Speculative thought under threat


May I ask you a hypothetical question? OK, so a terrorist has planted a bomb that is due to explode and the only way of finding the location is if you torture the terrorist. Would you? Wait, before you answer, bear this in mind: Whatever you say may be taken down, stripped of context and used in evidence against you at some future date. You could be the person who is in favour of torturing terrorists. You could be the person who is in favour of letting innocent people die. Do you still want to answer the question?

People have been asking and answering hypothetical questions for at least as long as I can remember and probably far longer. They serve a useful purpose in enabling us to explore ideas and possibilities. And yet I wonder whether we are taking some of this space away in a social-media-fueled rush to condemn.

I had not intended to comment on the unedifying Andrew Sabisky affair – the UK government advisor who resigned after unpleasant past comments were highlighted on social media. Anything other than outright condemnation of this devil is unacceptable at the present stage of his baiting. We have now reached the absurd phase of guilt-by-association, with the Wellington Festival of Education and researchED conferences, at which he once gave some presumably innocuous talks, being called upon to distance themselves from him along with the Times Educational Supplement for which he has occasionally written. It must be pretty ugly being Sabisky right now.

But I am going to attempt something that Tom Chivers warned us against yesterday. I am going to attempt a ‘decoupling’. Futile as it may be to point this out, I am first going to highlight the fact that I do not agree with Sabisky on very much. From what I can make out, he is something of a genetic fatalist and I am more of an optimist. I certainly do not share his other reported views, with the caveat that I am not entirely certain about the accuracy of all of the reporting. Why?

Well, according to the BBC:

“Mr Sabisky… suggested to Schools Week in July 2016 that the benefits of a purported cognitive enhancer, which can prove fatal, are ‘probably worth a dead kid once a year’.”

And yet the journalist who Sabisky spoke to drew attention to the full context of the quote:

“‘From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year,’ he says, matter-of-factly.

I am aghast. But he reminds me there is a difference between the ideological and factual. He is personally uneasy about the ethics of many of the things he talks about and as a Christian – he married in church last year – he has moral views on the topics that may not be what people expect.”

In other words, Sabisky was looking at the issue from one perspective – a ruthlessly utilitarian argument about what might provide the greatest overall benefit to society – while being challenged morally by the conclusion that he draws from that perspective. It’s a little complex and in my opinion it is still pretty dark, but it is not exactly how the BBC reported it.

I am reminded of the Roger Scruton / New Statesman affair, only in the sense that a wide-ranging, often speculative, discussion was reduced to a series of the most prejudicial soundbites.

One of the wonders of the blogging age has been the ability for ordinary people to construct and share lengthy and often complex analyses with each other, unmediated and unfiltered. We have not had to appeal to journalists or editors in order to get our messages across. We can simply write what we think and if it’s interesting enough then people will read it. We have a new found freedom of expression. Yet there is a risk. However unlikely it is that many of us would ever express the kinds of views that Sabisky has expressed, I think we should learn one lesson from this episode – that there is no universal principle of charity in the media. There are journalists out there who are not minded to reveal the full context of a juicy quote.

And that’s a shame because heeding this lesson will caution us against drawing on the power of speculative thought.

One thought on “Speculative thought under threat

  1. Absolutely agree with you here. Surely the whole point of academia is to allow people to ponder the nature of reality, and even to explore their less socially-acceptable ideas – in a safe, academic setting.

    I always told my pupils that within the confines of the classroom, they were allowed to express any thoughts whatsoever, on the condition that they were prepared to justify them, and to have them challenged by me and those who disagreed. As a result, from time to time so rather controversial topics were brought up, and so long as they were discussed in a respectful and formal manner, I was prepared to go with them. For example, we did cover eugenics at least once, as a potential response to the Malthusian issues of global over-population. If such issues cannot be discussed and dealt with within the safe environment of the classroom, then where can they?

    This is another reason that I championed critical thinking, as it permitted the discussion of sensitive topics within a formal and objective framework which encouraged people to separate the issues from their more subjective inclinations about them.

    The modern tendency to forbid the discussion of such topics in education, as in wider society, is in my opinion a hugely retrograde step, akin to thought control. The unwillingness even to address these issues is probably one of the reasons why they go on to fester and eventually find much more insidious forms of expression.

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