Fighting back against the fake Age of Unreason

Keyboard warriors taking offence on behalf of others led not only to Sir Roger Scruton’s sacking but to Jordan Peterson’s exile from Cambridge

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Jordan Peterson: Stymied by pre-meta-outrage (©Gage Skidmore CC BY-Sa 2.0)

Are you incandescent about the new age of outrage? Or have you, perhaps, been too busy getting worked up about vegan sausage rolls or insensitive emoji?

Wherever you look, righteous indignation is filling the airwaves, swamping the internet and filling frothing newspaper columns. But what’s truly odd about all this fury is not its fever pitch, but how little of it is genuine. Most, you will notice, is meta-outrage, proxy offence taken by self-appointed spokespersons for others, who are piously heralded as the real victims.

Weirder still, if those crudely-categorised “others” aren’t themselves offended, they’re told that they really should be. And so a self-employed thought police scours the world for off-message, behind-the-curve behaviour. Thus, Twitter histories are decocted into nuggets of decontextualised outrage-fodder and peccadilloes of decades past are treated as indistinguishable from present-day mistakes. Yet none of these DIY detectives question the morality of telescoping history. Unless we believe that people really can’t change for the better, and bitterly regret the behaviour of their distant selves, why should someone’s present-day character be torpedoed by its past?

In simpler times, a sincere apology could acknowledge poor judgment, rue the harm done, and draw a firm line. People could forgive, if not necessarily forget.

But in our more cynical age, those now marshalling offence on others’ behalf have no wounds to heal. Words of contrition fall on deliberately deaf ears. There is only one remedy: heads must roll.

So frenzied are these choruses of outrage, so pervasive their clamour, that many institutions now shy away from openly defending their principles, however deeply cherished. The Church, charities, political parties, educational providers, artists, writers — all seem afraid to risk something so valuable as their reputation on something so petty as their beliefs.

Outrage trades highest in the digital sphere, and its most successful trading floor is Twitter. Perversely, and pathetically, this platform has only been available for a dozen years, and only high-profile for five, yet its dominance over ancient institutions — even Parliament — is astounding. Sir Roger Scruton’s dismissal as chairman of a governmental commission devoted to designing better housing for Britain after a fierce Twitterkrieg is described by Toby Young and Sir Roger himself in the previous pages, providing another scalp for the meta-outraged, and another scare for those who believe politics must transcend private beliefs.

Most worryingly, the very theatre of controversial ideas, the university, is falling foul of this practice. For the last 15 years, I have been based at Cambridge, a university that has been no stranger to heretical and iconoclastic thought for more than 800 years and no stranger to attacks in the media.

It had already been around for a quarter of a millennium when manuscripts were replaced by moveable type; it was nearing its octocentenary when the internet connected the world.

But two months ago, the University of Cambridge made headlines for revoking its initial offer of a visiting fellowship (an ad hoc, fixed-term appointment without any teaching duties or research requirements) from the Faculty of Divinity.

Such a volte-face would have been deemed unprofessional in any academic context. But what propelled this story to international news was the subject — Jordan Peterson, a professor in psychology at the University of Toronto, and an outspoken public intellectual.

While there is no question that Peterson’s opinions do not find favour in all quarters, this regrettable episode did not play out as a free speech issue. Instead, Peterson’s appointment was stymied by a hypothetical extrapolation of the outrage that could, perhaps, be felt.

The details in the public domain are scanty. Cambridge University Students Union tweeted its satisfaction that Peterson’s appointment had been rescinded. Minutes later the Faculty of Divinity tweeted a laconic sentence announcing the same “following further review”. Only five days later was the silence broken by the Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, who revealed that a photograph taken during Peterson’s recent world tour had triggered the decision to rescind. While Peterson was in New Zealand, one of the fans who had paid for a photograph with him wore a shirt reading “I’m a proud Islamophobe”.

Toope stated that the “casual endorsement by association of this message was thought to be antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of inter-faith understanding”. Given the horrific massacre later to happen in Christchurch, few will doubt that the photograph is certainly an unhappy juxtaposition.

But three factors are required for this image to have any bearing on Peterson’s fellowship: that he was aware of what the shirt said; for his  posing next to the man to be an endorsement of that man’s beliefs; and for Peterson’s analysis of world religions to be vitiated by an inability to assess Islam impartially.

I know of no evidence that these particulars were investigated. Perhaps they were. But for my part, some scepticism seems healthy. To start with, the man in the offending T-shirt was one in a queue of 200 people who had paid for photographs. Would Peterson have vetted their clothing? Even if he did, it does not follow that merely posing for the photograph implied support for the bystander’s views: Peterson could both disagree with this individual’s standpoint and be comfortable that one’s beliefs, or indeed culpability, cannot be changed by physical proximity to others. It seems antithetical to Peterson’s mode of thought that he could ever accept this form of guilt by association.

