Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The right to be honoured


The journalist Barbara Ellen, writing in the Guardian, has defended Cambridge historian David Starkey, who has come under attack for his racist remarks:

An open letter to the university, signed by hundreds of staff, students and alumni, accuses Starkey of repeatedly making racist statements. It cites his appearance on BBC Newsnight after the summer riots of 2011 in which he said: “A substantial amount of the chavs have become black. The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”

It also cited a more recent interview in the Telegraph in which Starkey said statistics “appeared” to show a black propensity to violence.

A twofer: He insulted all black people, and simultaneously applied an insulting term for the white working class. Ellen protests

Free speech is one of the most precious facets of British society, but here is proof that, for some, it is all too dispensable. The pre-emptive ban is replacing the enriching debate. Nuance and difference are being hounded into the shadows.

How long before society reaches a state of self-monitoring, self-censoring “offence-Stasi”, with everyone on permanent red alert?

That sounds terrible. Starkey was “pre-emptively banned” merely for making perfectly ordinary disparaging remarks about black people. What was he banned from? Appearing as the leading spokesman for one of the world’s most esteemed universities in a promotional fund-raising video. That’s exactly the sort of thing that used to go on in communist police states.

Ellen says this is “a blatant abuse of the right to object” and wonders “why the offenders aren’t invited to debate sensibly with the “offended” on the topics in question”. (“Offended” appears in quotes here, because, of course, the people are only pretending to be offended.) Why should anyone debate with David Starkey, an expert on Tudor England, about black culture, the statistical analysis of crime statistics, or the mass psychology of the modern working class? Just because

Academics are publicly honoured and respected for their intellectual work, but also for the penumbra of their work. This leads them sometimes to be asked to comment on things that they have no particular expertise about. Some few use the opportunity well. Some have the good sense to demur when they don’t know what they’re talking about, rather than shooting off their mouths on national television. No one forced him to comment on the 2011 riots. But if he chooses to talk in an ignorant manner, no matter how sonorous his vowels he has no more right than anyone else to have his remarks treated with respect. And if he uses his position of esteem in academia as platform from which to denigrate minority ethnic and social groups, it is perfectly understandable that those groups and their allies will seek to defend themselves by tearing him down.

This case seems to me even more clear than that of Timothy Hunt, who was famously “hung out to dry” by his university for the sexist joke that he used to open his remarks to a group of women science journalists. While Hunt was  removed from honorary positions, Starkey was only removed from a promotional video.

Intuitively I tend to be a free-speech extremist, so I frequently start in reading about these occurrences with considerable sympathy for the purported victims of PC. And yet, every single event turns out to be, when you find out what happened, so far from the overheated rhetoric of despotism as to make me increasingly suspicious of the political agenda of even the left-wing anti-PC crew. Usually the so-called “infringement of free speech rights” by the PC crusaders consists simply of more speech: public criticism, protest demonstrations. Or the gratuitous withdrawal of honours that were equally gratuitously granted.

There are those who believe that “freedom of speech” not only allows them to insult select subpopulations without fear of prison or loss of employment, but entitles them to be honoured for their contributions.

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