As the culture wars continue to rage, barely a week goes by without some public figure being dismissed for allegedly infringing social norms. From Harvard’s Ronald Sullivan to Roger Scruton, Jordan Peterson to the young researcher Noah Carl, pressure from progressive activists is leaving reputations severely damaged following charges of racism or sexism. Many of these cases, in my view, are travesties that constrict the sphere of freedom, fairness and reason in society. They are based on panic rather than logic and evidence. But how should we judge between these cases and others where the outrage is more justified?
In my book Whiteshift, I argue that we need a moral jurisprudence that mirrors our legal body of rulings to decide whether individuals are ‘guilty’ of ethical transgressions and what the severity of punishment should be. At present, this is decided in a Hobbesian war between competing interests and ideologies, with the strongest faction getting its way. Punishment typically consists of a unitary sentence of sacking and excommunication.
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Much better, surely, would be a rational approach, which seeks empirical evidence of harm, consistent precedent-based sentencing of individuals across time and place, and principles whose conclusions flow from their premises. After all, even if the law upholds rules such as innocent until proven guilty or freedom of expression, when institutions such as universities, government bodies or corporations shift from a ‘reasonable person’ to a ‘most sensitive person’ standard, and fail to calibrate their penalties to the severity of the offence, we collectively become less free, fair and rational. A virtual Supreme Court or online nonpartisan Task Force could act as the relevant body to which plaintiffs may appeal in the quest to clear their name or reduce their sentence.
I conducted a small survey on the recent case of Danny Baker as a trial run for how such a panel might work. The Radio 5 Live host was sacked a fortnight ago after posting a ‘joke’ on Twitter entitled ‘Royal Baby leaves hospital’ showing two well-dressed adults with a chimpanzee. He tweeted it on the same day Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle presented their new baby Archie in public. The connection between the African-American ancestry of Meghan and the racist trope of a chimpanzee doesn’t need much explanation. Baker argues that he was lampooning press coverage of the royals, hadn’t clocked that the baby was mixed race and just clipped the nearest image to hand. When the connection was pointed out, he swiftly deleted the tweet and apologised profusely.
The BBC fired him. While the police do ‘not consider that a criminal threshold has been met’ and have dropped their investigation against him, there are still moral questions at stake. Should he have been fired? Should he ever be given a position in public life again? What are the free speech implications? Baker argues that the BBC threw him under a bus by firing him, and its bosses behaved in a cowardly way.
The survey was conducted through the online opt-in platform Prolific, which, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, is heavily used by academic researchers. Those taking part were asked to read a news story about the incident, then respond to a series of questions. The sample size of 200, split equally between White British (excludes white Europeans) and Black British (both African and Caribbean) respondents, combined with its opt-in nature, means the data are not nationally representative, so claims about levels of sentiment must be treated with a grain of salt even as studies find that opt-in platforms don’t differ greatly from national samples.1
Despite the limitations of the data, like other academics that use the platform, we can make inferences about the size of differences in opinion between groups, statistically controlling for age, education, Brexit vote and other factors.
The first finding is that, taken together, the overwhelming majority of respondents find the tweet to be both racist and offensive. Of our sample, 73% say it is offensive, 23% say that it isn’t, and only 4% say that they don’t know. Fully 75% describe the tweet as racist. On the other hand, only a minority of respondents think Baker should lose his job (41%), that he is a racist (31%), or that the tweet proves he is racist (27%).
Does this mean Baker should get his job back? Not so fast.
When a debate I co-organised with Matthew Goodwin on immigration in December was attacked because of its ostensibly ‘offensive’ title, we conducted a survey which showed that few people found it offensive and minorities were no more affronted than whites. So we were the victims of a phoney charge. The same conclusion would most likely be reached for many of the high-profile dismissals at the top of the piece.
Yet in the Baker case, we see something quite different. Ordinary black Britons overwhelmingly do find the Baker tweet offensive, and a majority, 59%, believe he should lose his job over it. This marks an important difference from other cases, and is a powerful argument in favour of the BBC’s actions.
Consider the range of responses in figure 1. On no question is there less than a 20-point opinion gap between white and black respondents, and on the question of whether Baker is a proven racist, or should lose his job, this increases to over 30 points.
Source: Prolific survey, conducted 14th May 2019. N=95 Black British, 113 White British (no other groups sampled)
Not only that, but within the white sample, there are no statistically-significant differences in answers to these questions by age, education level, 2017 party vote or Brexit vote. Just 25% of white Remainers say Baker should lose his job, similar to 23% of white Leavers. Evidently, this is not a ‘culture wars’ question dividing white progressives from conservatives, but a purely racial one. It stems from the actual black experience, not white progressives’ mindreading of that experience, in contrast to many questions on race where white progressives are most likely to believe society is racist and white conservatives least, with minorities in the middle.
Probing opinion in more detail in figure 2, we see that there is actually considerable inter-racial agreement on Baker’s tweet. While more black respondents feel the tweet is motivated by racism than whites (25% to 10%), about the same share (54-55%) say it’s ‘racist, regardless of motivation’ suggesting that even if Baker’s intent wasn’t racist, the tweet is.
Source: Prolific survey, conducted 14 May 2019. N=95 black, 113 white (no other groups sampled).
The big difference is that among white Britons who say this, just a quarter say Baker should go, whereas for black respondents who say it the corresponding figure is 63%. Though both seem to incline toward seeing the tweet as negligent rather than deliberate, black respondents view the consequences more seriously than whites do.
Applying the evidence
In my view, the first test for a conviction of racism, sexism or other progressive offenses is that a clear majority of the protected group must view the act as offensive. The survey shows that this test has been met. It could be argued that some white Britons are aggrieved by Baker’s ouster, but it’s likely that black respondents care more about his tweet than whites do about his dismissal.
A second test is whether the offence can be justified by a higher public aim. Even if Muslims are offended by Salman Rushdie’s novels, or Jews by criticism of Israel, there is a compelling reason to override a minority group’s feeling of offense. In the Baker case, the tweet is arguably not of sufficient value in terms of intellectual debate or artistic expression to meet this public good test.
The final hurdle is to determine whether minorities are being sufficiently reasonable and resilient in terms of their sensitivities. Would a cartoon playing on an Irish stereotype (such as a leprechaun) provide justification for dismissal? Probably not.
However, given that simian imagery is still sometimes deployed in aggressively racist fashion against black Britons, on football terraces as well as on the streets, their sensitivity would seem justifiable. The general lack of discrimination towards the Irish could be deemed to make their depiction a less serious offence.
Discrimination against any group will never be zero, but even if discrimination against black people were to fall to the same level as the Irish, there is a question of how long a group should remain sensitive. A decay rate of one or two generations – approximately the case for the Irish in Britain – might be a reasonable rule to follow.
The point of these deliberations is to ground a verdict of social sanction in principle, precedent and evidence. Penalties should be calibrated to the severity of the offense. The survey data shows that the BBC was right to fire Baker. Yet the fact that a slim majority of the black respondents don’t consider him racist and only 25% say his tweet was racially-motivated suggests he shouldn’t be banished from public life permanently. Once his punishment has been served, Baker will be back.