This week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a piece that includes the following sentence, about a man whom the author does not like: “He posts things on Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, disgraced evolutionary biologists who were fired for speaking against anti-racist protests on campus.” The sentence contains three transparent errors. After discussion on Twitter shed light on its libelous absurdity, the statement was amended to correct just one of the falsehoods—namely, that my husband, Bret, and I were fired from our tenured positions (we weren’t). Both the author of the piece, Ariel Saramandi, and the object of her ire, are from the small Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Later in the article, the same man, who is asserted to be a member of the “multicultural Mauritian alt-Right” is described as a “Heying–Weinstein enthusiast.”
This is a particularly strange sentiment to express, given the timing. I have just given a talk at Oxford, and Bret has just been on stage in London with Alister McGrath discussing the truths—literal or metaphorical?—to be found in religion. At Oxford, I spoke of the threats to academia, which include the authoritarian left, and Grievance Studies—but also the orthodoxy that has taken over science, in the pursuit of big money from grants. This orthodoxy has made science more reductionist, more reliant on metrics and less engaged with hypothesis. It has further silo-ed its practitioners, and made cross-disciplinary discussion ever more unlikely.
In my talk, I also spoke of the independent evolution—in so very many places on this beautiful planet of ours—of written language, of astronomy, of architecture and of city-states. I said that this should give us hope, that humans did not once and only once happen upon a set of solutions that flourished into civilization, but that we did so many times, across the globe, under myriad conditions. Our shared humanity should celebrate this.
I said, too, that, at university, we have the opportunity to teach students how to understand such claims, how to assess them, how to make meaning of them. Different minds will gravitate to different parts of the story—some will want to focus on the scientific methods by which we date artifacts, some will want to decipher ancient scripts, some will want to understand the significance of the arts, the roads, the concept of zero. But, whatever your route in, being exposed to these truths, and to the many tools by which we assess them, is what education ought to be about.
In this light, Saramandi’s piece strikes me as further evidence of the failures of modern education.
Her article also expresses a strange sentiment, given that, the very day before I encountered it, a young man had told me that Bret and I were providing an honorable and admirable model for marriage, a model otherwise largely missing from the landscape visible to him and to many of his millennial friends. He said that he and they were gaining value from seeing our romantic partnership between peers, in which both partners have agency, and voice and independence. He was grateful, this young man.
We had both been participants in a day-long event in London, the “Rebel Wisdom Summit,” which involved conversations on stage between the handful of us invited to headline, interspersed with small group conversations among those who had chosen to attend. With this young man, and others, we discussed what happens when men wean themselves from porn, why some species switch between monogamy and polygamy as their ecology changes, and the health of the oceans. Among other things.
In other conversations, I heard from socialists who voted Leave—that is, who voted for Brexit—because they see the EU as a corporatist cabal. I also spoke with moderate conservatives who voted to leave. One of them told me that she had also attended a protest wearing a Free Tibet shirt, because she is also, fundamentally, interested in human autonomy. While at the protest—and before spending time on the Remain side, to see the other perspective—she encountered an actual racist, a racial separatist, who was yelling despicable things. He was, she told me, being ignored by everyone, until she turned to him, made direct eye contact, and said to him, “You are better than this.” In so doing, she reminded him that he is human. He did not yell again in her presence.
The stark and bleak, righteous vs. deplorable dichotomy, which we’ve been encouraged to believe in, indeed to fight for—is not correct. It is not an accurate map of reality. So we should be asking: whom does it serve?
In a week’s worth of conversations in London and Oxford, Bret and I heard people from both left and right, upper class and working class, talk about their concerns regarding the watchful eyes of the state, and the de facto orthodoxy that is creeping in. So many people have faith that the human spirit can rise to the set of modern predicaments in which we find ourselves, but believe—indeed, know in their heart of hearts—that we need oversight and regulation of processes too large to contain within small political structures and policy fixes, but that there is an obvious tension between this and a need for privacy, time and space away from state control. How, at this late date, can we free ourselves from the corporate algorithms that capture our attention and resources, from the legal and ubiquitous mood-disrupters and exogenous hormones that so many people find themselves on, from the ever narrowing social norms of what constitutes acceptable discourse? In a sense, we have agreed to our own imprisonment.
In a week’s worth of conversations in London and Oxford, among Brits who voted to remain and those who voted to leave, among Americans who supported Clinton, Trump, Sanders or nobody at all, I never witnessed racism, or sexism, or behavior meriting any of the other slurs that it is now fashionable to sling at people. Certainly, racists still exist, as do sexists. I saw confusion. I saw naiveté. I saw hurt. But making wild and baseless accusations against good people who don’t harbor prejudice is not a thoughtful, humane or smart move. Yell nasty lies at people long enough, and some of them, ultimately, will radicalize. That is not going to be pretty.
What was written in LARB is, of course, also a strange sentiment, given that the protests that enveloped the campus at which Bret and I were tenured—the public liberal arts college many aspects of whose model we have defended avidly and consistently, despite the college’s abrupt and reprehensible turn towards the generic, the regressively woke and the authoritarian—have been well documented. It was those protests and the handful of faculty, staff and students behind them that were racist: not us. The top administrators colluded with the racists to achieve their own bureaucratic goals. Most of the students involved were pawns. As for everyone else: they were some combination of scared and confused. That is what happens when the mob arrives and demands your submission: people become terrified. And terrified people tend to make very bad choices indeed.
As Bret has said many times, including at forums at which he and I were the only liberals: “Actually, modern liberals and conservatives agree broadly on values.” Often, when he says this, the conservatives object at first—though they usually remain quiet as they wait for him to get to the punchline. But when he deploys this idea—that the vast majority of us share values—online, he is sometimes met with, I don’t think so—you liberals are nuts, and you brought this on yourselves! But, although conservatives and liberals differ in how we prioritize our values, how we view the current state of the world and what we view as the best solutions to the remaining problems, at our core, we all—except those on the outskirts, the extremists—want a society in which opportunity is broadly and fairly distributed, and basic needs are met, so as to allow for maximum human flourishing. Perhaps I, as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, am more interested in preserving more wild nature—more places where humans don’t get to produce, and make, and grow—than are conservatives. Or, actually, perhaps not. I have advocated for wild nature to people across the political spectrum, and this, too, seems to be a value widely held.
Saramandi, the author of the LARB article, who brazenly mischaracterized both us and our actions, responded online to another author, who claimed that Bret “sucks shit,” by affirming that “he’s vile, yeah.” When asked, “how do you know?” there was no answer.
So, accuser, can we talk? You have fictionalized my husband and me egregiously, and one of two things must be true: either that discovery will interest you, or it will not. I hope for the former, but expect the latter. Being human is complex, and we all should seek the better angels of our natures, while recognizing that we are also sometimes tempted to listen to the whispers of the devils on our shoulders. Let us learn from our world, ourselves and each other.
We are better than this.