More Monckton hyperbole

Fresh from pontificating on the principles at stake in allowing Lord Christopher Monckton to receive the support of a university in his inane ramblings, I find myself unable to let go of the subject.

My comment on an article by Anson Cameron at The Drum didn’t apparently make it has now past moderation1. (That might seem like poetic justice, perhaps, given that the letter I supported was widely characterised as an attempt to deprive poor Monckton of his right to free speech. Except, of course, that I was trying to point out that the letter was no such thing, and that I myself support Monckton’s right to free speech.)

This post isn’t the comment in question (which was more of a condensed version of my last post).

Cameron is clearly not a fan of Monckton, and does an admirable job of listing the Lord’s many and varied acts of ignorance, dishonesty and outright madness. However, then comes this paragraph:

I implore the academy not to add Viscount Monckton to the long and distinguished list of the gagged and banned. He does not deserve to stand alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela, Darwin or Mick Jagger. If the Academy gags Lord Monckton it will reward  him with a wholly undeserved gravitas, and afford him the glow of the messiah among his flock. Censored by lefties and eggheads sponging off our tax dollar, the things he wasn’t allowed to say will take on an unwarranted profundity. The flock will be whispering of NATO, a world government, thought-control, and only fearless mavericks like the Viscount standing in the way of a global communist dystopia.

I’m not sure what Cameron thinks academia can possibly do to place Monckton in such a hallowed (and inexplicable) company. Academia is not the Burmese military junta; it does not have its own private army waiting to whisk away those who dissent. You might think I’m being a little patronising here, but really – stopping someone speaking at a university compares to locking them away for decades as a political prisoner? You don’t get to compare yourself to Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela just because you’ve been declared a fruitcake by a group of lecturers and researchers. That sounds rather too much like the Galileo Gambit. Cameron’s further mention of Mick Jagger sounds rather too much like taking the piss. You think academia is going to turn Monckton into a rock star? I’m not sure that’s how it normally works.

The next bit is also a bit of a giveaway: “the things he wasn’t allowed to say will take on an unwarranted profundity.” That’s logically impossible. How can anyone know what things Monckton would have said but didn’t? He would have said them regardless, of course, as Cameron no doubt realises. That means, of course, that Monckton was never in danger of being silenced – a fact that ought to be perfectly obvious, but nonetheless has been shoved aside in order to perpetuate the censorship narrative. Cameron’s concerns are also rather redundant, since Monckton’s words already have taken on grossly unwarranted profundity, through no fault of academia. It’s hard to see how his Lordship’s blatherings could be inflated further still (without sending those involved into a coma of self-righteousness).

Cameron goes on to conclude:

If a person can be banned from University for speaking ignorantly and superstitiously Jesus will have to set up his soapbox across the road from Notre Dame when he returns and shout through the chain-link fence with a bullhorn.

“Ban” is rather misleading here. Except in matters of criminal law, as I understand it, you cannot really be banned from a university (at least, not the kind of university I’m familiar with). Any member of the public is free to stroll across campus and even attend lectures. There just isn’t any chain-link fence to be self-righteous behind. The intent of the letter was simply to not give Monckton the podium at a university. Most people do not and will never have that privilege anyway, so it’s hardly a matter of fundamental rights. Monckton (or Jesus) can set up his own soap box, but he’ll look a lot less dignified gesticulating by the roadside than in a university lecture theatre.

Moreover, in spite of Monckton’s lecture going ahead as planned, I’ve heard barely a whisper of information on what was actually said. The whole event was essentially self-censored (it was invitation-only), irrespective of the letter itself. We ended up with the worst of both worlds: a quarantined lecture, and the symbolism of a university lending its podium to a raving self-promoter and purveyor of nonsense. Free speech indeed.

