BBC Radio 4 Point of View - The Witch Hunt Culture - 2 December 19

The witch-hunt culture.

Three years ago the distinguished biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, recipient of the Nobel Prize, Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the jewels in the crown of British science, made a casual remark, during a speech at a conference of science journalists, which seemed to imply that women and men might not be equally suited to a scientific career. The remark was tweeted, and the mob got to work on it. Very soon Sir Tim found himself forced out of his position as honorary Professor at University College London, reprimanded by the Royal Society, hounded in the press, and subjected to a hate campaign on social media. Eventually he and his wife (a scientist of the same rank as himself) left the country to work in Japan.

            This deplorable episode is one of many, in which a person’s character, career and livelihood have been attacked in punishment for a thought-crime. Social media make matters worse, of course. But it would be wrong to put the blame wholly on the ease with which malice and ignorance can now extend their reach across the Internet. We must also take account of political correctness, which both promotes hatred and also excuses it.

            On the surface political correctness seems like a way of standing up for victims, be they women, minorities, gays, trans-sexuals or whatever. In reality, however, it is about creating victims. It sets out to repudiate the hierarchies and distinctions embedded in our traditional way of life. People in the grip of political correctness are in search of the one who has sown the hatred and rejection that they sense all around. They are experts in taking offence, regardless of whether offence has been given. They refrain from addressing the arguments of the one whom they accuse, and when they are offended by a remark they do not hesitate to take it entirely out of context, so as to dress it up as a crime. As judge, prosecutor and jury they are the voice of an unquestionable righteousness. Their goal is to intimidate their opponents, by exposing them to public humiliation. Like the Nazis and communists whose methods they copy, they impose their worldview through fear.

            This is what we see when students deny a ‘platform’ to people whose arguments they don't want to listen to. It is what we encounter in the name-calling labels – racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia – which are designed to silence any who might wish to defend some old and questionable practise, as Sir Tim seemed to be defending the view of the laboratory as a male preserve.

            It is in this way that the disease of Islamophobia was invented, in order to preclude all discussion of the most important issue facing European societies today. Ordinary people wonder whether the God of Islam permits the crimes that are committed in his name. But they dare not pursue the matter, for fear of attracting the charge of Islamophobia. The question that cannot be asked is like a festering wound, filling the mind with suspicions. And in this way political correctness stirs up fear in the place of reconciliation. By turning doubt about Islam into a thought-crime, it recasts legitimate anxieties as acts of aggression, and lays at the door of Islam’s critics the crimes that are committed in Islam’s name.

            Similar things have happened with the ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ labels. The isms and phobias have been used in order to put some complex matter beyond discussion, so that only one perspective can be publicly confessed to, namely the perspective that is politically correct. Moreover, because political correctness deals in thought crimes, it closes the gap between accusation and guilt. In the world of political correctness there is no presumption of innocence, but only a hunger for targets.

            But I don’t put the blame only on political correctness. There is a far deeper and more durable feature of the human condition that comes to the surface in the witch-hunt, and that is the feature known as scapegoating. The French philosopher René Girard has argued that natural societies are subject to powerful rivalries as people strive to match each other’s powers and possessions, and to triumph in the fight for ascendancy. Such societies risk being torn apart by what Girard calls ‘mimetic desire’, that is, the desire of one person to enjoy the rewards received by another.

            The solution is to find the enemy within, the one who does not really belong in the social order and who is therefore not entitled to vengeance against it. Such people can be quickly stripped of protection by the mob. They might be accused of necromancy, incest or parricide; of having no family to protect them; of pretending to be king. They are a source of pollution like Oedipus, to be cast out from the city. They can be killed with impunity, or left to die. By combining against them we take revenge for the offences we have suffered; for they, in a mysterious way, were the cause. They become sacrificial victims, whose death at our hands will rid us of the pollution that radiates from their malign presence.

            The story has been repeated down the centuries. It is the story of Oedipus, and also of Christ. It is the story of the millenarian panics of the Middle Ages, of the witch-hunts of 17th-century Massachusetts, of the centuries old persecution of the Jews. In every period when the bonds of society weaken, and social trust gives way to mutual suspicion, the scapegoat mechanism returns, to restore a threatened sense of unity. An example is before our eyes, in the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian Pakistani woman accused of blaspheming against the Holy Koran and now living in fear for her life. Television images of her hysterical accusers show a unity of purpose that surpasses anything that could survive in day-to-day life. They scream for her blood, since it is the food of their togetherness.

            Girard believed that Christ showed the way out of the scapegoat mechanism when he prayed for those who nailed him to the cross, saying ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ But there is little evidence that Christ’s example brought scapegoating to an end. We too have recourse to it, when besieged by social resentment. The sense of being excluded, of wandering outside society in search of an ideal community of belonging – this is a familiar modern experience. And political correctness is one form that it takes, for it provides a short cut to blame, a way to direct one’s frustration at an enemy, and to group together in destroying him. A society in the grip of political correctness is on the look-out for the scapegoat, who will heal its divisions by showing that it is he, not they, who is the cause of them.

            So how should you respond to this mechanism, when it comes your way? The question arose for me a week or two ago when, being appointed to an unpaid government position, I became a news item. At once I found myself accused of every crime in the ledger of political correctness, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism included. As a philosopher I consider propositions in the light of their truth, not their political correctness. Hence I have not bothered to forestall the cultural vigilantes who sift through our words in search of heresy. People who are not in the habit of thinking can easily take sentences out of context and believe that they are discovering a thought-crime. So what, I have always thought, that’s their problem, not mine. No, said the Guardian, it is not our problem, but yours. At the worst moment, reading about the dreadful things said about me by people who seem to have no knowledge of what I have actually written or said, I felt myself standing in an electric storm of hatred and was tempted to hate in my turn.

            But then a concerned friend reminded me of the beautiful verse in the Koran which says that the servants of the all-compassionate one, when challenged by the ignorant, speak peaceably – qâlou salâman. They reach for dialogue and argument, and open the way to respect. This is surely the correct response to the emerging witch-hunt culture. We must speak peaceably, even to our accusers. We must avoid the name-calling, shrug off the ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ when they are heaped on us, confess to our true faults and robustly deny the invented ones. Most importantly, we should venerate truth, and ignore political correctness, which is not the cure to our conflicts but the ultimate source of them.

 

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