26 November 2015

Stone Him!

Those who express the wrong views must be punished

by John Watson


One commentator has written that the debate about dropping David Starkey from the Cambridge University fund-raising video is not about free speech.  I’m not sure that is completely right but it is probably fair to say that free speech is not the main issue.  The real point is quite a different one.

Let’s start with some background.  David Starkey is a very distinguished historian and a well-known expert on the Tudors.  He is also a private individual and has views which some  find offensive on a number of subjects.  He was invited by Cambridge to participate in a video which forms part of a campaign to raise £2 billion for the University.  His inclusion was considered so offensive by some that it prompted a campaign to have the video withdrawn and an open letter was circulated by Malachi McIntosh (director of English at King’s) and others, urging this course.  Staff, undergraduates, postgraduates, alumni etc were invited to sign it.  Many did.  Sarah Dillon, an English lecturer who had appeared in the video with Starkey, asked to be edited out.  In the face of all this the video was withdrawn, but pressure is now being put on the University to follow that with an apology to its staff, its alumni and its students.

So why did so many people feel so strongly?  What was it that they felt should bar David Starkey from participation in this fund-raising exercise?  Judging from the terms of the letter itself, there are two issues.  The first, of which a number of examples are given, is that he holds and has expressed the “belief that members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated.”  The second is that he has made sexist statements about the value of female researchers.

This isn’t the place to debate whether his views are correct – although one can imagine that Darwin might have supported the first of them.  Perhaps it isn’t just the views anyway.  Perhaps it is as much the acerbic way in which they were expressed that has given offence.  Be that as it may, the point is surely that when Starkey was asked to participate in the video he was not asked as a geneticist or because of his views on the value of female researchers but as a historian, and no one denies that he is a very eminent one.  What on earth have his personal views on other subjects got to do with it?

At this stage, and I hope she will not feel picked on, we should turn to the position of Sarah Dillon.  Asked to appear on the same “platform” with David Starkey, she was unwilling to do so, not as I understand it because he was not sufficiently eminent but because his views on other matters made him a pariah – a bad person, someone one would not wish to be associated with.  Presumably a much worse person than Sarah Dillon herself.

One cannot but envy Sarah her self-belief.  She must be a quite exceptional individual.  Most of us, looking back on our lives, see some things of which we are ashamed.  Perhaps there were times when we were inconsiderate, vicious, unkind, mean or just plain nasty.  Perhaps we took credit when we should not have or passed by on the other side when we could have helped.  Hopefully there are some good things as well but it would be a brave man or woman who is confident that he or she is really much better than someone else.  Well, I’m sure that Sarah has good grounds for thinking herself a wonderful human being but I do have some doubts about whether the same can be said for everyone who appended their signature to that open letter.  No doubt there are sadists among them, thugs, wife beaters, liars, thieves hypocrites and all the rest; yet they have all signed a letter indicating that they would not want to be associated with someone who is so bad that they have expressed views with which they disagree.  What a crowd of Pharisees they must be.

“Hold the right political opinion on sensitive matters and you are automatically better than someone who disagrees with you.”  Yes, that’s quite a statement.  It involves blanking out who a person is and looking at them in terms of one test only – in this case their political views, but of course it could be their race or their sex.

The Starkey affair is one in a series where people have been ostracised for their views.  In many of them, that of Germaine Greer for example, the most important issue is free speech and that is what people talk about.  Where that isn’t the case, however, we get the opportunity to look further under the stone and what lives there is not particularly pleasant.  Take Tim Hunt and his famous after-dinner speech.  A man makes jokes you do not like?  Stone him!  Take Starkey.  A man has views you do not like?  Stone him!  A man is black?  Stone him!  It’s a woman in a man’s world?  Stone her!

Cambridge University really should be able to do better than this.

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