurses are male), are more likely to take time out to start a family and have a higher preference for part-time work, the gap disappears. Gender studies professors will tell you different, of course, but a recent survey found that they are paid, on average, $15,000 a year more than male professors in STEM subjects.
Finally, it’s also a stretch to claim Morgan is particularly fortunate because he’s heterosexual. All the survey data suggests attitudes towards homosexuals in the US have never been more liberal. For instance, just 35 percent of Americans were in favor of gay marriage in 2001. By 2017, that number had increased to 62 percent. In Wisconsin, where LGBT people enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals, it’s 66 percent.
So please, could all these hashtag activists reel it in a bit? If they have no interest in the life of a white teenager growing up in middle America, fine, don’t read the story. But stop trying to shame Esquire’s editor-in-chief because he isn’t a fully-signed up member of the intersectionality cult. Better yet, spend some time outside of your ideological echo chamber. You might learn something.
How to lose more friends and alienate more people
Column I wrote for the Christmas issue of the Spectator about my vertiginous fall in status in 2018 – like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel. Published in the Spectator on 15th December 2018.
This used to be the busiest time of the year for me. If you do anything in public life — even something minor like running a free schools charity — you get asked to do a lot of things at Christmas. More if you pop up on telly occasionally. Last year, I must have attended at least a dozen carol services, and did a reading at most of them. I spoke at Christmas parties, gave after–dinner speeches and opened fairs.
And the nativity plays — don’t get me started on the nativity plays. I managed to limit myself to eight in 2017, but it’s usually more. I never cease to wonder at all the parents, up on their feet, filming the entire performance on their phones. Are they really going to inflict that on the grandparents on Christmas Day? All two hours?
But this year, nothing. Not a single invitation. Following my defenestration from public life, whereby I lost five positions, including my full-time job, I have been surgically removed from every VIP list. No Christmas cards either. It’s quite impressive in a way. I always assumed that no one ever checked these things. Some of the cards I used to get were redirected from an address I haven’t lived at for 20 years. But evidently someone checks — or word comes down from on high. Such are the costs of being targeted by a Twitter outrage mob.
Except they’re not really costs. I quite enjoyed being made a fuss of and I liked it when people praised me for the things I’ve done in education, but most of these public duties involved sitting in an uncomfortable chair, sometimes with a lukewarm glass of Sauvignon Blanc in front of me, and watching a performance of some kind or listening to a speech.
And God forbid you should get your phone out and check your emails. Then you’re one of those snooty, elitist, too-cool-for-school types. If you do, even if you’ve been sitting there with a rictus grin on your face for the past 90 minutes, some wag will lean over and say, ‘Boring you, are we?’ Well, yes, of course you are. This is my third nativity in a week. And I’m sorry if that’s your kid up there in the gold lamé star costume, but I don’t think he’s about to win an Olivier award.
My fall in status has been vertiginous, like the plot of a Tom Wolfe novel, but I can say, hand on heart, that it isn’t all bad. Yes, yes, there’s the money — or lack of it. I’ve always supplemented my income by doing freelance journalism, but it’s only now that I’m relying on it entirely that I realise just how difficult it is to make a living from being a hack. When I wrote my first piece for a national newspaper in 1985 I was paid three times as much as I get for an article today. Poor Caroline has had to take a part-time job to keep the wolf from the door. If interest rates go up, or Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister and introduces a property tax, we’ll have to sell the house.
So yes, that’s awful, obviously. But the upside is that I’ve now got much more time on my hands. All those household jobs I’ve been putting off for years, like cleaning the gutters and repainting my garden shed? Done. All those social science classics I ordered from Amazon and then stuck in a great big pile beneath my desk? Read them. That book proposal I’ve been meaning to pull together about the deadly embrace of identity politics by the intellectual left? Written.
And then there’s my exercise regime. Like most middle-aged men, I was at least two stone overweight and the prospect of losing it and becoming fit again was an ever more distant prospect. But one of the unforeseen benefits of finding yourself at the heart of a national scandal is that you start shedding the pounds.
By the time it all went tits up I’d lost half a stone and I thought, ‘OK, now’s your chance to lose the rest.’ That meant investing in various gizmos like a ‘smart scale’, 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training every day, running 10km three times a week, and obsessive calorie counting. Nine months later, I’m back down to the weight I was when I was 18. I call it the public humiliation diet.
Often, while I’m exercising, I listen to music, a rediscovered pleasure. Actually that’s not quite accurate, because certain pieces move me more deeply than they ever have before. As I’m jogging round Gunners-bury Park, I put on Beethoven’s Ninth and experience a kind of joy. ‘This must be what people mean when they talk about being transported,’ I think. Music has never affected me like this before. Is it connected to my calamitous reversal of fortune? It feels that way.
It’s probably something to do with not having to keep all those plates spinning. Until March of this year, I’d been the CEO of this or the chairman of that for about 15 years, often running two organisations at the same time. I was always planning, always going through checklists in my head. The buck stopped with me and I carried that burden. I liked the responsibility, but it meant I lived in my head, not in the world.
And this brings me to the main benefit of being cast out of public life, which is spending more time with my family. Whenever I heard that phrase in the past, I always assumed it was an excuse, a way of trying to conceal the humiliation of a professional failure: ‘The secretary of state has decided to step down to spend more time with his family.’ But getting more involved in my children’s lives, helping them with their homework, cooking for them, ferrying them around… this too has been a source of unexpected pleasure.
Maybe it’s because they’re a bit older now. My main mode of communication with people I love is banter — endless mickey-taking. When my kids were five, six, eight and ten, this didn’t always go down so well. I would end up ‘crossing the line’, in Caroline’s words, and someone would run out of the room in tears. But now there is no line. Every mealtime is a festival of coruscating badinage. And boy, are they rude to me.
I’ve had a terrible year, probably the worst of my life. But, weirdly, I’ve never been happier. Merry Christmas.
Roger Scruton becomes the latest victim of the Twitchfork mob
Column I wrote for the Spectator about the mobbing of Sir Roger Scruton, following his appointment to a government housing commission. It was published in the Spectator on 10th November 2018.
‘Once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument,’ wrote Sir Roger Scruton. ‘Your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake. You are not an opponent to be argued with, but a disease to be shunned. This has been my experience.’
Unfortunately, that experience is due to intensify for the 74-year-old conservative philosopher. Last weekend, the government announced it had set up a commission to try and make new housing developments ‘beautiful’ and appointed Sir Roger as its chair. It’s one of the few sensible things the present government has done; so, of course, it’s caused a scandal.
Within minutes of Sir Roger’s appointment, the offence archaeologists had gone to work, digging through everything he’d written in the hope of finding ‘inappropriate’ comments they could be outraged by. It didn’t take them long, and earlier this week the mob started to form up. His most egregious sin, we are told, was giving a speech in Hungary in which he said that many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish and ‘form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire’.
Taken out of context, that looks as if Scruton is endorsing an anti-Semitic trope, particularly if you simplify it to remove any of the nuance, which is what the Daily Mirror did. ‘New Tory housing tsar claimed Hungarian Jews form part of “Soros Empire”,’ screamed its headline.
But if you bother to read the speech, you’ll discover that its subject is a defence of nationalism and how it came to be regarded as toxic by the architects of the European project. The reason he brings up the fact that some of the pro-EU Hungarian intelligentsia are Jewish is because he goes on to explain that they, along with George Soros, are ‘rightly suspicious of nationalism’ since they see it as being ‘the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century’. He then makes it clear that this isn’t the sort of nationalism he is defending. Rather, the creed he has in mind is loyalty to the nation state and, in the very same paragraph, he lambasts the ‘indigenous anti-Semitism’ that ‘still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics’ because it is ‘an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews’ — which is something he would like to see.
This is not, then, an example of Scruton ‘aping’ Viktor Orbán’s ‘insinuations of Jewish conspiracy’, as the left-wing website Red Roar would have us believe. On the contrary, he was criticising anti-Semitism in that speech — and the reference to its continuing presence in Hungarian politics feels like a swipe at Orbán.
Other comments by Scruton have been taken out of context to rev up the outrage machine, including some mildly sceptical remarks about ‘Islamophobia’ in the Spectator. The offending passage reads: ‘If you express outrage at crimes committed by Muslims against women, and hint that Islam might have something to do with it, you will be accused of “Islamophobia”.’ I can’t say I feel particularly ‘triggered’ by that, but then again I hired Scruton to write the column those words appeared in.
Numerous Labour MPs have now called for Scruton’s scalp, including Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary. ‘Nobody holding those views has a place in modern democracy,’ he told BuzzFeed, momentarily forgetting Jeremy Corbyn’s attic full of baggage. ‘The prime minister needs to finally show some leadership and sack Scruton with an investigation into how he was appointed in the first place.’
