21 September 2023

Wikipedia and the culture war

• In January 2018 I published a post about the Ethics-and-Empire scandal. This was a shameful episode in the history of academia, centred on the University of Oxford, in which a number of junior and senior academics engaged in a bullying exercise against one of their own, for daring to flout the prevailing taboo against discussing the topics of empire and colonialism other than negatively. I had, and still have, no personal interest in this topic, but I felt that the behaviour of the dons in question was wrong and harmful.
   My post was intended to make the perpetrators of the bullying look bad, and I guess it succeeded in doing so. It can't have been pleasant for the academics to have been exposed and censured in this way, but I do not think bullying of dissidents should be tolerated, and there was nothing underhand in my critique. The academics in question should have taken it on the chin.
   Ten days after my post appeared, two Wikipedia users, acting in apparent collusion, succeeded in getting my Wikipedia article (which had been there for 15 years) nominated for deletion. The timing was so close to that of my blog post that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the vandalism was a revenge attack.
   Rather than demoralising me, the vandalism encouraged me to write a full-length article about the Ethics-and-Empire issue. This generated a significant number of views, and seems to have widened awareness of shenanigans within the humanities well beyond what would have happened if I had not written anything more than the blog post. So the action of the vandals backfired. (The deletion attempt, incidentally, failed.)
   I have no idea who was behind the attack: whether it was some of the academics themselves, or one or more of their minions, or some fanboys/girls of one of the academics, or simply one of the global army of SJWs who believe they are fighting on the same side as intolerant humanities professors.

• As anyone who has been observing political and cultural affairs for the last few years should have noticed by now, there is — in the words of the Home Secretary — a war out there. If you don't observe things with a critical eye, the war can seem invisible, but that is because the media is largely on the side of what has become the culturally dominant team.
   Calling it a culture war captures only half the truth. Physical violence is rarely involved, but the war goes well beyond mere intellectual and moral positioning. People's lives and careers are at stake. Many of those who consider themselves on the 'right' side — and SJW is as good a term as any for them — seem to feel justified in using whatever methods are available, including dirty tricks.
   They like to present themselves as being on the side of the deserving underdog, and the opposition as hostile to underdog groups. Since they control cultural institutions and hence the dominant narratives, this myth has become easy for them to perpetuate.
   In reality, the war is about oppression versus tolerance. Ironic, since it is they who have always claimed to oppose oppression and intolerance (though there is less reference these days to the latter, presumably because their claims to be on the side of tolerance have become hard to sustain). It is they, rather, who are the oppressors, or wanna-be oppressors.
   Every day they no doubt convert hundreds more to their cause, using their control of parts of the education system, particularly in the tertiary sector, to indoctrinate students. Given their apparent dominance, the counter-struggle to maintain openness and tolerance can easily seem doomed. Fortunately, the Brexit and Trump phenomena demonstrated that there are many ordinary people on the side of anti-oppression. Contrary to the wisdom of the il‑liberal elites, those ordinary people are not stupid, or racist, or any of the other slurs SJWs like to throw at them.

• Perhaps I am getting too close again to exposing some of the intellectual frauds at the heart of the academic humanities profession. Last year I began to critically analyse Oxford professor Paul Collier's socialist handbook, The Future of Capitalism (see here, here and here); earlier this year, I highlighted the contradictions of anti-individualists such as Daniel Kahneman.
   This time, the interval between critique and counter-attack has been longer. And rather than attacking my page — which may have been deemed unsuitable as a target since it survived a take-down attempt too recently — they have gone for the page of my colleague Celia Green.
   Via what appears to have been another hostile double act, within a 48-hour period starting on 31 May my colleague's article — which had remained largely stable for over ten years — was first nominated for deletion, and then given a makeover to reassign her to the derogatory category of 'parapsychologist'. The effect of the hostile edits was detraction from what she is best known for: philosophical scepticism, through books such as The Human Evasion, and pioneering research on lucid dreams and false awakenings which helped to put those two phenomena on the map. At the same time, the article on our organisation, Oxford Forum, was also mooted for deletion by one of the double act (by adding a notability tag).
   Oxford Forum is of course a thorn in the flesh of the University, not because we pose any meaningful threat to an organisation hundreds of times larger than ours, but simply because, like most other members of the il-liberal elite with comfortable positions, they find it hard to tolerate serious challenge of any kind.

• Inevitably, Wikipedia is becoming yet another locus for the culture war. The gradual woke‑isation of many of the articles with political themes highlights the weakness of the wiki model, which in other ways seems to have been surprisingly successful. The model works well in uncontroversial areas such as most of the sciences, history and general knowledge. It can be argued there is excess volume in certain areas — whole pages devoted to minor cartoon characters or individual soap opera episodes — but those can be ignored. By and large, Wikipedia has become an incredibly helpful tool.
   However, the wiki model works less well with controversial topics, or with living persons. No meaningful "NPOV" is possible when it comes to issues such as Trump, or alt-right, or cultural Marxism, or communism. It boils down to a battle of numbers: how many Wiki contributors have the skill and energy to spin the article in one direction, versus those who would like to spin it in the other direction.
   Take the article called 'Collectivism'. In 2012 this reflected a reasonable balance between positive and negative. (Here is a link to a saved version of the old article; note particularly the section 'Criticisms'.) By 2021 the article had turned distinctly biased, with collectivism being given a largely positive spin (paraphrasing: "it's so much better than individualism, which is selfish and uncaring!"), and the Criticisms section disappearing. Unfortunately I didn't keep a copy of the 2021 version — I assumed I could come back to it later — because the article has now been removed altogether. What remains is an article on Communitarianism which is almost entirely favourable, and dominated by woke-speak such as the following:
Early communitarians were charged with being, in effect, social conservatives. However, many contemporary communitarians, especially those who define themselves as responsive communitarians, fully realize and often stress that they do not seek to return to traditional communities, with their authoritarian power structure, rigid stratification, and discriminatory practices against minorities and women. Responsive communitarians seek to build communities based on open participation, dialogue, and truly shared values.
Such woke-speak is not exactly false, but hopelessly vague and one-sided, rather like material in a religious manual.

My verdict on Wikipedia:
Do not consult it on any topics to do with political theory; articles in this area are (by now) likely to be unreliable and/or biased. For such topics you are better off with Encyclopedia Britannica. Or supplement with Conservapedia to get a different perspective, for the sake of balance.