It sometimes happens that a new discipline begins to be practiced before it is officially named. This has occurred recently with the widespread attacks—on campuses, on the streets, and even in legislative bodies—against individuals who have been determined to express or even to entertain heterodox opinions. The process is remarkable for its swiftness, its ferocity, and its icy disregard for protocol, customary procedure, and such quaint scruples as due process or evidentiary rigor.
Over the years, we have regularly had occasion to mention and lament this modern version of witch-hunting, in the unfolding of which reputations and careers are destroyed for wearing the wrong sort of shirt, making offhand comments that irk the self-appointed guardians of some designated victim group, or writing something that contravenes the spoken and unspoken consensus of opinion about some newly sensitive issue.
We are happy to report that this practice, active informally for years, at last has “local habitation and a name”: offense archaeology. As far as we know, there are no classes, professorships, or academic majors devoted to the discipline, but such institutional recognition is surely only a matter of time. And besides, who needs academic certification when boots on the ground already make the practice vivid, intimidating, and newsworthy?
The term “offense archaeology” seems to have entered circulation earlier this year when the British journalist and education-industry gadfly Toby Young was appointed to a U.K. university watchdog group. Mr. Young had been a nimble and Tabasco presence on Twitter, where his politically incorrect observations won him a wide and amused following but also the consternation of the constitutionally offended. When his government appointment was announced, his articles and Twitter feed were scrutinized for impermissible remarks and attitudes, and he was pilloried and then sacked.
The latest example of offense archaeology involves a figure much higher up the intellectual food chain, the English philosopher, novelist, and public intellectual Sir Roger Scruton. Last month, Sir Roger was appointed to advise the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as the unpaid chairman of a new public body to champion beautiful buildings. As the British journalist James Delingpole reported, the “leftist whinge brigade” instantly wheeled into action, employing the same hysterical tactics it used with such success against Toby Young. Even as we write, Sir Roger’s voluminous writings and public presentations are being excavated. Politically incorrect phrases are unearthed, torn from their original context, and passed like antique shards in front of the tremulous outrage meter of the Left.
As of this writing, it is not clear whether the campaign against Sir Roger will succeed. The usual nonentities in Parliament and in the press have eagerly joined in the attack against him. The Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Gwynne, sniffed, “Nobody holding [the views that Scruton holds] has a place in modern democracy. The prime minister needs to finally show some leadership and sack Scruton with an investigation into how he was appointed in the first place.” Another MP said, “With every passing hour it becomes clear that Roger Scruton has a history of making offensive comments. It beggars belief that he passed a vetting process.”
It must be said that Roger Scruton’s work offers a target-rich environment for the bullies. On subjects ranging from fox hunting and sexuality to the nature of Islam and what counts as good art, his work is a compendium of against-the-grain attitudes and arguments. A generation ago these would have been regarded as traditional Tory opinions. But today, what is more verboten than that? Sir Roger, it should also be said, happens to be one of the most brilliant, articulate, and wide-ranging intellectual figures in the Anglosphere, a man of incandescent intelligence, aesthetic sensitivity, and political courage. It is worth pausing to underscore the courage. In the 1980s, he worked tirelessly and at great personal peril behind the Iron Curtain to help those fighting against the totalitarian jackboot of Communist tyranny. All this makes his attackers appear faintly ridiculous to everyone but themselves, but not, alas, any less virulent.
To date, Sir Roger has responded to the preposterous assault against him in two table-turning ways. First, he issued a statement declaring, “I have been offended and hurt by suggestions I am anti-Semitic or in any way ‘Islamophobic.’ ” If the issue is feeling offended, then two can play at that game. And we’d like to add for the record that we, too, are deeply offended by such moronic, partisan attacks against a distinguished, public-spirited individual. What sort of redress are we entitled to? What high horse may we mount?
Sir Roger’s second response is more amusing and potentially more fruitful. Instead of apologizing for his past statements, he has embraced them. Moreover, he and his assistants are in the process of making a compendium of potentially “offensive” things he has said or written so that his would-be inquisitors may understand and exploit the full spectrum of his obloquy. “Roger has decided,” one reads on his personal website,
to collect as many of his outrageous remarks as he can discover, so as to include them in a folder, to appear on this site. His opinions on many topics diverge shockingly from those of The Guardian, and it would be very helpful to his critics to be provided with the necessary evidence, together with snippets of the more easily digestible arguments, since those too will be proof of crime. Topics such as hunting, marriage, pop music, Israel, sex, gender, identity and the nation have provided Roger with such opportunities for criminal thinking that we are sure we will be able to provide our readers with a bulging folder of charges. This will save Roger’s critics a lot of unnecessary trouble and serve to brighten their lives with a sense of their own righteousness.
We suspect that this proleptic gambit will be effective in embarrassing his tormentors, though whether it will also disarm them is as yet uncertain.
The practice of offense archaeology dramatizes a number of troubling questions about the status of free speech, open debate, and, indeed, the nature of our common life together in a polity that once gloried in championing its commitment to tolerance and rational disputation. Sir Roger is fond of quoting a famous passage from the second chapter of John Stuart Mill’s 1859 manifesto On Liberty: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion,” Mill wrote, “is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
As Sir Roger has noted, Mill’s argument is not the last word about the dynamics of free speech. But it is assuredly a vital first word. It used to be that in civilized discourse, one would avoid giving offense where one could. The politically correct imperative today, on the contrary, enjoins one always to take offense if one can. “There are now,” Scruton wrote in “The Art of Taking Offence,” an article for The Spectator last August,
experts in the art of taking offence, indeed whole academic subjects, such as “gender studies,” devoted to it. You may not know in advance what offence consists in—politely opening a door for a member of the opposite sex? Thinking of her sex as “opposite”? Thinking in terms of “sex” rather than “gender”? Using the wrong pronoun? Who knows. We have encountered a new kind of predatory censorship, a desire to take offence that patrols the world for opportunities without knowing in advance what will best supply its venom. As with the puritans of the seventeenth century, the need to humiliate and to punish precedes any concrete sense of why.
Scruton goes on to recall the case of the Conservative Party politician Boris Johnson, who sparked outrage last summer when, in the process of defending a woman’s right to wear a burka, he observed that a woman wearing one resembles a letterbox. The problem for those crying foul, Scruton observed, is that a burka-clad person does resemble a letterbox, just as a “man in white tie resembles a penguin or a woman in feathers resembles a chicken.” Reality counts for something.
There are two takeaways from the burka-and-Boris episode. One involves the panicked pusillanimity of the official class. Factota from the Prime Minister on down instantly jettisoned Johnson and ran for cover, trembling in the corner lest the outrage brigade accuse them of similar torts against the gods of political correctness.
The second takeaway brings us to a fundamental question about the nature of our society. “We live,” Scruton wrote, “in a face-to-face society, in which strangers look each other in the eye, address each other directly, and take responsibility for what they say. This custom is not just a fashion. It is deeply implanted in us by a thousand-year-old religious and legal tradition, by the Enlightenment conception of what citizenship means, and by a literary and artistic culture that tells us that we are in everything duty bound to see the other as on equal terms with the self. Being face to face with strangers is at the root of our political freedom.” That being the case, who really has legitimate grounds for being offended when someone turns his back (or covers her face) in the public square, thus directly challenging a basic tenet of our society?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 1
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