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Culture Wars and Epistemic Modesty

30 Nov 2020

A few days ago, there was a rather curious incident at my alma mater that popped up onto the national headlines: that of a teacher being dismissed, supposedly due to his views being out of line with the “radical feminist orthodoxy” (whatever that actually means). The reaction and backlash was near spontaneous - hundreds of members of the Eton community signed a petition opposing his dismissal, and even the likes of Steven Pinker came forward with a letter to the Provost arguing against the dismissal and for “the honest and rigorous discussion of ideas”. The letter by the teacher, Mr Knowland, only fanned the flames.

Effectively, his side of the story went as follows: he had produced “a lecture on the theme of masculinity for the Perspectives course”. This is a lecture series at Eton designed to get students to “think critically and independently about controversial issues that are the subject of ongoing public debate”. In this, he had made the case that “men and women differ psychologically and not all of those differences were socially constructed”, as well as arguing that “the current radical feminist orthodoxy [insists] that there’s something fundamentally toxic about masculinity”. Having been asked by the headmaster to remove this lecture video from the course, he did so - but he refused to take it down from his personal Youtube account because he was not “given a clear reason”. He goes on to outline his belief “in free speech” and opposition to the “cancel culture” that has now come to Eton.

On first glance, this seems like a classic free speech culture war issue. As everyone no doubt acknowledges, there are limits on free speech - after all, why is asking a hitman to assassinate someone a crime? You don’t yourself engage in the murder, and yet we consider this an acceptable limit on speech because we see that this particular act of speech has consequences. So the question isn’t whether we should limit it, as much as where we draw the line, especially in an educational establishment? The student petition suggested that with “at least 41 academic citations”, “the ideas in [Mr Knowland’s] video [were presented] with as much academic nuance and sensitivity as could ever be reasonably expected”, and did not “[step] out of the realms of academic debate and into genuinely discriminatory private opinion”.

The Limits of Speech

Unfortunately, this line of argumentation falls short in several key respects. Firstly, the actual analytical rigour of the video is itself lacking, such that even as a pedagogical tool its value is questionable. Secondly, this fails to recognise the dynamics of platforming content when there is a time constraint, as there is in the Perspectives course. Thirdly, it ignores the actual reason for dismissal - that is, the responsibilities and rights of employees in their private lives.

On the first, it is hopefully clear to most that citation counts are no measure of academic or analytical rigour. Indeed, anyone who has watched the video in full will have noticed the abundant use of rather informal anecdotes and assertions, in lieu of any attempt at a literature review of the field. There is also a certain motte-and-bailey feeling to the whole thing, insofar as the video contains claims ranging from the reasonably uncontroversial to downright illogical claims made on the basis of pop culture references to the Avengers. Secondly, we need to appreciate the context in which this occurred. The Perspectives course, at least when I did it, involved doing a lecture on a different topic every week. That means it is more than likely this would have been the only lecture the boys are exposed to regarding gender and its role in modern society. It’s not immediately apparent to me that spending most of that time on content on the grounds that it is non-mainstream is a good use of the lecture series, especially when it is so insufficiently substantiated.

To go on a brief but important tangent, one of my favourite television shows of all time is The Newsroom. One of the most striking quotes from the show is this: “bias towards fairness means that if the entire congressional Republican caucus were to walk in to the House and propose a resolution stating that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with Democrats and Republicans Can’t Agree on Shape of Earth”. Not all stories have two sides. And when they do, those two sides may not be equally credible. As President Obama noted in a recent interview, “if we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work”. The idea that we should be contributing to an epistemic crisis by having teachers deliberately lend credence to nonsense because it is important to have ideological balance is patently absurd. Consider climate change denial, which is very much a non-mainstream opinion. Climate change is a pertinent issue. And yet I would struggle to see the value in spending an entire Perspectives talk about climate change on arguments for climate change denial, because it represents a view with such weak intellectual foundations and limited academic support that to do so would confer unfounded merit towards these claims. To the extent to which it is important to address climate change denial, it seems incumbent upon educational establishments to do so in fashion that accurately reflects the evidence that exists i.e. to dismiss it and comprehensively refute it, spending most of the talk on the evidence-based disagreements regarding possible solutions.

