Before getting going this week, I want to share the video of my talk at Caius two weeks ago, which is now online. Huge thanks to Professors Arif Ahmed (host) and Partha Dasgupta (interviewer), both for holding the event and arranging for it to be filmed.
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I was surprised when I watched it how well the noise of the protesters outside had been concealed by the fact that Partha, Arif and I all had microphones sending a direct feed to the recording equipment. If you want to get a better idea of what it felt like on the night, watch this clip taken by mobile phone by an audience member at the point when the protesters started banging on the doors. It was surprisingly hard to hold my train of thought during that part, though I was absolutely determined not to stop speaking. I’m not sure I answered the question I’d been asked, though!
I presume that for the protesters, it felt like jolly japes. But personally, I remain angry about how unpleasant it felt from the other side. I’m one of those fortunate women who has never experienced male violence; any woman in that room who has cowered on one side of a door when an angry man whom she knows is willing to use his fists is on the other side will no doubt still be shuddering at the memories the protesters revived. For all that I’m the one who gets called hateful, I know which side of that door the hate was on.
Before the event happened I was commissioned to write an exclusive on it for the Mail on Sunday. Unfortunately, the piece ended up being held, and ran several days later online-only, in Mail+. (This sort of thing happens all the time, it’s nothing sinister. It’s also why I missed an issue of this newsletter; they asked me to delay a couple of days so my words didn’t end up in another publication, an obvious copyright violation but surprisingly common—and then they kept delaying the day it was actually going to appear.) The Mail+ is behind a paywall, but if you open it on mobile and quickly switch to “reader” view, you’ll get to see the text—a tip from a Twitter follower, for which many thanks!
I gather from friends of friends who know them that Pippa and Andrew—the master and senior tutor of Caius, who wrote to all students and fellows to commiserate about the awfulness of having a bigot like me on campus—in my mind they’re now “Pips’n’Andy”—feel that they are the ones who have been treated unfairly in this whole business. It’s incredible: they used their privileged positions within the college hierarchy to insult and defame me; people pushed back against them—and they feel aggrieved?! I had never heard of the concept of psychological projection before Donald Trump ran for the American presidency; now I see it everywhere.
They remind me of Trump in another way too: their sly encouragement to students to react in extreme ways to the presence of someone as terrible as me, combined with (just about) plausible deniability. They believe in free speech, they told the students—but I am “offensive, insulting and hateful”. What on earth did they think the students would do in response to that? (As a counter to that article, I feel I should also share this one, also by a student, but this time one who was actually there.)
It’s like the way Trump spoke out of both sides of his mouth in the run-up to the assault on Capitol Hill: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more,” but also “I know everyone here will soon be marching over to Capitol Hill to peacefully and patriotically have their voices heard.” Trump is the master of this two-faced communication: say what you want to your supporters, but also throw a few crumbs to your critics so that when they push back you can act all aggrieved.
Equally disingenuous was Pippa’s response to her critics. In a reply to Old Caians and other Cambridge graduates who wrote to complain about her actions, she framed the horrible things she said about me, and her encouragement to students to stay away, as her legitimate exercise of free speech. No, Pippa: speech that’s intended to shut other people down to make it impossible to be heard—and let’s be real here; you were encouraging the students to protest, whatever you tell yourself now—that’s not free speech, it’s the “heckler’s veto”.
I’ll say just one more thing about the Caius event (for now, at least!). It’s that Pips’n’Andy didn’t need to say anything about it at all. People are constantly being invited to give talks on all manner of things in Cambridge colleges; senior staff aren’t called on to endorse them all, or even comment on them. If they didn’t feel they could send an email around telling their students to stop being silly about a non-compulsory talk, and reminding them of Cambridge’s pretty good statement on free speech, they didn’t have to send any email of any sort.
So why did they? I speculated in my open letter to them that they are frightened of their students, and I continue to think that. But I also think that they assumed all right-thinking people would agree. They think they’re in the right because they’re good, and therefore I must be bad, and therefore I must be in the wrong, and only bad people could possibly be on my side. They’ve been disabused of that notion by now: I’ve been copied in or forwarded emails sent to them from people they cannot possibly dismiss as bigoted or far-right adjacent, telling them so in as many words.