Yes, let’s have an investigation into how a fellow of the British Academy, the recipient of the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit and the author of more than 50 books, including The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism, was asked to lead a commission on the aesthetics of new housing developments. Or rather, let’s ask the Commissioner for Public Appointments to look into how a bona fide conservative managed to end up in a public position. Didn’t the Prime Minister learn her lesson when she was foolish enough to appoint me to the Office for Students? Tsk, tsk.
This is what the left in this country has been reduced to — online metal-detectorists searching the internet for material they can pretend to be shocked by. Sir Roger Scruton is one of the great intellects of our age and these commissars of political correctness aren’t fit to tie his boots.
Why are faceless accusations allowed to end men’s careers?
Column I wrote for the Spectator about how Stephen Elliott’s career was destroyed when he was anonymously accused of rape in the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet. Published in the Spectator on 20th October 2018.
On 11 October 2017 an anonymous Google spreadsheet began doing the rounds of American newspapers and magazines — a document that would have far-reaching consequences for Stephen Elliott, a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Called ‘Shitty Media Men’, the spreadsheet had been created by Moira Donegan, a former assistant editor at the New Republic, and named various men rumoured to be guilty of sexual misconduct. Donegan closed it down a few days later, but by that time it had been widely circulated and many names had been added, alongside a summary of their alleged crimes. The entry for Elliott read: ‘Rape accusations, sexual harassment, coercion, unsolicited invitations to his apartment, a dude who snuck into Binders???’ (Binders is a Facebook group for women writers.)
The spreadsheet contained a disclaimer: ‘This document is only a collection of allegations and rumours. Take everything with a grain of salt.’ Needless to say, that was largely ignored. Numerous articles appeared celebrating the list as a much–needed ‘reckoning’, with not many people pausing to consider whether the men on the list were guilty. Elliott had a collection of essays to promote, but interviews were pulled, readings cancelled and his book tour fizzled out. His television agent stopped returning his calls and some friends began to distance themselves. He found himself at the centre of a Kafka-esque nightmare.
Initially, Elliott decided it was pointless to fight back. For one thing, he’s a lifelong liberal and is generally sympathetic to the #MeToo movement — or he was at the time. If he spoke out and said he’d been falsely accused it might cast doubt on all the other #MeToo allegations, including those against Harvey Weinstein. In addition, he hoped that if he didn’t respond it would soon be forgotten — ‘least said, soonest mended’. Then, when it became clear that his career had been seriously damaged, he became depressed and started abusing various substances. His thoughts turned to suicide, which is a common reaction to a public shaming. Last year the Hollywood producer Jill Messick committed suicide after she was accused of being one of Weinstein’s ‘enablers’ — an allegation she denied.
But after a few months Elliott got sober and decided he could no longer ignore the rape charge. If he didn’t confront it, it would dog him for the rest of his life — and, according to him, he’s innocent. He wrote an essay for New York magazine, setting out the case for his defence, but after initially being accepted it was rejected. He passed it on to the Guardian and it was the same story: an enthusiastic reception followed by a change of heart. Eventually, a version of that essay found a home in Quillette, an Australian online magazine where I’m an associate editor. After it was published, two women came forward to accuse Elliott of having behaved badly towards them, but the charges didn’t amount to anything more serious than ‘unsolicited invitations to his apartment’ and, as he pointed out in his essay, it isn’t a rule that you have to wait for a woman to ‘solicit’ an invitation before you can ask her back to your apartment. No one has ever made an attempt to substantiate the rape allegation.
Last week the story exploded when Elliott filed a $1.5 million law suit in New York against Moira Donegan and some of the other women who contributed to the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list. The reaction was predictable, particularly as the news followed on the heels of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. One of Elliott’s former colleagues described the suit as ‘an outrageous act of violence against Moira first and foremost, as well as everyone who contributed to the list or found any measure of solidarity or hope or comfort or usefulness in it’.
It’s hard not to sympathise with Elliott if you give him the benefit of the doubt. When a woman accuses a man of rape, the default position should not be to believe her, particularly if there’s no corroborating evidence. That’s tantamount to a presumption of guilt, a fundamentally illiberal principle. In this case, we don’t know if the accuser is a woman and you would hope even #MeToo activists would stop short of insisting we should believe anonymous allegations. Above all, no one accused of a serious crime who protests their innocence should lose their livelihoods without due process being followed. I’m glad Elliott will have his day in court.
Shouldn’t the police be chasing down theft and assault, not thought crime?
Column for the Spectator about Graham Linehan’s verbal harassment warning for mis-gendering a transwoman. Published on 13th October 2018.
West Yorkshire Police hit the headlines twice this week. First we learned that the fourth-largest force in England and Wales has decided to ‘screen out’ 46.5 per cent of cases a year, i.e. not investigate them. And these aren’t minor crimes, but things like theft, assault and burglary. Apparently, West Yorkshire Police’s 5,671 officers will spend their time on ‘more complex’ offences instead. What do they mean by that? A clue was provided by the second story which concerned the verbal harassment warning the force has given to Graham Linehan, a television comedy writer, after a Twitter dispute resulting from Linehan referring to a transgender activist as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ — and using their original, male name — even though the person in question is biologically male.
Many people will think this is poetic justice for Linehan and, by rights, I should be one of them. The co-writer of Father Ted is a socialist zealot with more than half a million followers on Twitter, and for years he has used this platform to denounce anyone to the right of Jeremy Corbyn. His stock-in-trade is furious moral indignation, the effect of which is often to whip up his disciples into an outrage mob, baying for blood. I’ve been on the receiving end many times, the most recent of which was four months ago when I published an account of getting into trouble at the beginning of the year for breaching politically correct speech codes on Twitter — exactly the same thought crime Linehan has now been accused of. ‘A stupid, empty man, quick with a lie, shallow as a puddle, one of the worst the UK has to offer,’ he tweeted. Cue the usual pile-on from his left-wing followers. I could tell they were sensitive, bookish types because their language was straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
But any schadenfreude I experienced was short-lived because I don’t think the police’s job is to intervene in social media spats and penalise whichever side is failing to comply with the latest diktats of the diversity-and-inclusion lobby. Call me a reactionary, but I think the police should be out solving crimes like theft, assault and burglary, not enforcing politically correct dogma. Linehan is experiencing exactly the kind of police harassment that Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor, predicted would happen in his own country two years ago if the law was changed to make it an offence to refuse to call a trans person by their preferred gender pronoun. Needless to say, Linehan has ridiculed Peterson on Twitter many times.
West Yorkshire Police isn’t entirely to blame for this misuse of resources. The concept of a ‘hate crime’ was first introduced into law by the last Labour administration and then defined in 2007 as ‘any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’. At present, there are five ‘protected characteristics’: disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity, although the government is carrying out a comprehensive review of all hate crime legislation.
Don’t expect this to result in anything sensible; on the contrary, the government will almost certainly enlarge the number of ‘protected characteristics’ to include ‘gender’, following the demands of Labour MP Stella Creasy to make ‘misogyny’ a hate crime. Given that some feminists believe misogyny is responsible for everything from climate change to mansplaining, the mind boggles at the scope this will give to left-wing loons to sick the police on anyone who challenges their progressive mumbo jumbo.
Ordinary coppers don’t want to be spending their days chasing down thought criminals, obviously. Last month, the new head of the Police Federation complained that his 120,000 members were being forced to follow up hate crime reports when they would much rather be investigating burglaries, two-thirds of which were not properly investigated by the police last year. It’s their managers who are at fault, such as the bright spark at South Yorkshire Police who encouraged Twitter users to report ‘non-crime hate incidents’ — episodes so trivial they don’t even meet the absurdly capacious definition of a hate crime. I have instructed my ten-year-old son to stop calling his teenage sister ‘spotty’ in case he receives a visit from Inspector Knacker.
So even though Linehan is a loathsome, virtue-signalling prig, he deserves our support. He has discovered, belatedly, that those on the left are as vulnerable as those on the right if we don’t all stand up for free speech.
Ian Buruma and the age of sexual McCarthyism
Blog post for the Spectator about Ian Buruma’s defenestration by the New York Review of Books after publishing Jian Ghomeshi’s piece about his #MeToo public shaming. It was published on 20th September 2018.
Those unfamiliar with the politics of New York’s intellectual Brahmin class will find this hard to get their heads around, but Ian Buruma, the editor-in-chief of the New York Review of Books, has just been forced to resign for publishing an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio host who was accused of sexual assault several years ago. To be clear, Buruma’s sin isn’t having committed a sexual misdemeanor himself. Rather, it consists of having run a piece by someone who was charged with sexual assault, even though Ghomeshi was acquitted. Welcome to Salem, 2018.