Many will argue that much of what Mr Knowland was saying isn’t nearly as disprovable as climate change denial - this may well be the case, but that doesn’t change the fact that his lecture basically presents a single perspective. Unless you believe this is the only true or even plausible claim around the role of gender and the patriarchy, this strikes me as just not good enough for a Perspectives talk. But maybe you still aren’t persuaded that the role of Perspectives should be to keep arguments grounded in reality - perhaps it’s really just about finding the most contrarian claims that the boys will disagree with and can thus examine? Having been involved with the Feminism Society at Eton, I am inclined to believe that the vast majority of Etonians do not subscribe to the “radical feminist orthodoxy” that is supposedly so prevalent, making a feminist perspective exactly what would be most provocative. So even in that metric, the contents of this Perspective lecture do not hold up.

As for the third criticism, it is worth noting that Mr Knowland wasn’t dismissed for the initial video. He was dismissed because he refused to take down his video from his personal Youtube channel. I remember the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville - and I remember the doxxing that followed, where the identities of some of those who attended and supported these protests were publicised. In some cases, this resulted in them being dismissed from their place of work. Is this mob justice? Or is this simply the proliferation of information and transparency allowing for an accountability mechanism? I’m not entirely sure myself - but I am pretty certain that if you think it is acceptable for white supremacists to be fired by their employers for attending these rallies in their private lives, you are implicitly conceding that employers can take actions on the basis of a sphere of your life beyond the workplace. And although the sorts of claims made by white supremacists are substantially different from what Mr Knowland was discussing, the principle remains the same. As such, this is not just a generic free speech issue, but one where the external reputation and standing of the school is on the line.

Epistemic Modesty

This brings me on to my most important issue with all of the discourse up to this point. And it is the fact that the litany of complaints and the enormous outrage I have seen so far are almost entirely based on Mr Knowland’s account of what happened. Mr Knowland taught me English in Year 10. He was an excellent teacher, and by all accounts from other students, a good person. So I understand why one’s immediate inclination is that of believing his narrative and consequently of righteous anger. But this hastiness towards judgement is a frankly embarrassing display of epistemic arrogance. Does anyone really think that any school, let alone one that is so often in the public eye, is going to randomly dismiss employees without checking with their legal team? Is it really plausible that this was done without any cause given at all? For a school that has hosted such a wide range of speakers in recent years, including the likes of Sir Roger Scruton, Niall Ferguson and Nigel Biggar, is it that compelling to believe that this plurality of opinions is being stifled in such a public fashion? Perhaps all of these things are happening - but it seemed and still seems prudent to at least wait and get more information.

So it is no surprise that the response from the Provost which came out yesterday has challenged many of Mr Knowland’s claims. It suggests that the specific cause for restricting Mr Knowland’s Youtube channel was not a nefarious one, but simply “a temporary removal” to give time for the school to conduct its full due diligence, given the legal advice received that the video might have “[broken] the Equality Act and the Education Regulations”. He goes on to say that Mr Knowland was asked “on six occasions” to do so, and it was his “persistent refusal to accept a reasonable - and inevitable - instruction”, rather than “the lesson content alone”, that “amounted to gross misconduct which should result in dismissal”.

Let me be clear. Just as we ought not believe everything Mr Knowland says, nor should we take this response at face value. And that is precisely the point. In the eagerness to tie this into a wider narrative around the “woke culture”, many have decided to ignore the messy nuances that inevitably arise as part of any discussion on the limits of speech (especially in an educational context), as well as failing to stop and consider if the information they might have is incomplete. The letter from the Provost shows the dangers of this. And since there is an internal appeals process yet to come, as well as the possibility of a hearing at an employment tribunal, the details we have so far are a very limited fraction of what actually happened - indeed, I am myself unclear on how the video breached the laws cited by the Provost. As Jed Bartlet notes in The West Wing, “every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong. But those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments”. The nature and limits of free speech, the role of teachers, the relations of employers and employees - these are topics that are far too complex even with all the information. And in this case, we don’t have all the information - and so it would behove all of us to be a bit more epistemically modest.