  1. I’m very slightly suspicious of the fact that only 18 comments did appear, when such controversial topics often seem to attract a hundred or more. Perhaps I’m being overly suspicious, though, and people really do have better things to do. The comment count suddenly jumped from 18 to 195, presumably thanks to some mind-bendingly tedious and thankless work by overwhelmed moderators. []

Poor persecuted Monckton

His Great and Wondrous Beneficence the Lord Christopher Monckton did, after all, give a lecture at Notre Dame University. Attempts (initiated by Natalie Latter) to dissuade Notre Dame from lending Monckton its credibility did not come to fruition, though drawing attention to his Lordship’s rank lunacy is always a small victory in itself.

As the letter puts it:

We all support academic freedom and the freedom to express our ideas and beliefs. However, Notre Dame University has a responsibility to avoid promoting discredited views on an issue of public risk. Notre Dame’s invitation to Lord Monckton makes a mockery of academic standards and the pursuit of evidence-based knowledge.

This has been laughably characterised as an attempt to “gag” Monckton (who has a minor obsession with characterising people as fascists and war criminals, suggesting for instance that climate scientists ought to stand trial for genocide). Does anyone honestly think that Monckton actually could have been gagged?

This call to preserve academic standards morphed (perhaps predictably) into a spurious fight for free speech. Tell me, dear reader: when was the last time you exercised your apparently fundamental democratic right to give a public lecture at a university?1 Do you believe that you have that right; that a university has a duty to invite you to give a lecture if you see fit to give one? Why should Monckton be afforded this privilege, when clearly “ordinary” members of the public are not?

Some, such as Professor Chris Doepel at Notre Dame, argue that all points of view must be heard. This is the refrain we hear from creationists asking that “Intelligent Design” be taught in schools. It’s a convenient rhetorical tool for engineering doubt. The consensus of virtually all the relevant experts, arrived at by considering the entire gamut of objective data collection and analysis conducted over decades, is made to look like only one set of opinions, rivaled by another set of opinions formed simply by making things up. Doepel makes the following self-refuting remark:

The university does not take a view one way or the other on the positions advocated by Christopher Monckton.

But that is a position on Monckton. An individual person might legitimately claim not to know enough to form an opinion2, but it beggars belief that a university – a place wherein truth is uncovered and disseminated – would have formed no position on one of the most outspoken and controversial figures of our time. A refusal to condemn Monckton’s views, for an institution that cannot possibly claim ignorance of what he stands for, is effectively an endorsement of those views. We certainly know where Notre Dame stands on legitimate climate research and climate action, then.

Others (such as the Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt) believe we should just let Monckton speak, and take the time to refute his claims. But this is to accept the false dichotomy that either he be allowed to speak wherever he likes, at any institution, or we tie him up in the basement. Monckton was clearly never in any danger of actually being silenced, not even if Notre Dame had heeded the call to preserve its academic integrity. Universities have credibility in the first place precisely because they discriminate between views supported by evidence and views not so supported (the same as scientific journals, and the scientific process in general). One can delude oneself into thinking that this is somehow undemocratic, but then reality isn’t democratic. At some point, for the sake of advancing the human cause, we must stand up and pass judgement; not on each other, but on our ideas. Science, technology, economics, etc. are not served simply by sitting and listening politely and “fairly” to endless regurgitations of refuted arguments. We have the media and the Internet for that; universities should know better.

Some believe we should just ignore Monckton. However, the man is steering the public debate in ways that are fundamentally detrimental to the prospects for sensible policy making. We cannot just ignore him. Academic institutional credibility aside, he already has all the media coverage anyone could dream of. This isn’t the result of some PR folly by his critics, but rather his oratory skills and the cozy hardline ideological relationship he has with some very loud and obnoxious media personalities.

It is incumbent upon academics to preserve the integrity of their institutions, and to confront misinformation that threatens to derail rational decision making. Free speech is a right, no doubt, but credibility must be earned.

  1. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that you have indeed given a public lecture at a university, but I think you’ll agree that it’s not exactly a right. []
  2. I sometimes admire those willing to admit ignorance rather than pick whichever view “feels” better. []