Soon after the death of Fidel Castro, I pointed out somewhere online that, for all its brave resistance to the crude might of the United States, the Cuban regime did have the unpleasant habit of locking up those who disagreed with it. Kangaroo courts had sentenced writers, academics, teachers and librarians for up to 28 years in jail for the crime of arguing for democracy.
This was an awkward truth for those who see global politics in terms of good guys and bad guys. Surely, to any person of liberal sensibility, Fidel was one of the good guys. Could it really be true that he was sending writers to rot in jail? Amnesty and PEN International could produce all the evidence they wanted but still, it just felt wrong. Perhaps that was why Cuba’s most vocal champions, from Ken Livingstone to Oliver Stone, could never bring themselves to condemn this aspect of his regime.
I received a surprising response to my article from a liberal-minded newspaper columnist I much respect. ‘It’s complicated,’ he wrote.
I was genuinely shocked. Why was it fine, I asked, to be affronted by the imprisonment of writers in Turkey, or the flogging of online dissidents in Saudi Arabia, but to look away when the offenses against human rights were committed by a regime at the other end of the political spectrum?
‘As I say, it’s complicated’ came the reply. If emoticons were sophisticated enough to catch the tone of this second tweet, it would have been of a wry, regretful, I-know-more-than-I’m-saying face.
As I read recently about an unpleasant outbreak of bullying and intolerance by minority groups at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington, that phrase ‘It’s complicated’ has hung in the air.
Students wanting overdue recognition of the contribution of racial minorities at the university had recently introduced a Day of Absence when members of those groups would stay away from the campus. This year they proposed a significant change: all white students and academics should be obliged to stay away.
A brave biology professor Bret Weinstein wrote an email objecting to the plan. While sympathetic to the idea of the Day of Absence – Weinstein is a Bernie Saunders-supporting man of the left – he pointed out that a ban on people of a certain colour from attending or teaching courses at a university was ‘a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.’
All hell broke loose. He and lecturers who agreed with him were surrounded by a chanting group of enraged students, goaded and insulted (and filmed). The students demanded an apology and resignations.
The situation deteriorated so seriously that the next day Professor Weinstein was advised by the police not to appear on campus out of fear of for his safety. There were thinly-veiled threats of violence against his wife.
Weinstein appealed to the university President George Bridges for help. He was referred the Provost, who referred him back to the President (an interview with Weinstein about what happened is here).
Eventually the President took action. He backed the protesters, going so far as to express his gratitude to ‘the courageous students who have voiced their concerns’. In a statement which can only be described as grovelling, he acceded to all their demands except the one to sack Weinstein and other academics who had spoken up – they would be looking at disciplinary procedures, he said.
And so the rise and rise of stupidity continues. When a university president takes the side of a chanting, abusive protesters who have threatened a member of his staff, and refuses to support a colleague who had spoken up (mildly) for freedom of expression, we are in real trouble.
We have become used to stupidity being a political force on the right. During the referendum campaign, in which an intelligent political leader sneered at experts, and on Trump’s march to the White House, it became increasingly clear that the stupid line was a vote-winner. It meant holding a view different from that of elites. It had innocence and feeling on its side. It was emotional, and therefore genuine.
Fact, logic and justice are meaningless when stupidity becomes fashionable. If enough people want something to be true, then it is true. Climate change is a hoax. Measles vaccination causes autism. Forget science or evidence; willed stupidity wins every time.
And now it is coming at us from the other direction. It is in the suppression of opinion at universities with their ‘safe places’. It is in the howls of protest about ‘cultural appropriation’ when authors do what they are meant to do – imagine the experience of those from another time or culture.
It is tempting to under-estimate the power of stupidity. Most of us are reason-junkies who have been brought up to believe that, if something can be proved to be right or wrong, then that is the end of the story. It had been established, or so we thought, that in a fair society and with certain legal constraints, a person can express a view which others will disagree. It was a basic value of our lives, an absolute.
That is no longer the case. It has become ‘complicated’.
Beware idiocy on the right and the left. It is stronger, more persuasive and more violent (take a look at those videos) than you think. Its enemy – whether it is encouraging audiences to boo journalists as purveyors of “fake news” or seeking to get fired academics who disagree with you – is always the same: the right to express an opinion, to debate, to listen and learn, without fear.