SARAH VINE: I don’t buy all the sacked Eton teacher says. But this cancel culture can never win
Much of the attention on Will Knowland, the English teacher at Eton sacked for gross misconduct after he refused to remove a controversial video from his personal YouTube channel, has naturally centred around the source of his former employer’s displeasure.
In a lecture entitled The Patriarchy Paradox, he questions ‘current radical feminist orthodoxy’ and rails against the erosion of male identity and traditional gender roles.
But the truth is this row – which has engulfed Eton’s Head Master, Simon Henderson, and made a rather unlikely hero of its author in the eyes of many pupils and parents – isn’t really about the content of the online lecture at all.
Debate: Pupils at Eton back their former teachers
It’s about the man’s right to publish it and argue his point of view. It’s about freedom of thought and speech. And it’s about protecting those like Mr Knowland from the modern cancel culture, ensuring they remain able to express themselves openly and honestly without fear of losing their livelihood. It’s also about three-dimensional thinking: instead of an idea or person being deemed either right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, it is seen for what it really is and what most things are – somewhere in-between.
Bad enough that this sort of lazy thinking has infected the BBC and much of higher academia. But it’s particularly disappointing in the school that produced George Orwell and which has never sought to insulate its pupils from controversy (a few years ago, Julian Assange addressed the boys).
To recap: during a half-hour cultural romp referencing everything from Greek mythology to Goodfellas, Mr Knowland, whose YouTube channel is called ‘Knowland Knows’, argues that far from being a violent, toxic creed that has held back women for millennia, the patriarchy is in fact a force for good.
Men, he says, are programmed to procreate, protect and provide, and in so doing they are not oppressing the female of the species, but elevating her.
He also argues that sexuality is not a construct, that men and women are biologically and therefore emotionally different and that, when push comes to shove, most women prefer a man who can wield an axe than one who appreciates soft furnishings. Smash the patriarchy, he argues, and you are smashing nature.
These are in many ways well-worn arguments – but I can see why this particular video has got some backs up. Having watched it twice (at 33 minutes, it is quite dense and takes a lot of digesting), there is plenty to disagree with.
For example, I find it hard to believe that there are more instances of male-on-male rape in prisons than male-on-female rape in the wider world. And the notion that women themselves are to blame for the patriarchy because they favour strong men over weak ones smacks ever-so-slightly of the old ‘she-drove-me-to-it’ defence in domestic violence.
That said, he is good on historic witch trials (he blames women for persecuting other women) and has some pithy observations about hardline man-baiters and the bonkers ‘trans-species’ people who identify as lizards. And when he talks about ‘an unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture it is hardly even noticed’, you can’t help but sympathise.
A freedom of speech row erupted at the elite £42,500-a-year school after pupils revolted following the sacking of Will Knowland (pictured)
But the point is: it doesn’t really matter whether I – or anyone else – agree with him. This is an important conversation that needs to be had. These ideas affect all our lives, not just the boys at Eton.
No ONE in an open and liberal society, least of all a teacher, should be punished for pushing boundaries. Even, indeed one might argue especially, when the subject is as touchy as this. And yet, because of woke culture, there are far too many things we simply aren’t allowed to talk about any more.
That is why this case, which on the surface would seem fairly rarefied given Eton’s privileged status, has such universal repercussions. This is not just a row between toffs about how toffs should be educated. It goes to the heart of the way public debate is conducted in this country and beyond. Which is to say, almost not at all.
If it can happen at Eton, it’s happening in every school in the country. And ultimately the question we all have to ask ourselves is: who would we rather have educating our children? Imaginative individuals like Knowland who, while undoubtably stubborn and provocative, foster freedom of expression and intellectual curiosity?
Or those whose fear makes them appeasers, whose lack of imagination renders them incapable of seeing the rich value of dissent? Who, instead of broadening young people’s horizons, want to shrink them to a flat, barren landscape bereft of all original features?
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