Edit 1: This is honestly a hilarious example of why this stuff matters: turns out Steven Pinker didn’t watch the video before commenting and sending his letter of support…

Edit 2: Here’s a transcript of the video I’ve typed up myself, interspersed with line-by-line refutations of Mr Knowland’s talk (alongside the research that contradicts his claims). Please do point out any errors or inconsistencies in the document.

Edit 3: I have sent a letter to various school officials detailing my views on the issue as an Old Etonian, having now watched and analysed the lecture in the aforementioned document. The gist of my argument there is summarised below, although it tracks much of the commentary above.

  1. The lecture itself is not of the analytical rigour we might expect of a student, let alone a teacher delivering a talk on a controversial issue.
  2. The role of Perspectives is not to simply present an outlandish opinion for its own sake.
  3. The private actions of teachers matter in a way that makes it an acceptable consideration for dismissals.

On the first, There is an overuse of pop culture references and individual anecdotes to prove a broader point, whereas we might expect the discussion of such a complicated social issue to require academic evidence. To the extent to which he does use academic studies, he does so in a very selective fashion, at times misinterpreting the results of academic studies to further his argument. This failure to take stock of the breadth of the academic literature or engage with compelling arguments that disagree with him is not just intellectually dishonest, it sets a bad example by suggesting that we ought to prove our point at the expense of our academic integrity. In many instances within the document, I have provided literature reviews and meta-analyses that give a more comprehensive picture of the state of research. In all those cases, they contradict WSK’s assertions.

Furthermore, he is unhelpfully vague in the claims he makes, providing a less engaging and pedagogically useful experience — what we expect from a talk about the patriarchy paradox is a coherent and comprehensive account of what he thinks the modern conception of patriarchy is and why it is flawed. Instead, he gives us a litany of thinly veiled intimations of biological differences that exist, without explaining how this contradicts the notion that some disparities in gender roles have been socially constructed. This is not helped by his deliberate choice to strawman the most extreme feminist positions, in lieu of a measured account of mainstream feminist perspectives. In fact, his talk is so chock-full of bigoted and homophobic dogwhistles that one almost wonders if he is going beagling. As such, what is presented is not a well-researched and academically sensitive treatment, but one composed of pop culture references, cherrypicked and unrepresentative studies, as well as bigoted dogwhistles, all of which is unfitting for a presentation on a serious, sensitive and complex subject. (See the document for details.)

On the second, the failure of the talk to be in any way educational is not sufficient in and of itself to disqualify it — after all, many have argued that the role of Perspectives is simply to, as its name suggests, provide a different perspective for boys to engage with. But as I explain above, “ideological balance” is an absurd goal - teachers should be presenting views on the basis of the level of epistemic certainty that exists. Nor is it clear that a school with a deputy housemistress tearing down Stonewall posters and decrying gay rights as radical political propaganda is one which has been inundated by the “woke culture”. The opposite would seem more likely, meaning that a feminist presentation would have been far better suited in creating “provocativeness”.

On the third, the arguments I’ve made above regarding the private lives of employees is only exacerbated by the nature of a publicly-scrutinised boarding school like Eton. Teachers at Eton play a pedagogical, pastoral and public role - as such, their actions need to be considered through those three lenses. Was WSK upholding the intellectual standards the school demands? No. Did the video make those facing male-on-male sexual assault or bullying for being gay feel more comfortable coming forward? No. And did this reflect well on a forward-looking and welcoming school? No. So his Youtube video, even on his personal account, demonstrates unequivocally that he has fallen short as an educator, as a person responsible for the wellbeing of the boys and as a representative of the school in the public sphere.

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