Sebastian Spence

What does the Tim Hunt saga tell us about the future of democracy?

What does the Tim Hunt saga tell us about the future of democracy?
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A friend of mine, who attends a top UK University, recently attended a generic debate on feminism and sexual violence. He made a point from the floor that, contrary to his colleague who argued that unless consent is enthusiastic it constitutes rape, legally speaking consent needn’t be enthusiastic in order to be legitimate. What followed is simply astounding.

The next day he was called in to a meeting with a student union official, who informed him that a group of female students had made a joint complaint about him, raising concerns about their safety on campus. They had been going around warning other students that he is, apparently, a potential threat. The official handed my friend some literature on the definition of consent and asked him to tone down his behaviour. My friend, furious as one would expect, sent me an article he intended to have published in an online student paper. I told him I agreed with everything he said, but that he shouldn’t publish the article. Foaming at the mouth, he couldn’t see why he shouldn’t. My answer? He couldn’t win, and he stood to lose a lot.

Had he published, most people would have probably agreed and given him a virtual pat on the back. But what about the group who brought forward this complaint? Is there any doubt that they would have escalated the situation and continued to smear my friend? The Spectator has already covered how rabid some of today’s students can be. To back up my fears, I cited to my friend the example of Ben Sullivan, former president of the Oxford Union, whose reputation lies in tatters following allegations of sexual assault. Much of the attention resulted from a campaign by a female union official, who petitioned for him to resign and called on future union speakers to boycott debates. Many of them did. In the end he was acquitted, and it has emerged one of his accusers knew that her allegations were baseless. But the damage is done. The example was enough to convince my friend to let it go. Because regardless of who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’, much of this will end up on the internet and the truth won’t matter anymore.

These stories point to a long-term trend that society needs to think about. As illustrated by the recent Tim Hunt affair, people are more accountable to their actions and opinions than ever thanks to the internet. Largely speaking this is a good thing, but the internet has facilitated both the good and the bad. In the past, people’s wild views held at university would have been consigned to their drinking societies. That may change with my generation. Almost everything we do or say is online and we’ve been condemned to eternal scrutiny because of it.

What will be the effect of all this? My fear is that many young people will be caught out – that they’ll have to deal with their online past later in life. The savvier ones will start to self-censor. In fact, there’s evidence that they already are. Think about the ‘shy tory’ phenomenon, part of which is explained by an unexpected rise in the number of young people who voted Conservative. Why would you write an article defending the bedroom tax when you know that so many of peers your consider it ‘evil’? It isn't just online – you may even think twice about voicing an opinion considered un-PC in person, for risk of being subjected to a smear campaign like my friend.

This is potentially a frightening prospect. The way I see it, there are two possible future scenarios. The optimistic one is that because everyone has photos of them getting drunk online, and a lot of people will have written or appeared in potentially damaging articles, no one cares and you need not be overly cautious about your online presence. The worst case, and, I fear, the more likely one, is that people will become incredibly vigilant about their online presence.

Of course this doesn’t matter much when your ‘Summer 2013!’ photos go missing. But shouldn’t we all be concerned about a society in which people feel the need to censor their opinions? It hardly bodes well for a flourishing democracy. Perhaps more profoundly, part of being human is the ability to make mistakes and move on, developing as a person in the process.  This may turn out to have been a privilege reserved to the pre-internet generations, and society will be worse off because of it.