The essay, headlined ‘Reflections from a Hashtag’, caused uproar on social media when it was published at the beginning of the week. Some critics focused on the fact that Ghomeshi hadn’t gone into detail about the crimes he was accused of – choking and hitting women, among other things – and glossed over the sheer number of his accusers – he used the word ‘several’, when there were at least 20. This was a failure of ‘fact-checking’, apparently. Others pointed out that, even though Ghomeshi wasn’t found guilty of any of the charges, one was only dropped on condition that he apologise to his accuser and sign a ‘peace bond’, whereby he promised to stay out of trouble. Still others objected to the fact that his accusers weren’t given the opportunity to respond at equal length in the same issue of the NYRB.
Buruma didn’t help his cause by giving an interview to Slate on September 14 to explain why he’d published the piece. This question and answer, in particular, seems to have enraged a lot of people:
There are numerous allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi, including punching women in the head. That seems pretty far on the spectrum of bad behaviour.
I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation. How can I be? All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime. The exact nature of his behaviour — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern. My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense but who perhaps deserves social opprobrium, but how long should that last, what form it should take, etc.
At the time of writing, Buruma hasn’t issued a public statement about his departure, but he has given an interview to a Dutch publication in which he stands by his decision to publish Ghomeshi’s piece and explains that the reason he stepped down is because the NYRB’s owner and publisher, Rea S. Hederman, was concerned about losing advertising revenue as a result of the scandal.
‘No, he did not fire me,’ says Buruma. ‘But he made clear to me that university publishers, whose advertisements make publication of the New York Review of Books partly possible, were threatening a boycott. They are afraid of the reactions on the campuses, where this is an inflammatory topic. Because of this, I feel forced to resign – in fact it is a capitulation to social media and university presses.’
I can sympathise with Buruma. I felt obliged to stand down from various charities at the beginning of the year after a social media outrage mob called for my head. You don’t want to ‘capitulate’, as Buruma puts it, and you know that by doing so you will make it harder for the next person who finds themselves targeted in the same way to withstand the pressure. But you feel a moral obligation to protect the institutions you’re linked with and, however robust their boards are, they are dependent for their survival on the good will of others who may not be so steadfast. (I wrote a piece about my defenestration for Quillette, an Australian magazine, a couple of months ago.)
What’s so depressing about this episode is that it reflects the new climate of intolerance that is now sweeping North America’s liberal institutions (Canada is just as bad) and is rapidly spreading to the UK. Complaints about ‘fact-checking’ and Buruma’s saying the veracity of the allegations against Ghomeshi are not ‘his concern’ aren’t the issue here. The NYRB doesn’t employ any fact-checkers and the point Buruma was making is that Ghomeshi was acquitted.
Buruma’s real sin was not to observe the #MeToo edict whereby any man accused of a sexual misdemeanor – or who dissents from any of the politically correct orthodoxies when it comes to gender equality – should be cast out of polite society, even those subsequently found to be innocent. To get a sense of just how McCarthyite the atmosphere has become – guilty as charged, no due process, hand in your security pass on the way out – have a read of this piece about the Canadian author Steven Galloway. He lost his job as a creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia after being falsely accused of rape and anyone expressing any sympathy for him was immediately targeted by the Twitchfork mob, including the feminist author Margaret Attwood.
Newspapers and magazines which you would expect to be staunch defenders of free speech have been quick to crumble under pressure. Earlier this year, the Atlantic hired and then fired the conservative writer Kevin Williamson when it emerged he had made an inflammatory remark about abortion
And it isn’t just men accused of #MeToo crimes that you’re forbidden to provide a platform to. Last month, the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker David Remnick was forced to rescind Steve Bannon’s invitation to speak at a forthcoming festival after pressure was applied by his own staff, among others.
It’s not just the print media, either. Last week, the comedian Norm Macdonald was told he could no longer appear on the Tonight Show to promote his new Netflix series after he gave an interview to the Hollywood Reporter in which he expressed sympathy for Louis C.K., a comedian who lost his career overnight when several women accused him of masturbating in front of them. To be fair, Louis C.K. hasn’t denied the charges – not all of them, anyway – but Macdonald didn’t defend him. He just said he felt sorry for him. That, alone, was enough to make several female staffers at the Tonight Show burst into tears at the prospect of Norm appearing on their show.
The atmosphere on American campuses is even more febrile, thanks to the Obama administration’s advice to universities that they’re liable to have their funding removed if they fall foul of Title IX, a civil rights law designed to protect women in schools and colleges from harassment, among other things. Male students are now expected to ask for ‘affirmative consent’ at every stage of the seduction process – that is, they have to ask if it’s OK to make a pass before making a pass, then secure express permission for every item of clothing removed, and so on.
One poor young man was found guilty because even though he’d asked for all the relevant permissions, and received assent, he couldn’t remember whether he’d asked the woman in question if he could remove her belt.
It’s not an exaggeration to say thousands of young men have been kicked out of college for similar offenses after kangaroo hearings in which, more often than not, they’re not allowed to submit evidence and the burden of proof is ‘on the balance of probabilities’ not ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. So far, only about 200 men have legally challenged these decisions and the court has sided with roughly half of them.
Laura Kipnis, a film studies professor at Northwestern who is also a contributor to the NYRB, wrote a piece attacking the sexual hysteria on campuses surrounding Title IX and, for her sins, she ended up under investigation for a Title IX offense by her own university. She wrote a book about that episode and was then targeted again.
It is hard to know what has caused this sexual McCarthyism. One claim, often made by #MeToo advocates, is that American universities are in the grip of a rape epidemic and if the authorities don’t start taking their responsibilities to protect women more seriously it will only get worse. In fact, sexual assaults of female college students in the US dropped by more than half between 1997 and 2013. In the same period, young women in college were less likely to be assaulted than those who weren’t. The ‘rape epidemic’ claim is a symptom of the hysteria, not its cause.
My own theory is that a small minority on the identitarian Left have used various Maoist tactics, including public shaming on social media, to persuade people that their doctrinaire positions on #MeToo allegations and a range of other issues – gender is a social construct, masculinity is toxic, climate change is caused by misogyny, etc. – are much more ubiquitous than they really are, thereby stifling dissent.
To think about how this might work, imagine a modern-day version of ‘The Emperor’s Clothes’ set at an American Ivy League college. A sceptical undergraduate is taking a gender studies class and suspects midway through that only a small minority of his classmates actually believe anything the professor is saying. So when she comes up with a particularly far-fetched bit of postmodern Neo-Marxist nonsense – for instance, that menstruation is a social construct – he decides to call her out on it. How do his classmates react, assuming the majority of them share his scepticism?
Unlike in the original story, they don’t immediately burst out laughing and applaud him for his courage. Rather, they look around, trying to gauge the reaction of others and, at the same time, keep their own expressions neutral until they get a sense of what the majority believes. Nothing they see on each other’s faces tells them it’s safe to indicate they share the undergraduate’s scepticism – even though a majority of them do – so they keep quiet. Some of them may even start tutting and shaking their heads, not wanting those they imagine to be in the majority to suspect they hold the heretical view. At this point, the gender studies professor narrows her eyes, accuses the undergraduate of being a misogynist and uses the bias reporting hotline to contact the university’s diversity officer.
A week later, the miscreant has been kicked out even though the professor in question was clearly spouting nonsense and a majority of the undergraduate’s classmates secretly agreed with him.
The blogger Alexander Scott provided a real-life example of exactly this dynamic at play:
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’.
Who knows how long this paranoid atmosphere will continue. America seems to go through periodic bouts of hysterical puritanism, which partly accounts for the enduring appeal of the Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials. I think it largely depends on what happens in the mid-terms. If the Democrats emerge the victors, Trump Derangement Syndrome will start to fade and reason may creep back into America’s liberal institutions. But if the Republicans win the day, the Democrats will likely descend into civil war and the identitarian Left may capture the Party, just as it’s captured the UK’s Labour Party. If that happens, don’t expect this hysteria to die down any time soon.
Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice comes with a side serving of insanity
Column I wrote for the Spectator about the row between Dawn Butler and Jamie Oliver, whom Dawn accused of ‘appropriating’ jerk seasoning. Published on 25th August 2018.
Earlier this week, the Labour MP Dawn Butler ‘called out’ Jamie Oliver for ‘appropriation’. His sin, according to the shadow minister for women and equalities, was to launch a product called Punchy Jerk Rice. ‘I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is?’ she asked him on Twitter. ‘It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products… Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.’
The notion that it is problematic for white people to ‘appropriate’ the culture of other ethnic groups has become widespread on the left. Three years ago, Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer, sparked protests after she questioned official university guidance telling white students not to wear ‘culturally insensitive’ Halloween costumes, such as feathered headdresses. Student activists were so enraged by her description of American universities as places of ‘censure and prohibition’ — and her outrageous suggestion that there was nothing inherently racist about blond toddlers dressing up as African-American Disney characters — that she was forced to resign.
