I am delighted and honored to introduce this year’s recipient of the Sappho Award, Professor Roger Scruton.
A visit by Professor Scruton has been long overdue, and we should all be grateful to Katrine Winkel Holm for making this happen. As many of you will know, Professor Scruton’s visit was originally planned for a date in March. A horse riding accident intervened; certainly a worthy excuse for cancelling for a conservative philosopher who endorses traditional ways of life.
Apropos horses, Scruton apparently (this may be a myth) started horseback riding because Enoch Powell told him that any true conservative must engage in fox hunting and that there are few things that upset the socialists more. In fact, Powell sold Scruton his hunting gear. The story goes that when someone asked Powell about the hunting clothes, he said, ‘We’re just about the same size. Physically, I mean, not intellectually.’(The background to this is that Powell became a full professor at the tender age of twenty-five).
Anecdotes aside, there are (at least) two related reasons why we should cheer about having Professor Scruton with us today.
First, Scruton is a true public intellectual of great international standing. In our part of the world, he is no doubt the person who has done most to articulate and even restore intellectual conservatism in the tradition from Edmund Burke. Behind this feat is a breathtaking production of books, pamphlets, magazine and newspaper articles, essays, … appearances as a public speaker … on BBC TV and radio and so on.
So, Scruton is very much a public philosopher, somewhat in the tradition of Bertrand Russell or Alfred Ayer. He has distinguished himself in the wider public by, among other things, defending fox hunting and by mercilessly attacking the oceans of post-modernist nonsense that have been pouring out of French and US universities – nonsense that is now invading our universities and increasingly our public discourse, probably in a response to the always manifest need for substitute religions now that traditional Marxism seems dead.
Second, and relatedly, Professor Scruton is, of course, a stalwart for freedom of speech. Partly this reflects what seems to be a penchant for cleverly formulated, often hilarious, controversial statements. A journalist recently wrote, tongue in cheek, that Scruton is, a “right-wing polemicist who’s been accused, over the years, of everything from racism to homophobia to, probably, global warming” – and who has consistently stood up for the right to free speech, for example, by defending the Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt, when he was recently hounded for making, perhaps lame, but fundamentally harmless remarks about how cumbersome it can be when, as a man, you fall in love with the gals in the lab and all the troubles that may cause, such as marriage (being married to a colleague myself, I can relate to this …I hope I won’t be hounded for this remark).
Scruton himself was if not hounded then certainly got in bad standing with the politically correct set when in 1984 as the editor of the Salisbury Review he published a short article by a headmaster in Bradford, Roy Honeyford. Honeyford’s piece was a quiet and fundamentally constructive warning against some of the concrete excesses of multiculturalism in the British school system. Honeyford was removed as a headmaster, the left side of the political spectrum, including many of Scruton’s colleague, I surmise, decided that Scruton’s level of evil was comparable to that of Enoch Powell (or worse). His academic career was then basically over. He has mostly been an independent scholar, and part-time farmer over the last two decades or so. So, Scruton himself has certainly paid those cost of freedom of speech that you may have to bear if you are a conservative public intellectual in a left-wing climate.
Scruton offers a principled defence of this freedom in various parts of his work. Such defences are of the utmost importance, given the now constant assaults that are being made on freedom of speech. These assaults are not isolated incidents. Attacking freedom of speech grows out of an ideology, but has become an industry, driven by social justice warriors, by parts of feminism, and by what we may call offence entrepreneurs—people who delight in taking offence and delight in the attention that their very public taking offence brings them. It is an industry that is becoming institutionalized as people benefit in terms of attention and money and jobs (“Bias response teams” in US universities, for example). To give an example, we now have a climate where a Scottish man who has apparently taught his dog to make the nazi salute faces hate-crime-charges. The only proper response to such foolishness is to shrug one’s shoulder and move on. The offence industry thinks otherwise.
Part of the principled defence of free speech is that, as a society, we should not only tolerate extreme opinions. We literally need them to probe the boundaries of our knowledge and push forward. Therefore, it will not do if, for example, right-wing opinions are deliberately suppressed in certain parts of our universities (as research has shown is the case). This is not to say that we should necessarily cultivate verbal aggressiveness, and that something is worthwhile because it is extreme. In fact, most of the time we should literally just shrug our shoulders and go on with our lives. But, useful extreme opinions cannot be formulated and thrive in a climate where all purportedly extreme opinions, at least on one side of the political spectrum, will be hounded.
But, I am sure, Professor Scruton can address this in a much more profound and eloquent way that I am capable of, so I am happy to pass the word to today’s recipient of the Sappho Award.