Cancel Culture and the death of academia

I’m continuing to reflect and write about culture in the light of recent abuse scandals and I want to pick up on something that has come up in social media conversations.  As we begin to consider the question of healthy church culture, our attention is drawn to examples of leaders, speakers and writers who have contributed unhelpfully to an unhealthy culture, some more obviously than others. I think it is right in that context to be alert to these inputs, indeed as elders are responsible for providing for and protecting the flock, this has to be part of the role of church leaders. We need to be able to distinguish good food from junk food and junk food from poison, we need to be alert to the differences between sheep, naughty sheep, goats and wolves.

For this reason, I believe elders have a serious responsibility to warn bout the danger that might come from particular prominent speakers and writers. For example, when I first went to Bearwood Chapel, I had to warn the church about the problems with Steve Chalke and also the influence he still had at the time in particular events and conferences. 

Attention has recently been re-focused on a man called Doug Wilson. You may have heard me mention Wilson before, he is part of a movement which isn’t particularly large but did have some influence in US reformed circles and was having a bit of an affect on some UK evangelicals at the time I was at Theological College. The central problem with Wilson was that he hed to a position called The Federal Vision which had a heavy emphasis on children automatically being within the covenant and elect. Federal Visionists therefore promote infant baptism and also child communion.  In some respects the views seem similar to those held by a lot of Presbyterians and Anglicans and for that reason, I think went under the radar for some time but in fact they were a distortion of that position.

For that reason and because of other issues identified within the movement including  concerns Mike Ovey raised about a potential leaning towards social trinitarianism, I personally have warned people to stay clear of this teaching. There are other concerns about Douglas Wilson too particularly some controversial views that he has on the history of slave ownership in the Southern States.  Recently, people have picked up on some examples of him talking about women in unpleasant and demeaning ways and that adds a further layer of concern. I’m planning in later articles to go into a bit more detail about the specific issues and where I think the root cause lies.

So, I would not endorse Wilson and I would warn people to give him and his views some distance. However, what has come up in the conversations pushes things a little further.  The controversy started because John Stevens, FIEC National Director had at some point quoted Wilson in articles he had written.  This is going back about 8 years.  Now may I let you into a secret, I too have quoted Wilson. In my MTh dissertation on marriage, I read his book “Reforming Marriage” and in that book, he talked about how properly understood, Ephesians 5:22 does not mean that a woman is subject to all men as a second class citizen but rather is to submit to her own husband and that this should protect her from exploitation and abuse from others.  Wilson’s view is that men have often used feminism as a cover for further exploitation of women by putting them into the workplace without ever really giving up their own power over them there.  Now, you may agree or disagree with that view but I would suggest it is a legitimate view and indeed people like Kirsten Birkett in “The Essence of Feminism” have also argued that feminism has not made us better off and that in fact whilst we live in a society where both husband and wife go out to work, disposable family income has not doubled because the cost of living for most has risen considerably. 

Well, what I witnessed when people went on the attack against Stevens for quoting Wilson and when I stepped in to defend citing my own example was interesting.  One of the people attacking John Stevens is an academic themselves and they began trawling through publicly published examples of Oak Hill Theological students essays. They found examples of Wilson being quoted, cited and referenced in bibliographies.  This, they argued was a disgrace, shameful and lacked integrity.*

My response was that throughout all my engagement with academia I had learnt that in the context of research and writing that you did not censor.  If there was an example of thinking and writing that was relevant to your essay or thesis then it was absolutely right that you included it and also essential that you properly cited and acknowledged the work of others so as not to commit plagiarism. 

“No” I was told in no uncertain terms. The only time we should ever quote Wilson was to show what a terrible man he is and no-one could ever refer to him without looking at his dangerous and destructive positions. At this stage they also denounced Wilson as a fake scholar, a rape apologist, someone who has protected paedophiles and as a racist.  It is worth stating at this stage that yes there are issues in terms of a specific serious safeguarding failure at Wilson’s church relating to child molestation which is one of the reasons I have concerns about him. It is also true that his position on slavery is deeply troubling. However, I think if he read those comments, he would have a reasonable case for libel. Wilson has consistently opposed racism and others including Thabiti Anyabwile have engaged with him and challenged him on his position but have not accused him of racism.  It is vital that when we have concerns about people that we are accurate in raising our concerns and that accusations are evidence based.

However, even if those charges are true, would it prevent someone from citing Wilson in an academic essay?  Well, if we start censoring people because of their character or because  of some unwelcome positions they hold, then I suspect that the length of essays and the number of footnotes will be reduced dramatically. Maybe that would be a good thing but I hope you get my point.  Wilson was referred to by the person as discredited and not a recognised scholar but that raises an important issue.

When we choose to quote and cite people academically, we do not only cite people who are recognised as formal academics.  In my original discipline, Law, we recognised that much of the relevant expertise and knowledge in our field existed outside of the academy. That’s right, it was the judges giving their verdicts in courts that we cited.  And yes, over the years that meant that there were judges cited in our essays with questionable characters, controversial opinions and whose verdicts had been overruled and trashed. 

Similarly in the field of Theology there are disciplines that come under the classification of “practical theology” its about how we apply theology to life. Those disciplines include pastoral counselling, apologetics and public theology.   It is worth noting that it is in those areas that Wilson was cited.  Because in those contexts we are looking at the application of theology, someone writing academically on the matter has a particular concern to engage with specific practitioners in the field, not just theorists. 

Furthermore, academics who engage in fields that require them to look back historically will also find themselves engaging with people who were writing long before modern assumptions and regulations concerning academia were put in place and therefore in many cases would not have been recognised as scholars today.  And that brings me to the point.  It seems to me that we have moved away from objective questions about the actual content of knowledge to subjective ones about how we feel about the person who has drawn our attention to a thought, fact, opinion or idea.  Academic thinking is being policed but it is not being policed on the basis of true academic rigour but on the sensitivities of those who have power to police.

The danger here is twofold. First of all, it means that we will be intellectually poorer for it as increasingly areas of thinking are closed off to the academy because they fall foul of arbitrary set rules.  Secondly this places power and control into the hands of one or two people. This is important because we are talking about culture and about the potential for toxic and abusive cultures. A culture where a position in power trawls through their students footnotes and then attacks them not on the basis of the content of their argument or the quality of their writing but because they have dared to read and quote someone not on the approved list sounds very unhealthy and toxic to me.

I think that this is the kind of thing we are increasingly seeing in terms of cancel culture and no-platforming. As we look at church culture, it is important that we protect our seminaries too from such a culture.  

What was disturbing here, and in my opinion a breach of academic ethics, was that the authors of those essays were named and implicitly linked with the things Wilson has been accused of even though those things were not even touched upon in their essays. THis was done without them being given the opportunity to respond.

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