More recently, a white American teenager was shamed on Twitter after posting a picture of herself in a traditional Chinese dress she was wearing to her high-school prom. ‘Was the theme of prom casual racism?’ asked one enraged liberal, whose tweet immediately got thousands of likes.
But accusing white chefs and restaurateurs of being racist if they have the temerity to serve food that isn’t… well, white — whatever that is — seems a reductio ad absurdum. Last year a burrito van in Portland was forced out of business after activists accused its two white owners of ‘stealing’ their recipes from Mexico. Soon afterwards, a list was circulated of similarly inadmissible behaviour entitled ‘(Alternatives to) White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland’. It named and shamed dozens of establishments and included suggestions of more acceptable places owned by ‘people of colour’. In February, the firm that runs the canteen at New York University sacked two white working-class men after they devised an African-American menu to celebrate Black History Month that was deemed ‘racially insensitive’ by a middle-class black student.
One of the absurdities of these accusations is that cuisines linked to particular countries are not typically created by one ethnic group. Instead, they are a product of many different ethnicities and traditions, reflecting the cosmopolitan cultural influences that have shaped those places over hundreds of years. Butler accused Jamie Oliver of using the word ‘jerk’ in an ill-informed way, but surely the real ignorance here is not knowing that Jamaican food reflects a rich array of different culinary traditions, including Spanish, Irish, British, African, Indian and Chinese, as well as those of the island’s indigenous people. Jerk seasoning wouldn’t exist without ‘cultural appropriation’.
Even if that wasn’t the case and cuisines were largely monocultural, it still wouldn’t be healthy to think of them as ‘owned’ by particular ethnic groups. Intellectual copyright has some validity for individual cultural artefacts, such as books and songs, because without it their creators couldn’t make a living. But how can you copyright an entire culture? If that idea caught on, or was given some legal force, it would mean the end of cross-cultural fertilisation. It would fuel ethno-nationalism and give succour to right-wing demagogues trying to whip up populist resentment against ‘foreign’ perverters of their sacred traditions. Butler may think of herself as being on the side of the angels, but she is echoing the cultural protectionism of Viktor Orbán.
One final point about ‘cultural appropriation’ is the inconsistency with which the objection is made. Why isn’t the identitarian left equally up in arms about men who identify as women and dress and behave accordingly? It would seem a clear-cut example of one group — a ‘privileged’ group, no less — ‘appropriating’ the culture of another. But when the American philosopher Rebecca Tuvel made this point, comparing trans icon Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as black, she was targeted by an online outrage mob. Needless to say, the academic journal that published her article soon issued a grovelling apology. I daresay it won’t be long before Jamie Oliver withdraws Punchy Jerk Rice from the shelves and abases himself at Dawn Butler’s feet.
I disapprove of what Sarah Jeong says, but I will defend her right to say it
Blog post for the Spectator about the furore over Sarah Jeong being hired by the New York Times. Published on 2nd August 2018.
Sarah Jeong, a 30-year-old journalist who’s just been hired by the New York Times, was trending on social media yesterday. The reason, predictably enough, is that she wrote a series of ill-judged tweets several years ago. Jeong is an Asian-American and, four years ago, expressed a number of racist sentiments about white people, whom she compared to ‘dogs’ and ‘groveling goblins’. ‘Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get from being cruel to old white men,’ she wrote in 2014.
The New York Times issued a statement yesterday defending their new hire and claiming that Jeong’s status as a person of colour went some way to excuse her apparently racist tweets. “Her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment,” The Times said. “For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She sees now that this approach only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media.”
Not surprisingly, that defense has been widely ridiculed. For instance, the National Review’s David French pointed out that the Times would be unlikely to extend the same charity to the white victim of a black criminal who expressed racist sentiments as a result of that trauma. The Times is on a sticky wicket because last year it experienced a similar backlash when it hired Quinn Norton, a less politically correct journalist than Jeong. However, when various ‘offensive’ things she had said on Twitter came to light, the Times immediately terminated her contract. The only difference between the two cases is that the people calling for Norton’s head were left-wing hashtag activists, whereas the people demanding Jeong be fired are, for the most part, conservatives.
I’ve written in the Spectator this week about whether conservatives should use the social media shaming tactics of the left against their opponents. Last month, alt-right activists succeeded in getting the Hollywood liberal James Gunn fired by Disney as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 after drawing attention to some terrible jokes he’d made on Twitter in 2008 and 2009 about rape and pedophilia. This was in spite of the fact that he’d directed the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, both of which were commercial behemoths.
Many people on my side of the political divide chalked this up as a great victory. Not only is it poetic justice because Gunn tried to whip up an outrage mob against another director last year, accusing him of being a sexual predator, but if conservatives turn the tables on social justice warriors and start publicly shaming them for inappropriate things they’ve said on social media they’ll be less likely to come after people like me in future. Even if it doesn’t have that effect, it would be wrong to ignore this weakness. As one conservative colleague told me, refusing to use this political weapon against our opponents would be an act of ‘unilateral disarmament’. Given that we’re locked in mortal combat in an ongoing culture war, that would be irresponsible. ‘You can’t take a knife to a gunfight,’ he said.
As someone who’s been through this mill, I disagree. I was publicly shamed at the beginning of the year for various asinine things I’d said on Twitter and, as a result, had to stand down from three charitable boards and give up my full-time job. As you’d expect, I don’t think people should be denuded of their livelihoods on the basis of a few ill-judged tweets, as if those are the moments when the mask of decency has slipped and the monster within is revealed. Rather, you should assess a person by looking at all their behaviour over the course of their lifetime – their actions as well as their words. And that’s a rule that should apply to everyone, regardless of their political leanings and regardless of whether they’ve followed that rule themselves. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect people to be scrupulously fair-minded when judging others, particularly their political enemies. But it seems reasonable to expect Disney to observe due process before firing somebody, rather than immediately caving in to the mob.
More importantly, if conservatives start shaming social justice warriors for breaching politically correct speech codes we are tacitly legitimising those codes. In effect, we’re accepting that anyone who is guilty of making an inappropriate joke on social media, or who says something ‘offensive’ about a member of a racial group, as Sarah Jeong did, is beyond the pale and deserves to be publicly humiliated, up to and including losing their job. I’m not talking about drawing attention to the hypocrisy of our opponents, which is fine, obviously – and the New York Times certainly seems guilty of that. The problem starts when that accusation morphs into something more closely resembling the confected moral outrage of the digital thought police. As defenders of free speech, we should be upholding the principle that no viewpoint, whether satirical or serious, is out of bounds. If you disagree with somebody, the correct response is to engage them in open debate, not whip up a mob to shame them into silence.
There’s one other consideration which is that we don’t need to teach the left this lesson in tolerance when it comes to public discourse. They have already started to use their own tactics against each other, such as the recent shaming of a left-wing poet for writing some ‘ableist’ verse in a left-of-centre political weekly. Standing to one side is not ‘unilateral disarmament’ when your enemies have formed a circular firing squad.
The Public Humiliation Diet
Piece for Quillette about my public shaming at the beginning of 2018. Published on 24th July 2018.
Reading about James Gunn’s defenestration by Disney for having tweeted some off-color jokes 10 years ago, I was reminded of my own ordeal at the beginning of this year. I’m British, not American, a conservative rather than a liberal, and I didn’t have as far to fall as Gunn. I’m a journalist who helped set up one of England’s first charter schools, which we call ‘free schools,’ and I’ve sat on the board of various not-for-profits, but I’m not the co-creator of Guardians of the Galaxy. In some respects, though, my reversal was even more brutal than Gunn’s because I have spent a large part of the past 10 years doing voluntary work intended to help disadvantaged children. It is one thing to lose a high-paying job because of your ‘offensive attitudes,’ but to be denied further opportunities to do good hits you deep down in your soul. At least Gunn can now engage in charity work to try and redeem himself, as others in his situation have done. I had to give up all the charity work I was doing as a result of the scandal. In the eyes of my critics, I am beyond redemption.
My trial-by-media began shortly after midnight on January 1, when I started trending on Twitter. The cause was a piece about me in the Guardian newspaper which had just gone live. The headline read: “Toby Young to help lead government’s new universities regulator.” That was a bit misleading. I was one of 15 non-executive directors who’d been appointed to the board of the Office for Students, a new higher education regulator, not one of its leaders. The reason was because of the four schools I’ve co-founded and because I’m one of a handful of conservatives involved in public education. Liberals outnumber conservatives on nearly all public bodies in Britain and the Office for Students is no exception. Of the 15 non-executive directors announced on January 1, only three were identifiable as right-of-center, myself included. The chair, Sir Michael Barber, is the former head of research for a left-wing teaching union and spent eight years working for Tony Blair in Downing Street.