Finally, the best way of analysing how Peterson thinks about Islam is to study what he has said: those far more experienced in this field than I am have failed to turn up evidence that would flesh out the claim that he thinks or acts in an “islamophobic” fashion.

It would be helpful if more could be known about what the university deemed most relevant. The Vice-Chancellor’s broad-brush declarations of commitment to “inclusiveness” must do some heavy lifting to explain this particularly shadowy episode of exclusion. Perhaps the lecture series that Peterson would have given (which would not formally have been part of the university’s teaching) would have been blighted by bitter argument and disturbing protest. Perhaps rigorous debate would have found aspects of Peterson’s thinking to be untenable, and the series would have failed to deliver its intended objectives. Or perhaps the process would have been a great success, igniting debate among those who chose to attend about the role that religious narratives in the Western tradition can and should play in an increasingly unstable secular environment.

Instead, all that can be said with certainty is that serious fears of uproar and chaos arose when Peterson visited Cambridge for a number of speaking commitments last November. In the event, he encountered several gatherings of interested and enthusiastic students and academics, as revealed by a surprisingly courteous discussion at the Cambridge Union. Come 2019, however, and the university’s authorities felt moved by what I can only call pre-meta-outrage.

But who actually profits from proclaiming and broadcasting such outrage? Certainly no Muslims would have been harmed by the prospect of a Peterson lecture.

No, no, you miss the point — the online “activists” will assert: these efforts raise awareness. You’d think so, yes. But, in most of the circles where these things land, awareness is very much alive and kicking back: the very scale of social-media responses proves how on-message such a crowd already is. Instead, the relentless repetition of shared outrage carries the real danger of prompting a wider tuning-out. Not because many of these topics are non-issues, but because they form only part of the very complex nexus of problems that complicate the world in which we’re put. All of this is depressingly myopic. Although outrage can be a terrifically puissant force, the quasi-religious rite of its daily ablution is exhausting and enervating: future ages will tell the parable of the girl who tweeted wolf.

Outrage is, by definition, responsive. It is nothing more than a knee-jerk reactive force, restricted by the terms of its provocations. By contrast, pro-active, community-led movements can forge a positive message. Few things are more noble than working to improve society, however minutely. The modern world remains as tangible as ever: the traditional routes of front-line engagement are still the most potent: voluntary work helping the poor, the sick, the troubled; assisting in education, or community centres; even talking to others and understanding their points of difference. All of this registers immediately and highlights why this synthetic meta-outrage is such a con.

I’m not blaming those serial takers of offence who helped build this self-referential house of cards. In fact, I feel they’re being collectively duped. Online hubs create the illusion of real, countable progress. The steady climb of likes validates the fight.

Even advertisers are jumping on the bandwagon. Earlier this year, the shaving giant Gillette told men to aspire to be something better than bullies and sexual aggressors; in 2017, Pepsi sweetly advertised their drink as an effective tool for defusing street protests before being forced to bin the campaign entirely. So-called “woke capitalism” — signalling moral outrage while pushing a product — is desperate stuff, but desperately on-brand. Just take a step back and the damage is clear: the more that outrage is marketised and weaponised, the more intellectually and emotionally empty it becomes.

It’s now a textbook journalistic cliché to decry narcissistic virtue-signalling, offering personal support rather than working for change. And it’s true, as the sceptics point out, that online activism remains curiously devoid of action. Yet today’s outrage isn’t just en vogue but a powerful mode of societal bonding little different from getting the lighter out for a festival sing-along or cheering a last-minute winner from the terraces.

Studies show that there are some strange psychological processes at work here. The greater one feels culpable in an unfortunate scenario, the keener one is to criticise a third party. What’s more, such feelings of guilt are better assuaged when they find group expression.

Meanwhile Twitter has found itself in the absurd position of banning parody accounts that forecast where our meta-outrage is headed. Or perhaps where it already is — several times faux protest Tweets have been snapped up as cutting-edge wokery. The sainted satirists Godfrey Elfwick and Titania McGrath, for instance, have emerged to be Cassandra-like in some of their more outlandish imaginings.

As it stands, we’re stuck with the daily rhythm: someone not intending offence causing others to declare offence on behalf of those who feel no offence. Yes, it’s true, journalism has always played a wide-eyed role in this febrile feedback loop–and nothing is grimmer than an article expressing confected outrage about confected outrage.

For my part, I’m not at all outraged. Just bored. And I’m sure you are, too.