Though I admire decorum, I love scandal. And who does not? To assuage my slight feelings of guilt over such prurience, I persuade myself that my preferred scandals are those that raise complex moral questions, or that illustrate something important about modern society.
The scandal over the Oxford professorship of poetry exactly fills the bill. It illustrates the morass into which political correctness inevitably leads us.
The Oxford position is an odd one. Like the presidency of France, it lasts for five years. Not only is it largely honorific, but the professor is chosen in an odd way: by the votes of all Oxford graduates – of whom, however, only 0.3 percent actually vote, a proportion far lower even than that in general elections in the most advanced parliamentary democracies.
The post falling vacant this year, the front runner for election was Derek Walcott, the Nobel Laureate of West Indian origin. However, shortly into the campaign, it was revealed that he had twice been accused of sexual harassment at American universities, first at Harvard in 1982, then at Boston University in 1996.
In the first case, Walcott was accused of proposing sexual relations with a student and of giving her a poor grade after she turned him down. Of course, she might have received a poor grade anyway, but, as it says in Hamlet, "Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon." Walcott had to apologize.
He resigned from the race after 200 anonymous letters detailing the accusations were sent to Oxford academics. The second favorite, Ruth Pradel, was duly elected in his place. There was much crowing over the first woman-professor in the 300-year history of the chair.
However, she resigned after only nine days. It was discovered that, during the campaign, she had sent two e-mails to journalists reporting on the election, mentioning Walcott’s peccadilloes. At first she denied that she had intended the information for public consumption, but in one of the e-mails she wrote:
There is supposed to be a book called The Lecherous Professor, which has 6 pages on Derek Walcott's two cases of sexual harassment, which might provide interesting copy on what Oxford wants from its professors.
The linguistic imprecision here is rather surprising in a poet. For even the most fanatical feminist could hardly suppose that Oxford actually wants its professors to be given to sexual harassment of female students. It might be prepared to overlook such a propensity, but that is not quite the same thing. The relation between Padel’s e-mails and the anonymous letter campaign is not known, but when someone writes “might provide interesting copy” to a journalist covering a story, it is tantamount to saying “please publish this.” So, Ruth Padel felt constrained to resign the post, just as Derek Walcott had felt constrained to withdraw his candidacy.
Is sexual harassment as bad as, or worse than, carrying on a surreptitious campaign of vilification? If it was right that Walcott should not be professor, was it right that Padel should not be professor, either? If it is the poetry that counts, rather than the moral qualities of the poet, should Padel have resigned, given that Walcott almost certainly would not seek election if she did so, and that, absent him, she was supposedly the best poet to fill the post?
Prominent feminists sprang immediately to her defense. One said that this would not have happened to a man (though it had just happened, more or less, to Derek Walcott). Another said that Oxford was a sexist little dump. This is the kind of statement that passes for an argument in a politically correct world.
Oddly enough, the woman who brought an action against Boston University in 1996, now the writer NM Kelby, came to Walcott’s defense. She wrote an article for the British press in which she unwittingly revealed the moral squalor of our age. The article began:
I am appalled and saddened by the anonymous smear campaign against my former mentor Derek Walcott. Everyone has a right to face his or her accusers. That’s why I sued Boston University. I wanted to discover if Professor Walcott was actually harassing me.
Is this not an admission that her action was akin to a shakedown? You are supposed to fit the compensation to the harm, not the harm to the compensation. Anyone who has any dealings with tort law knows that that it is more like a game of poker than the administration of justice. A settlement out of court is no proof of the guilt of the defendant. Kelby claimed $500,000, without (apparently) knowing whether or not she had been harmed.
This is very squalid indeed. The article leaves one dizzy and floundering:
Do I think that it’s appropriate for a professor to joke about sex with a student? No. I do not. Many years ago my daughter Hannah died [very shortly after birth]… As a mother, I can not tolerate the idea of a young woman being harassed.
I also realize that it happens. Writers, by nature, have reckless hearts. Poetry is a passionate art. That is why it is crucial that institutions have strict policies against sexual harassment and are not too embarrassed to allow concerns to be heard.
[Derek Walcott’s] role in society is crucial. Art forces our minds to reinvent what we think and so we build impossible buildings, find improbable cures and make changes that could never have been dreamed of before.
This is a kind of witches’ brew of emotions, or rather of vehement sentiment, from which nothing sensible – and certainly no useful guide to conduct – could possibly emerge. And this, is seems to me, is typical of our age, in which shrillness and vehemence so often does the work of argumentation.
On the other hand, there probably never was an age in which disputes were resolved by civilized, Socratic dialogue. It is just that more people nowadays demand to be heard, with the resultant cacophony. You need to be vehement to be heard at all. A friend of mine once suggested that, for the good life, freedom from opinion is often at least as precious as freedom of opinion.