But I’m also a journalist and in the course of my 30-year career I’ve written some pretty sophomoric pieces, many of them for ‘lad mags.’ I spent 48 hours in the Welsh mountains simulating the selection course for the Special Air Service, Britain’s elite special forces unit. I went undercover as a patient at a penis enlargement clinic in London. I even got a professional hair-and-make-up team to transform me into a woman and then embarked on a tour of New York’s gay bars to try and pick up a lipstick lesbian. I wrote a best-selling memoir about these and other misadventures in journalism called How to Lose Friends & Alienate People that was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Simon Pegg. In other words, not your typical appointee to the board of a public regulator.
I’ve also, like James Gunn, made some pretty stupid jokes on social media many moons ago that I wish I could take back. But they’re out there, along with everything else I’ve ever written, and it doesn’t take long to find them. And the reason I was trending on Twitter is because literally thousands of people were Googling me and coming up with reasons why I wasn’t a fit person to be on this board.
I thought the row would blow over within 24 hours, but what began as a Twitter storm turned into a major story (it was a slow news week). Nine days later, when I announced my resignation from the Office for Students, I was leading the BBC news.
How did that happen? Well, it didn’t help that I’m pro-Brexitand was a prominent campaigner for the Leave side in the referendum about Britain’s membership in the European Union. Many distinguished academics thought that alone was enough to disqualify me from regulating Britain’s universities. The British professoriat is passionately pro-EU and believes anyone who doesn’t share their view is a racist bigot.
But the main reason I became such a lightning rod is because I had been appointed by the Prime Minister. If it could be shown that I was an unsuitable person to sit on this board, that would embarrass Theresa May. And boy, did they go at it. Nine days later I had been tarred with all the vices of a privileged white male—tarred and feathered.
The first wave of attacks took the form of dredging up articles I’d written in the past and mining them for evidence that I held unpalatable views. For instance, someone on Twitter dug up a 17-year-old piece I’d written for the Spectator, where I’m an associate editor, headlined: “Confessions of a Porn Addict.”
Notwithstanding the headline, it was actually a fairly serious article defending the British Board of Film Classification’s increasingly liberal attitude towards pornography and pointing out that sexual violence is more prevalent in countries with draconian anti-pornography laws—such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia—than in Holland, Denmark, and Sweden.
In support of the argument that porn doesn’t deprave and corrupt, I referenced the poet Philip Larkin’s fondness for bizarre erotica and cited an incident he relayed in a letter to the novelist Kinglsey Amis. The most celebrated English poet of the post-war period was loitering outside a sex shop in London’s red light district, too embarrassed to go in, when suddenly the owner stepped outside.
“Was it bondage, Sir?” he politely inquired.
As a matter of fact it was.
Unfortunately, in the course of relaying this anecdote I described Larkin as a “fellow porn addict.” Hence the headline at the top of the piece.
It was the sub-editor’s idea of a joke—and I thought it was funny too, until the article was cited as evidence that I wasn’t a fit and proper person to serve on a public regulator. It was a good illustration of Kingsley Amis’s rule about self-deprecating remarks: “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.”
A couple of hours after it surfaced on Twitter, the London Evening Standard ran a piece headlined: “New Pressure on Theresa May to Sack ‘Porn Addict’ Toby Young from Watchdog Role.”
That was followed up by the Times of London the next day: “‘Porn addict’ Toby Young Fights to Keep Role as Student Watchdog.” The story began: “Fresh pressure to remove Toby Young from a new universities watchdog was heaped on Theresa May yesterday when it was revealed he has admitted to being a porn ‘addict.’”
Note the use of the word “revealed,” as if this unsavory fact had just come to light, rather than been dug up by some online metal-detectorist frantically searching for anything I’d written that could be deemed ‘offensive.’ One of the few people to come to my defense was Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, who marveled at the prosecutorial zeal of my enemies: “At one stage, the top 10 articles in our online archive (going back to 1828) were all Toby Young’s, as his army of detractors were hard at work.” It goes without saying that no one is actually offended by any of this material, or at least very few people. After all, it would be a bit odd if people spent hours trawling the internet in the hope of finding opinions or jokes that genuinely upset them—and then broadcast them far and wide in the hope of upsetting lots of other people, too. Rather, they’re looking for stuff they can pretend to be shocked by, Captain Renault style.
When Fraser told me about the search activity, I joked that at least a new generation of readers was discovering my work. But, of course, these offense archaeologists are about the least sympathetic readers an author could have. They’re just looking for sentences and phrases they can take out of context to cast you in a bad light. The same technique has been used to shame Kevin Williamson, Bari Weiss, Daniella Greenbaum, Sam Harris, Bret Weinstein, Dave Rubin, Jason Riley, Heather Mac Donald, Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, and countless others. It’s cherry-picking—or rather, cherry bomb-picking. As Ben Shapiro, another victim of this tactic, wrote recently: “It’s not that these people are hated because they’ve said terrible things. It’s that they’re hated, so the hard Left tries to dig up supposedly terrible things they’ve said.”
The term “offense archaeologists” isn’t mine, by the way. It belongs to Freddie deBoer, the essayist and blogger who wrote a brilliant piece about the toxic effect that this climate of intolerance is having on public discourse. “That’s what liberalism is, now—the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists,” he wrote. I would link to it but he’s deleted it, presumably because some Witchfinder General sniffed it out and started preparing the ducking stool.
The most serious of the charges against me is that I’m a ‘eugenicist.’ That claim was based on an article I’d written for an Australian magazine in which I discussed the possibility that in the future a couple might be able to fertilize a range of embryos in vitro and, after analyzing their DNA, choose to implant the one likely to be the most intelligent. If that ever does become possible, the first people to take advantage of it will be the rich so they can give their children an even bigger head start. In other words, it will make the problem of growing inequality and flat-lining social mobility across the industrialized world even worse.
My solution, as set out in the article, was that this technology, if it comes on stream, should be banned for everyone except the very poor. I wasn’t proposing sterilization or some fiendish form of genetic engineering. Just a type of IVF that would be available for free to the least well off, should they wish to take advantage of it. Not mandatory, just an option.
I called this “progressive eugenics,” which in retrospect was clearly a mistake. It was more like the opposite of eugenics—free IVF for the poor—but few people bothered to read the piece. The fact that I’d used the E word was enough to damn me.
That was exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.
Exhibit B was my attendance at an academic conference at University College London last year at which some of the speakers had a history of putting forward contested theories about the genetic basis of intelligence. My reason for going was because I had been asked—as a journalist who has written about genetics—to give a lecture by the International Society of Intelligence Researchers at the University of Montreal later in the year, and I was planning to talk about the risks of venturing into the nature-nurture debate, particularly if your views run afoul of blank slate orthodoxy. I thought the UCL conference, which was invitation-only, would provide me with some anecdotal material that I could use in Montreal—and it did. I referred to the clandestine gathering in my lecture, comparing these renegade academics to the Czech dissidents who used to meet in Václav Havel’s flat in Prague in the 1970s.
So, because I discussed a form of embryo selection in an Australian magazine, and because I attended this conference at UCL, I was the Spectator’s answer to Josef Mengele. It doesn’t matter that my father-in-law is Jewish and under the Nuremberg Laws my children would have been murdered because they have a Jewish grandparent. In the eyes of my critics, I was a Nazi.
According to the Green Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, my “horrific views on eugenics” rendered me “unfit for public office.” The left-wing journalist Polly Toynbee wrote a column in the Guardian headlined: “With His Views on Eugenics, Why Does Toby Young Still Have a Job in Education?” The Labour politician Dawn Butler, the shadow minister for women and equalities, accused me on Question Time, Britain’s flagship current affairs program, of “talking about eugenics and weeding out disabled people.”
She just made that up, by the way. I have never talked about “weeding out disabled people.” I found that particularly distressing because I have a disabled brother and I am a patron of the residential care home he lives in. I hope he wasn’t watching Question Time that night.
That’s one of the worst aspects of seeing your name dragged through the mud—the fear that people you know and care about are going to believe some of the terrible things people are saying about you and the feeling that there’s nothing you can do about it. You can get out there and defend yourself, of course, but once the calumnies have gathered momentum it’s hard to stop them metastasizing. To paraphrase Mark Twain, a piece of fake news gets all the way round the world and back again and starts trending on social media before the truth has put its boots on. A researcher at MIT recently published a paper in the journal Science showing that the truth takes six times longer, on average, than a lie to be seen by 1,500 people on Twitter.
Another example: an essay I wrote in 1988 about the English class system, which included some unflattering descriptions of socially awkward boys at Oxford, was dredged up as evidence that I was opposed to poor kids going to university. A former BBC journalist and self-professed Marxist accused me on Twitter of “[despising] working class kids who try to make good through education.”