Even now they could fix all this: I offered in that open letter to meet them personally. I’ve heard nothing. But I have little hope that they will shift their position. They both say they have read my book, and Pippa says she has watched many interviews of me—funny, then, how the only thing they cite is the memeified version of me telling Helen Staniland on “Wine With Women” that I hope the social contagion among teenagers can be limited as much as possible, so as few people as possible are left with irreversible harms by it; and explaining why sex-denialist beliefs are so destructive of other people’s rights that they are a “huge problem in a sane world” and I want as few people as possible to hold them.
As I said in the Caius talk, this is how it works: pick the one thing out of hundreds of hours’-worth of material that you think you can present as outright bigotry and then tag it on to everything I say or do. It’s a silencing, shaming tactic, and I refuse to be silenced or shamed.
The thing is, two senior academics should know this. They should know why free speech matters, and that it’s not just government action that is used to repress it. They should understand something about misinformation, disinformation and outright propaganda. But I think they’re now in a place where they are incapable of changing their mind about me. I just looked up who said one of my favourite quotes, and as usual it’s variously attributed—I had thought it was Christopher Hitchens, but funnily enough he’s not one of the cited possibilities: “You cannot reason a man out of a position he did not reason himself into.”
In last week’s issue I focused on the importance of strong protections for free speech in enabling citizens to gain a fuller understanding of each other’s views. This week, I want to say something about a more commonly cited benefit: the reduction and correction of error. In “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill says the canonical things about this, and they are worth quoting at length:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.
Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.
Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.
I often feel these days that I live in the upside-down, where sex isn’t real and gender stereotypes are; where no man would ever abuse self-ID to harm women or children, but parents are such hateful bigots that schools can routinely withhold information about those children’s trans identification. And with speech, it’s the same. In the upside-down, heterodox speech that does not attract painful consequences can only increase error, because some unspecified cognitive elite has already decided what it is permissible to say, and this has been done on the best possible grounds. That’s what exhortations to “follow the science” mean—and as with so many reductive, three-word soundbites it’s unobjectionable on the face of it. Of course I want to follow the science! I just don’t think that individual scientists, or indeed scientific institutions, magically get things right without a lot of disagreement and dissent along the way.
That’s not to say that everything heterodox is right, of course. On many subjects, unqualified opinion is almost bound to be nonsense (well-known mathematicians and physicists are used to getting “green-ink” letters—nowadays generally by email—claiming to prove something unprovable, such as that the circle can be squared or that they have designed a perpetual-motion machine). More generally, a great deal of everything that is said on any subject isn’t worth hearing. That is true even when there hasn’t been a concerted misinformation campaign, as there has been with sex and gender (you would really have struggled to find someone willing to say something as stupid as “sex is a spectrum” 20 years ago). If you allow all voices to speak, the result is largely cacophony.
It’s not possible to function in an information economy without using cognitive short cuts, and when it comes to a subject on which you’re not expert, which for all of us is nearly everything, these short cuts will include checking whether the source is credentialed, and whether other credentialed people seem to agree with it. Yes, institutional capture means this produces the wrong answer when it comes to gender medicine. But it usually works, and there isn’t really any alternative. There’s no right answer to this, except to say that the price of reducing the likelihood that serious errors become institutionalised and unchallengeable is, as a society, tolerating a fair amount of ultimately useless drivel.
Increasingly, it seems to me that the gender mess and the free-speech mess are inextricably linked. Free speech is the only weapon against a dominant ideology—and for all that hardly anyone actually believes the tenets of gender-identity dogma, those who do, or who are willing to say they do, are currently in the ascendant. The implications of this bizarre belief system, from rapists in women’s jails to the sterilisation of children, would have been front-page news, day in day out, if it weren’t for the success of the “no debate” edict. And if enough people had reflexively and immediately pushed back at such an obvious abrogation of free-speech principles, the ideologues would never have been able to insist on “no debate”.
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