In “Our Remainer Universities”, a belligerent front-page article published recently, the Daily Mail attempted to portray academics working in British universities as hopelessly biased and hyperbolic bullies, ideologically and financially beholden to the EU – and hellbent on imposing their alarming groupthink on innocent students and their concerned parents at every opportunity.
Let me put my cards on the table up front. I am an EU migrant from Ireland and I think that Brexit is an atrocious idea. There are lots of reasons for this – but my go-to line at snooty cocktail parties with my liberal elite friends is this: whatever the value of the fraction of additional sovereignty that individual British voters, or the citizen body as a whole, will “take back” by repatriating some powers from Europe, it is decisively outweighed by the harm of jeopardising the peace process and thereby increasing the risk that people will start killing each other again in Northern Ireland.
But that’s a subject for another article. Right now, I want to discuss two distinct reasons to be concerned about the Mail’s new campaign – which, it is worth noting, echoes their “Enemies of the People” attack on the judiciary almost exactly one year ago.
The first is that on the level of interpersonal morality, the behaviour of the Mail is just plain wrong. A powerful group of people, led by the outspoken editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, are attempting to use their position and reach to intimidate another group of people with whom they disagree. Individual academics were singled out for criticism and readers were invited to send in stories of “anti-Brexit bias”.
The implication is clear. Should you wish to discuss Brexit with your students, in or out of class, and give it anything less than your full-throated support, then expect to find your picture appearing prominently in a national newspaper, and soon. Bullying should not be allowed to pass unchallenged.
Enough of experts
The second is that campaigns such as this impoverish our public discourse. This may happen directly, by undermining the ability of academics to conduct and disseminate research into illuminating, but controversial topics without fear of personal, political, or economic reprisals. Academics might censor themselves, understandably wanting to avoid being made a target for online and real-world abuse. Or universities might decide that it is safer to avoid the taint of partiality and impose strict guidelines on the kinds of opinions that lecturers can and cannot express – and the circumstances in which they can and cannot express them.
This is bad enough, but a more indirect and insidious threat comes from the way that these kinds of character attacks accelerate a general erosion of faith in the idea that expertise has a place in the public sphere.
If someone knows more than you do about a particular topic, then an effective shortcut to having sound beliefs on that topic is to adopt the beliefs they recommend, or at least to assign extra weight to them in your deliberations. Imagine how much more difficult life would be if you didn’t privilege your doctor’s opinion about what medicine to take when you are sick, or your mechanic’s opinion about the parts that need replacing on your car.
As a strategy, however, this only makes sense if we think that we are warranted in trusting that the experts are disposed to give us good advice. If readers believe that academics are rabid ideologues, or that they are bought and paid for, then they are not trying to help anyone to form good beliefs, but rather to promulgate beliefs that serve their own grubby interests. Trust not only appears unwarranted, but positively foolish. The strategy is blocked, even if it would, in fact, have led to better beliefs and, ultimately, better decisions.
Note that the Mail’s method is to accuse its targets of precisely the faults that it is perceived to have. The Mail exhibits a political bias, is often guilty of sensationalism and deliberately drives a jingoistic agenda in order to be a rallying point for disaffected Leavers. By dragging everyone down to its level, the Mail turns what should be an important debate into a glorified shouting match – and with its access to an industrial-scale printing press and a circulation of 1.5m (not to mention the millions more online), the Mail shouts much louder than most.
Experts, of course, are not always right. And democracy is not rule by the experts – it is rule by the people. It is right that experts be challenged and that people try to make up their own minds. But political debate must be on the merits of the arguments. Otherwise, the day will come when it will not be possible to gain credibility on a controversial subject by becoming learned about it.
The only source of credibility that will matter is how totally you commit to your position and how vociferously you expound it. In the absence of a more complex set of rules and norms for determining who is worth listening to and to what degree, sheer power will win out. Which is what the Daily Mail really wants.