Hard to know where to start with that one. As an Oxford undergraduate, I was part of a widening participation program that involved visiting schools in deprived parts of the country to try and persuade the students to apply to the university. I joined the US-UK Fulbright Commission as a Commissioner in 2014 and have supported the Commission’s work to secure full scholarships at American universities for British students from disadvantaged backgrounds. At the high school I helped set up, four out of every 10 children are from under-privileged backgrounds and our exam results put us in the top 10 percent of all high schools in England. 83 percent of our graduating class this year got college offers, 63 percent from Russell Group universities, Britain’s Ivy League.
How could an essay I wrote 30 years ago—30 years ago—be a legitimate basis on which to judge my attitude towards social mobility and not all the work I’ve done since? As David French wrote in the National Review about Ben Shapiro, we should judge people on the sum total of their work, not some isolated tweet or hot take.
In my case, it was as if observing progressive speech codes when talking about certain groups—such as disadvantaged kids—is more important than actually helping them. In today’s topsy-turvy world, virtue signaling trumps being virtuous.
The allegations continued. Two of the most hurtful ones against me were that I’m a misogynist and a homophobe.
Those claims were based on ill-judged comments I’d made on social media. Like James Gunn, I had deleted them—because they were asinine, ill-conceived attempts to be provocative, usually late at night after several glasses of wine—but the outrage mob thought that made them more indicative of what I’m really like, not less. In their eyes, these were the moments I had let slip the mask of decency and revealed the hideous gargoyle beneath.
Six years ago, I tweeted something about the cleavage of an MP sitting behind the leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons and three years before that I made some similar observations about several female celebrities, including Padma Lakshmi, the Indian cookbook author whom I used to work with on a food reality show. That was enough to get me labelled a misogynist.
Those tweets were awful and I wish I hadn’t sent them. I’m not convinced that objectifying women is itself a form of harm, but it dehumanizes them, turns them into something ‘other,’ and that can be a way for men to give themselves permission to cause harm. But does sending those tweets make me a misogynist? Someone who hates all women, including my wife who I’ve been happily married to for 17 years and our 14-year-old daughter? That verdict has a horrible finality about it, as if I will forever be defined by a few lapses of judgment and nothing else I have done—could do—will assuage the guilt. To rub the point in, numerous people expressing outrage about this on Twitter added the hashtags #MeToo or #TimesUp, as if I am morally indistinguishable from Harvey Weinstein. For the record, I’ve run several medium-sized organizations in my career and employed hundreds of people and I’ve never been accused of sexual harassment or discrimination or anything remotely like that. On the contrary, I’ve always been supportive of my female colleagues. If you write off all men who’ve engaged in locker-room banter as misogynists, don’t be surprised when that term stops eliciting the moral outrage you expect. It’s the feminist equivalent of playing the race card.
Eight years ago—again on Twitter—I described George Clooney as being “as queer as a coot.” That made me a homophobe. Again, stupid thing to say, but the dictionary definition of a homophobe is “a person with an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.” I wanted to protest that I had taken on Nigel Farage, then the leader of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, in a public debate about gay marriage. That in the secondary school I helped set up I had worked hard to create a welcoming environment for LGBTQ staff and students. That some of my best friends are…
But I knew I’d just be howling into the void. Trial by media is like being in the dock at a Soviet show trial—no due process, no inadmissible evidence. Guilty as charged, next stop social Siberia, as Steven Galloway discovered. But unlike Galloway, who was falsely accused of rape, I was sort of guilty. Whenever I lapse into self-pity in the company of my friends and claim I was the victim of a witch-hunt, they gently point out that I wasn’t entirely innocent. The women accused of being in league with the devil in 17th-century Salem weren’t actually witches, whereas I had written the offending articles and tweets. I was a self-described “porn addict,” even if I hadn’t meant that line to be taken literally.
My counter-argument is that some of those accused of devil worship were, in fact, guilty of other offenses, such as adultery, but that didn’t make them witches. Like deputy governor Thomas Danforth, those sitting in judgement upon me claimed to be able to peer into my soul and see the festering corruption within. I wasn’t just being accused of having thought and said some inappropriate things. Rather, those were evidence of a diseased mind.
My most egregious sin was a tasteless, off-color remark I made while tweeting about a BBC telethon to raise money for starving Africans in 2009. That was reproduced on the front page of the Mail on Sunday, Britain’s second-biggest-selling Sunday newspaper. The headline ran: “PM’s Disgust at Student Tsar’s Sordid Tweets.” I’d now been promoted from “helping to lead” the new universities regulator to “student tsar” in order to fuel the outrage machine.
At this point, the cry for my scalp had reached fever pitch. An online petition calling for me to be sacked from the Office for Students had attracted 220,000 signatures. My daughter was refusing to go to school. My wife said that if one more person came up to her and said “Are you okay?” she was going to hit them. I felt I had no choice but to issue a public apology and stand down.
In one respect, that was a mistake. I had been warned that abasing yourself at the feet of the outrage mob and apologizing would just embolden them. They will take it as a blanket admission of guilt and demand that you be removed from all your remaining positions until you’ve lost your livelihood—and so it proved to be.
In the weeks that followed I was forced to resign from the Fulbright Commission, stripped of my Honorary Fellowship by Buckingham University, and I had to give up my nine-to-five job as head of an education charity—the one that paid the mortgage and enabled me to put food on the table and clothe my children.
But I don’t regret apologizing, not entirely, because it was heartfelt. When I saw my puerile tweet on the front page of the Mail on Sunday I was filled with a burning, all-consuming sense of shame. I wanted to crawl into a cupboard and hide. My first thought was: “Thank God my father’s not still alive.”
My dad, Michael Young, was involved in education too. He helped set up the Open University, Europe’s largest higher education institution, and was elevated to the House of Lords by James Callaghan, a Labour Prime Minister. Several pieces appeared after I resigned saying I had disgraced his name, including one by a journalist who’d known my father and whom I’ve always liked and respected. This same man had written a relatively sympathetic profile of me for the Guardian seven years earlier. That’s one of the most disheartening things about being shunned and cast out by your colleagues—the people you hoped would stick up for you join the lynch mob along with everyone else. It was as if he was taking me aside into a dark room, handing me a glass of whisky and a revolver and telling me to do the decent thing.
Being publicly shamed is a brutal, shocking experience that strips you of your dignity and I’ll always look back on it as one of the low points of my life. But, thankfully, my thoughts never turned to suicide. Others haven’t been so fortunate. Earlier this year, Jill Messick, a Hollywood producer, became the subject of an online witch-hunt when she was falsely accused by Rose McGowan of covering up for Harvey Weinstein. She decided not to challenge McGowan’s account because she didn’t want to make it harder for other victims of sexual harassment to come forward. But the gap between the person she knew herself to be and the anti-feminist villain she was being portrayed as on social media became too much and on February 7 she took her own life.
It’s that gap that causes the pain. Quinn Norton, who was hired and then fired by the New York Times in the space of eight hours following an online mobbing earlier this year, wrote a good article for The Atlantic about her ordeal. She said her detractors created a “bizarro-world” version of her, an online doppelgänger. It was the usual show trial in which people dug up things she’d said on social media in the distant past, deliberately turned a deaf ear to nuance, irony, and context, and transformed her into a pantomime villain. You know in your heart of hearts that that’s not who you are, but the willingness of others to believe the worst can lead to self-doubt. If so many people think I’m a bad person, maybe I really am.
This is a form of cognitive dissonance, I think. Surveying the burning wreck of my career, I was initially consumed by a terrible sense of injustice. Why me? What have I done to deserve this? I hadn’t realized it before my life unraveled, but I had been laboring under the illusion that we live in a fair universe—the just world fallacy. I thought that if I was, on balance, a good person, the universe would somehow take that into account when deciding my fate. I’m not religious—I don’t even believe in karma. At least, I didn’t think I did until events conspired to make it crystal clear that karma is a big fat stinking lie. Then, to my astonishment, I found myself in a state of shock. It’s all so unfair! But like many people whose worldview is upended by reality, instead of abandoning my just world hypothesis, I doubled down on it. Not consciously, but semi-consciously—involuntarily. Cognitive dissonance. So I began to think, “Maybe I deserve all this public ignominy and shame.”
That triggered a few depressive episodes, but what saved me from spiraling down into the full-blown, clinical depression that often follows an experience like this was exercise. During those nine days in January when I became the most reviled man in Britain I lost half a stone (seven pounds). I joked to my wife that I was on “the public humiliation diet.” Like many middle-aged men, I’ve often dreamed about losing weight and getting into shape, but haven’t had the time to do anything about it. Now, unexpectedly, I did. I decided to bank that half a stone, lose some more weight and do some exercise—finally get rid of that spare tire. So I’ve been doing 15 minutes of high intensity interval training (HIIT) every day, often followed by five minutes of stomach crunches, then a run or a swim. I’m now two stone lighter than I was on January 1 and, while I can’t claim to have a six pack, I do have the faint outline of one. (I can see it, even if my kids fall about with laughter whenever I tense my stomach muscles and say, “Look, look!”)
