If not a Russian bot, might as well be

Three days ago Mary Beard mused aloud on Twitter.

And lo, there was a pile-on. (I read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed a couple of months ago. I recommend it.) There are currently 828 replies.

She attempted to clarify her point many times but most of the pilers weren’t listening.

It’s surely a genuine issue. In one reply she said: “I do not like the tone of some of the criticism here which suggests an overwhelming confidence that our own morality would survive through thick and thin.” Her point was about what happens to people in desperate situations, and about judging such people from a safe and comfortable distance. It’s the kind of issue Orwell liked to take on. But it was taken as something much cruder, something that could be summed up with lashings of “white feminist” and “colonialism.”

Later she tried again.

Ah yes, just as students asked about the Milgram experiment all confidently say they would have stopped pushing the button, when in fact only a minority did stop. The students can’t all be right.

The truth is we don’t know how we would behave in emergencies we’ve never had to deal with. Judging harshly from a very great distance is easy but not all that fair.

Some got it, which is reassuring.

But many simply put the boot in, and one of the bootiest was another (less well-known) Cambridge academic, Priyamvada Gopal. She created a pretty intense pile-on all by herself, with lashings of extra venom.

I’ve written a few posts about Gopal over the years, starting all the way back in 2007, when she was sticking the boot in Salman Rushdie, with equal venom and lack of accuracy. June 18th 2007:


Sir Salman, on the other hand, is partly the creation of the fatwa…The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicous trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.

No he isn’t, no he doesn’t, no they haven’t. That’s crap. What they’ve assented to (the liberal ones – if they haven’t they’re not liberal) is the opposite: that humane values, tolerance and freedom are universal ideas that have to be defended as such, and that claiming they are a monopoly of any one region or nation or ethnic group is highly illiberal as well as dangerous.

The next day:

Lisa Appignanesi gives Priyamvada Gopal one in the eye though.

During the dark years of the Fatwa, Rushdie lent his fame to help less well-known writers around the world who suffered similar fates or found themselves persecuted either by states or religious hierarchies for their work. As a vice-president of English Pen, the world association of writers, and for some years president of American Pen, he worked indefatigably for the cause of free expression, joining with us here to combat the worst excesses of the government’s “religious hatred” legislation. Perhaps in awarding him this honour, the government has also come to recognise the crucial importance of a freedom which underpins so many others. Rushdie’s “services to literature” also extend to a singular generosity in helping young, and particularly Asian, writers make their way in what is often a difficult literary marketplace.

Universal values, universal liberal values, not western, not European, not white. Universal. Think about it, Priyamvada Gopal.

Nearly 11 years later she’s still not thinking about it.

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