De-platforming, Twitter mobs and character assassination: are we fed up yet?

Carolyn Moynihan
May 6, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Sir Roger Scruton and Dr Camille Paglia are at first sight an unlikely pair: although they are both ageing figures in the world of arts and ideas, he is a conservative Englishman knighted for his services to philosophy, teaching and public education, who lives with his wife on a farm. She is an American professor and sexual controversialist with a lesbian relationship behind her, who identifies as transgender but manages to offend even the trans community with her singular views.

That is how Paglia happens to be in the news right now, at the same time as Scruton - for roughly the same reason: speech crimes. Or rather, thought crimes. But both, almost surprisingly, seem to have more public defenders than critics. Are people getting sick of Twitter mobs and Instagram character assassination?

Paglia's story was told last week by The Atlantic. A tenured professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught for more than 30 years, she was due to give a lecture on campus titled "Ambiguous Images: Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art" (a fairly typical Paglia theme).

An alert gender non-binary student sparked a protest to the University administration on discrimination grounds. They wanted Paglia de-platformed at her own university because of her views on campus sexual assault and transgenderism. Regarding assault, Paglia has openly and often expressed exasperation with female university students depending on "authority figures" for protection, and being able to bring a complaint of rape months after an event. The students cited a recent interview in which Paglia said:

"They're college students and they expect that a mistake that they might make at a fraternity party and that they may regret six months later or a year later, that somehow this isn't ridiculous? To me, it is ridiculous that any university ever tolerated a complaint of a girl coming in six months or a year after an event. If a real rape was committed go frigging report it …"

She also questions the transgender trend, and whether all cases are genuine.

A student commented: "As a survivor of sexual assault, I would never feel comfortable taking a class with someone who stated that& Perhaps this is an 'opinion,' but it's a dangerous one, one that propagates rape culture and victim-blaming. For this and other reasons, I find her place as an educator at this university extremely concerning and problematic."

In a reversal of institutional attitudes earlier in her career, however, university authorities refused to cancel Paglia's lecture but offered to arrange a talk-back after it. Paglia said that she would not stay for the talk-back. In the event, dissenting students were allowed into the lecture as long as seating was available, while others remained in the lobby. Thirty to forty minutes into the lecture the fire alarm went off and the building - where other classes were being held as well - was evacuated. Students outside chanted "We believe survivors, trans lives matter."

According to The Atlantic, a number of staff support Paglia's place in the university, and the need to protect free expression was spelled out in a long statement by the university's President David Yager, who said in part:

Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from one another's--especially those that are controversial--can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence. That open interchange of opinions and beliefs includes all members of the UArts community: faculty, students and staff, in and out of the classroom. We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures.

What did the activists think of that? An online petition demands that "Yager must apologize for his wildly ignorant and hypocritical letter." But its first demand is: "Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the University must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault."

Clearly, UArts has its work cut out for it when it comes to free speech.

Roger Scruton wasn't giving a public lecture when he got into trouble recently. He was merely responding to a request from the left-wing New Statesman - for which he was once a wine columnist ‑‑ for an interview This followed his appointment to be the unpaid chair of a government commission concerned with beautifying built environments (beauty is one of Sir Roger's great themes) and the republication of some of his 50 books.

He thought, said his friend Douglas Murray in The Spectator, that the discussion with George Eaton was to be about his books. But:

The lunchtime before the resulting interview's publication, Eaton declared on Twitter that 'the government adviser and philosopher Roger Scruton has made a series of outrageous remarks', and included a link to the interview. The supposed offences were listed with salivation. Scruton was alleged to have talked outrageously about 'Hungarian Jews'. He was alleged to have been racist about 'the Chinese'. He was alleged to have described 'Islamophobia' as 'a propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue'. He had described accusations of anti-Semitism against Viktor Orban as 'nonsense' and talked of Muslim 'tribes'. Outrage and resignation calls soon followed. The perfect Twitter storm had been started.

Politicians and editors denounced his "bigoted" views and called for his resignation; within five hours he had been sacked from his new job. Eaton posted a picture of himself on Instagram knocking back champagne and boasting about getting "right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser." This was later deleted.

None of the public figures who rushed to appease the Twitter mob bothered to check the accuracy of the interview, but when the tape was released publicly, quite a different picture emerged: Scruton giving carefully considered answers to questions that, in retrospect, seem to have had the sole aim of provoking "incriminating" quotes; answers that no reasonable person should find racist, anti-semitic or homophobic, even if they disagreed with them. Scruton explained his most contentious remarks in a Spectator piece titled, "An apology for thinking". Those who had cast the first stones against him started issuing half-hearted apologies.

Last week New Statesman's public editor Peter Wilby addressed criticisms of Eaton's article and Instagram post, conceding that the latter was insulting and that "most of Scruton's comments on Muslims, Orbán and anti-Semitism were more thoughtful and nuanced than those highlighted by Eaton." Though defending Eaton against the charge of entrapment, he did suggest the NS should ask itself: "What is the aim of an Encounter with a public figure? Is it to explore the subject's thinking and give readers some insight into opinions with which they may expect to disagree? Or is it to elicit "outrageous" comments that will create controversy?"

The role of social media can't be overlooked. Says Murray (and Wilby agrees):

"For generations, interviewers have sought to make mischief with quotes - but before, they tended not to result in people being fired before teatime…

"Our world is replete with complex matters that need discussing. We need philosophers, thinkers and even politicians of courage to help us find our way through this. We live in the age of character assassination. What we now desperately need is a counter-revolution based on the importance of individuals over mobs, the primacy of truth over offence, and the necessity of free-thought over this bland, dumb and ill-conceived uniformity."

Camille Paglia is among a growing list of public figures who would agree with that.