It’s been wonderfully therapeutic. In part, that’s because it has enabled me to regain control over some small aspect of my life. Okay, I may not be able to battle the outrage mob and my enemies may have succeeded in destroying my career and ruining my reputation, but, hey, at least I can control my own body weight! Small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but it means I don’t feel like a complete victim.
Then there’s the self-flagellatory dimension. Exercising hard, particularly HIIT, hurts. (The clue is in the name.) The part of me that blames myself for what’s happened, and thinks I deserved everything I got, gets a lot of satisfaction from punishing the miscreant responsible. I’ve become a hair shirt conservative.
Finally, there’s the serotonin. After I’d suffered my reversal of fortune I sought consolation in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, but it had the opposite effect. I read the infamous chapter about lobsters and discovered that crustaceans who’ve been bested in a fight suffer from reduced levels of serotonin and as a result become “a defeated looking, scrunched up, inhibited, drooping, skulking sort of lobster, very likely to hang around street corners and vanish at the first sign of trouble.” As with lobsters, so with humans, Peterson argues, which immediately made me think that I was going to start behaving like a pathetic loser in the lobster dominance hierarchy. But, thankfully, I didn’t. And the reason, I think, is because of the exercise, which boosts serotonin. My sudden, vertiginous loss of status—like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel—undoubtedly depleted my serotonin levels. But the daily, intense physical exercise seems to have made up for it. This lobster will live to fight another day.
Six months have passed since I experienced my time in the stocks and I’m still trying to process what happened (as you can probably tell). I keep circling back to the same question: Why were some people prepared to cast judgment based on such meager evidence? Why did certain words I’d used in the past count for so much more than my actions?
I think the answer must have something to do with the rise of identity politics. In the Oppression Olympics, I’m not about to win any medals. As a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male, I’m an apex predator in the identitarian food chain and, as such, responsible for all the injustices suffered by the oppressed, including historic injustices dating back hundreds of years—colonialism, slavery, sexual exploitation, you name it.
That’s the context in which I was labelled a “homophobe” and a “misogynist,” not to mention a “porn addict,” a “eugenicist,” and someone who “despises working class students.” As far as the hashtag activists are concerned, all white, heterosexual, cis-gendered males are guilty of those sins—and that goes double for Brexit-supporting, middle-aged Tories. They assume we must hold all these toxic beliefs because how else could we justify the ‘structural inequality’ that preserves our privileged status? It simply doesn’t occur to them that there’s an intellectually respectable case for free-market capitalism, or that there could be a moral basis for opposing end-state equality—100 million plus killed by communism, etc.—or that those of us who don’t share their philosophy are equally concerned about justice. The conservative tradition is entirely unknown to them.
Even if your social media history is squeaky clean, you’re going to have difficulty persuading the intersectional Left that you have a useful role to play in public life if you tick all the wrong demographic boxes, as I do. The best thing you can do is ‘check your privilege’ and stand aside. This is how Suzanna Danuta Walters, professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, put it in a recent comment piece for the Washington Post titled, “Why can’t we hate men?“:
So men, if you really are #WithUs and would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from, start with this… Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power. We got this. And please know that your crocodile tears won’t be wiped away by us anymore. We have every right to hate you. You have done us wrong.
Maybe I’m kidding myself. After all, some of the other people appointed to the board of the new regulator were men—even white, heteronormative men—and no one objected to them. But it was a disheartening episode for someone who’s been involved in politics all his life and was looking forward to contributing more. As a non-executive director of the Office for Students, I was hoping to address some of the problems afflicting Britain’s universities—soaring tuition fees, grade inflation, the growing intolerance for unorthodox ideas—by sitting round the table with people of different views and having a lively debate. The person who replaced me is a liberal, which means the number of ‘out’ conservatives on the 15-person board has been reduced to two. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out many times, our society prizes every kind of diversity except the one that matters most of all—viewpoint diversity. We’re not going to come up with democratic, workable solutions to difficult problems if we stay within our echo chambers and refuse to engage seriously with our opponents.
Which is why it pains me to see fellow conservatives mimicking the mobbing tactics of the identitarian Left, whether it’s going after Al Franken, Joy Reid, or James Gunn. We should not embrace the witch-hunter’s credo that says people are defined by their worst moments, that if you’ve said something crass or insensitive about a victim group, particularly if you’re ‘privileged’, then you suffer from a form of original sin so deeply imprinted on your soul that no amount of good works can expunge it. The outrage mob seem to be in thrall to a particularly unforgiving religious cult. Nietzsche said that the West’s tragedy in the 20th-century was that we would be afflicted by the same puritanical abhorrence of out-group behavior as our Christian forebears, but because we could no longer bring ourselves to believe in God there would be no way to save these malefactors—guilt without the possibility of redemption. Good theory, wrong century.
Will I get a second chance?
I’m still writing for the Spectator, which has never wavered in its support, doing some editing for Quillette (thanks Claire!), and working on a book about the neo-Marxist, postmodernist Left. None of this pays the mortgage, but it keeps me busy. My wife Caroline, a lawyer who gave up her job to care for our children, has re-entered the work force, so our household income should recover.
In March, I stepped down from the board of the charity I co-founded that looks after my schools—the fifth position I’ve had to give up since my public shaming. That was the biggest blow of all. I’ve written an international best-seller, starred in a one-man show in London’s West End, and co-produced a Hollywood movie. But getting involved in education and trying to give others the opportunities I’ve had is easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I hope that one day, when this period of liberal McCarthyism has passed, I’ll be allowed to resume that work.
The enemies of press freedom have no right to invoke the ghost of George Orwell
A blog post I wrote for the Telegraph that was published on 13th January 2013
Today is the closing date for journalists to enter the George Orwell Prize, one of the highest honours that can be bestowed upon political hacks. Previous winners include Polly Toynbee, David Aaronovitch and Jenni Russell (let’s draw a veil over the fact that Johann Hari won in 2008). Indeed, I’m not too modest to point out that my Telegraph blog was long-listed for the Orwell Prize for blogging. However, I won’t be entering this year.
The problem is, the Orwell Prize is administered by the Media Standards Trust, the same body that launched the Hacked Off Campaign. It seems pretty clear to me that the present aims of Hacked Off – namely, to see all of Leveson’s recommendations implemented in full, including the statutory underpinning of a new, independent press regulator – would not have found sympathy with Orwell. Indeed, I don’t see how the Media Standards Trust can, in good conscience, support Hacked Off and continue to invoke Orwell’s good name.
There are three reasons why I believe Orwell would have been against Leveson and Hacked Off.
First, he was a passionate supporter of press freedom. You don’t have to look very far for evidence of this – the lost preface to Animal Farm, entitled “The Freedom of the Press”, is published on the Orwell Prize’s website. Among the many passages in this piece that indicate how Orwell would have felt about the statutory underpinning of the press, the following leaps out: “Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time)…” (That’s a reference to Orwell’s own role as a propagandist for the BBC’s Eastern Service during the Second World War.)
Supporters of Leveson will dispute whether his recommendations do, in fact, grant the “power of censorship” to a government department. After all, the proposal is simply that Ofcom should be granted the power to “certify” the new press regulator and, if a sufficiently large number of newspapers and magazines refuse to submit to it’s jurisdiction, have the power to compel them to abide by the new regulator’s Code of Practice. Does that really amount to granting a government department the “power of censorship”? Well, yes, it does, once you factor in that the head of Ofcom is appointed by the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Truth – or, rather, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Never mind the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument – that once a statute has been passed granting Parliament limited power over a press regulator it would be a small matter to amend that statute to increase that power. The Leveson Bill being proposed by Hacked Off would, by itself, give Maria Miller considerable influence over the new regulator. Anyone who doubts whether she’d use that power to advance her own political interests or those of her party need only look at her recent behaviour.
So far, the debate about Leveson has focused on “statutory underpinning”, but he has made other, equally sinister recommendations – recommendations that Hacked Off is full square behind. I’m thinking of his proposal that the new regulator should be “granted the power” to hear complaints from “third parties”, that is, “a representative group affected by the alleged breach, or a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information”, and that the regulator should be able to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting in “the spirit of equalities legislation”. (These are the clauses Fleet Street’s current editors have a problem with, in addition to those clauses dealing with statutory underpinning.)
If these recommendations are taken up by the new regulator – whether or not an Act of Parliament is passed – they will have a chilling effect on press freedom. Together, they constitute a gold-embossed invitation to the self-appointed guardians of various beleaguered minorities to bombard the regulator with endless complaints about articles in which this or that victim group has, in their eyes, been unfairly treated. The regulator will feel obliged to take these complaints seriously and that means passing them on to the editor of the offending newspaper or magazine who will, in turn, pass them on to the transgressing journalist. Said hack will then have to spend days – even weeks – piecing together a defence in case the complaint is upheld and their career ruined. Faced with such a prospect, it will be a brave journalist who risks writing anything remotely controversial about any subject likely to foul afoul of these busy bodies – immigration, multi-culturalism, gay marriage, etc.
In his extensive writings on free speech, Orwell repeatedly made the point that self-censorship posed a greater threat to genuine independence of mind than state censorship. “In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face,” he wrote in ‘The Freedom of the Press’. He goes on:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. … Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Orwell leaves the reader in no doubt that the “orthodoxy” he’s referring to is that of the Left-wing intelligentsia. The above passage follows a discussion of the Left’s unwillingness to tolerate any criticism of Stalin – one of the reasons Animal Farm was rejected by four publishers – and in ‘Writers and Leviathan’ Orwell is even more explicit: “[A]t any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and sometimes means cutting one’s income in half for years on end. Obviously, for about fifteen years past, the dominant orthodoxy, especially among the young, has been ‘left’.”
The cultural dominance of what Orwell called “the Bloomsbury highbrow” was bad enough in the 1940s and, if anything, is even more pronounced today, thanks to the BBC. But imagine how much worse it would be if the Left was given the power to enforce its doctrinal red lines through the mechanism of a new press regulator?
There’s no doubt that this power would be exploited by the Left-wing thought police. Take the rejoicing among various feminist groups over Leveson’s censorious remarks about Page 3. On the day his report was published, a collective of four wimmins groups – Eaves, End Violence Against Women, Equality Now, and Object and Turn Your Back on Page 3 – issued a triumphalist press release quoting the following passage: “[The] Page 3 tabloid press often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women generally, and that there was a tendency to sexualise and demean women…”
What was the good judge’s solution to this iniquitous state of affairs? Why, to empower the above groups to complain to the new regulator, of course: “[What] is clearly required is that any such regulator has the power to take complaints from representative women’s groups…”
Cue much rejoicing among the self-appointed tribunes of half the human race.
My second reason for saying Orwell would have been opposed to a Leveson Act is his dislike of the “Europeanized intelligentsia”. Is there a better phrase to sum up the leading lights of the Hacked Off Campaign – men such as Professor Brian Cathcart, Dr Evan Harris and Hugh Tomlinson QC? In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, Orwell wrote that the most salient fact about England’s liberal elite was “their severance from the common culture of the country”. He goes on: “In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” When I read this, I immediately thought of the films of Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant, with their sniggering superiority to everything that is quintessentially English, from the simple country vicar to Horse and Hound.
Few can doubt that the main target of Hacked Off – and Brian Leveson himself – is the tabloid press. It’s not just Page 3 they have in their sights, but kiss-and-tell stories, celebrity exposés – anything that offends against their over-developed sense of propriety. And there’s more than a pinch of snobbery in their antipathy to “the common culture of the country”, a snobbery that was repeatedly on display during the Leveson hearings. Robert Jay QC did everything but hold his nose when cross-examining Paul Dacre and Leveson himself occasionally let his disdain for the tabloids and their defenders show, such as the moment he snapped at Michael Gove, telling him he needed no lessons from the likes of him, thank you very much.
What the proponents of statutory press regulation particularly dislike about England’s “common culture” is its lowness – the vulgarity of ordinary people, their manners and habits. Orwell summed up this quality in another passage in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’:
One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.
That pretty much sums up why those who want to “clean up” the press disapprove of tabloids and their readers.
This brings me to my third and final reason why Orwell wouldn’t have been on the side of the anti-tabloid campaigners – his deep-seated, almost spiritual affinity with the “common people” and, for want of a better phrase, their “Page 3” culture.
In ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, he actually sings the praises the News of the World – he describes it as one of the great pleasures of a typical Sunday afternoon, alongside roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, a nice cup of tea and a well-lit fire. But I’m not thinking of this essay, so much as ‘The Art of Donald McGill’ in which he celebrates the “overwhelming vulgarity”, the “smuttiness”, the “ever-present obscenity” of sea-side postcards. “There is no sign in them of any attempt to induce an outlook acceptable to the ruling class,” he writes.
What he loves about McGill’s work is that it appeals to the Sancho Panza in all of us rather than the Don Quixote – “your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul”. In his summing up of this inner devil, he could easily be describing a typical Sun reader: “His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures.”
What Orwell says of sea-side postcards and their “worm’s-eye view of life” could equally apply to the present-day tabloids – “Like the music halls, they are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue” – and he leaves us in no doubt that he regards this “common culture” as an important bulwark against the censorious, puritanical streak of our would-be governors and regulators:
I never read…Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.
It’s not hard to imagine the same sound coming from the peanut gallery when Leveson solemnly announced his findings last November.
That Orwell would have joined in this chorus is indisputable. His dislike of high-mindedness, piety, sanctimony, snobbery – all the vices of the Left-wing intelligentsia – is a constant theme running through his work. Anyone familiar with his essays – in particular, his views on press freedom, the “boiled rabbits of the left” and the common people of England – can be in no doubt that he would have summoned all his powers as a journalist to pour vitriol on the panjandrums behind the Hacked Off Campaign. For the Media Standards Trust to give out a journalism prize in his name, given it’s close association with this lobby group, is a disgrace to his memory. They should rename it the Beatrice Webb Prize or the H.G. Wells Prize and stop traducing the name of the finest journalist this country has ever produced.
Journalists Against Free Speech by John Tierney, City Journal, Autumn 2019
‘The Ideology of Censorship,’ Bo Winegard, Cory J Clark, Ethan Gunnel, unpublished manuscript, June 2019
Recent work has suggested that Liberals have sacred values about protecting low status groups and thus are particularly prone to bias against any information that portrays those groups unfavorably. In a preregistered study (n = 559), we tested whether Liberals would support more censorship of information that portrays low status groups unfavorably (that men evolved to be better leaders than women, that Islam is violent and incites terrorism, and that white people score higher on intelligence tests than black people) than similar information that portrays high status groups unfavorably (that women evolved to be better leaders than men, that Christianity is violent and incites terrorism, and that black people score higher on intelligence tests than white people). The results very clearly supported predictions. Liberals consistently displayed double standards in their censorship preferences such that they desired to censor information that portrays low status groups unfavorably more than information that portrays high status groups unfavorably. Moderates and Conservatives supported more similar levels of censorship regardless of whether the information was favorable toward relatively high or low status groups, but Conservatives did display a small preference for censoring Christian violence over Islamic violence. Exploratory analyses also revealed that Millennials might be slightly more in support of censorship than Generation X in general, but Baby Boomers’ censorship support generally fell between that of Generation X and Millennials.
SIR ROGER SCRUTON battled the Thought Police behind the Iron Curtain as a young man. Now he says they’ve come for him in Britain after he was wrongly accused of making racist slurs by Roger Scruton, Daily Mail, 30th June 2019
We need a word for destructive group outrage by Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg Opinion, 23rd May 2019
Police detain man holding a blank poster in central square in Uralsk, Akipress.com, 7th May 2019
RIP Culture War Thread by Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex, 22nd February 2019
Shame Storm by Helen Andrews, First Things, January 2019
‘Trigger warning: empirical evidence ahead‘, W.B. Bellet, J.P. Jones, R.J. McNally, Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, December 2018
Trigger warnings notify people of the distress that written, audiovisual, or other material may evoke, and were initially used to provide for the needs of those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since their inception, trigger warnings have become more widely applied throughout contemporary culture, sparking intense controversy in academia and beyond. Some argue that they empower vulnerable individuals by allowing them to psychologically prepare for or avoid disturbing content, whereas others argue that such warnings undermine resilience to stress and increase vulnerability to psychopathology while constraining academic freedom. The objective of our experiment was to investigate the psychological effects of issuing trigger warnings.
Nuance: A love story: My affair with the Intellectual Dark Web by Meghan Daum, Medium, 24th August 2018
The New York Times comes out against free speech by Larry Sanger, Quillette, 4th July 2018
Assaults on free speech are led by the left by David Aaronovitch, The Times, 14th June 2018
Can things be both popular and silenced? by Scott Alexander, Slatestarcodex.com, 23rd May 2018
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”.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. Brilliantly Anticipated Today’s Illiberal Movement to Ban Hate Speech by Wesley Yang, The Tablet, 8th January 2018
Planet of Cops by Freddie DeBoer, fredrikdeboer.com, 17th May 2017
Language and the Lunatic Fringe by Doris Lessing, The New York Times, 26th June 1992