Bursting Ben’s Bubble: Shapiro meets the rabid lefty Andrew Neil

I thoroughly recommend that you take sixteen minutes of your time today to watch just what happens when a leading Conservative pundit is required to leave his YouTube and Fox News safe space and respond to reasonable, rational questions put to him in a far-from-confrontational yet critical tone…

Shapiro, who throws around the “snowflake” epithet with wild abandon and regularly whines about the over-sensitivity of his political opponents, walked out of the interview because he thought that Andrew “Brillo” Neil was too much of a lefty. Yep, this Andrew Neil. That renowned darling of the left. As those wags at Private Eye — who have taken every available opportunity to highlight Mr. Neil over the years —  would put it, shurely shome mistake?

Shapiro’s tantrum was followed by the amusing meltdown of his hypersensitive fans who whined about Neil’s “rudeness” during the interview…

Watch the interview. Make up your own mind as to how Shapiro performed outside the echo chamber of his YouTube subscriber base. But make sure you watch right to the end. Andrew Neil’s closing line is delicious.


I wouldn’t even call ’em pathetic: The alpha-rated fragility of the Manosphere


If you’re not familiar with the internet sub-culture known as the Manosphere, you may want to look away right now. This is going to get ugly.

We’ll need the traditional trigger warning before we start…

If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, and/or fuck (or other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

My apologies for the need to include a trigger warning but, as we’re about to see, the Manospherians (Manospheroids?) are a hyper-sensitive and fragile bunch. They take offence at the drop of a fedora so it’s only fair to give any Manosphere-dweller that might be reading a heads-up — there’s some content ahead that they’re going to find ‘problematic’.

In the short video below, the wonderful somegreybloke explains the Manosphere so much better than I ever could. It’s well worth somewhat less than two minutes of your time…

To summarise Mr. Greybloke’s already pithy summary, the central premise of the average Manospherian is that “white heterosexual men living in affluent Western societies are the most oppressed and discriminated-against people in the world…living under the jackboot of a misandrist gynocracy… [because] the evil feminazis that control the vagina supply have imposed a secret genital boycott.”

Got that? Like Mr. Greybloke, this shocking revelation was news to me until I was introduced a few years back to the, ahem, ‘content’ generated by a number of leading lights in the Manospherical movement via this video series from the (Minchin-esque) Michael Rowlands. Oh, and of course this classic (from the aforementioned (first link above) Harry Brewis.)

Now, usually, the Manosphere’s residents are safely and happily ensconced in YouTubia, where they preach to their converted subscriber bases (which typically number of order a million or so). One of its denizens, however, has moved overground of late to participate in real world politics. I’m talking about the guy pictured in the Sky News tweet below…

Carl Benjamin — or, to use his Manospherian identity, Sargon of Akkad (…yes, I know; let’s move swiftly on) — is second on UKIP’s list for MEP candidates in the South-West of England (should the European Parliament elections go ahead.)  As David Baddiel points out in his tweet above, Carl, an out-and-proud Manospherian, tends to get very worked up and emotional about that misandrist gynocracy that’s happening under our noses (….if we’d only wake up.) Now, as a similarly out-and-proud social justice warrior (SJW), I’ve got to say that there’s nothing wrong, at all, with emotional responses. But Mr. Benjamin is a fully signed-up member of the “Fuck Your Feelings” brigade, who loudly claim that they put rational, dispassionate argument above all else. So here is Carl dispassionately musing on the subject of Eliot Rodger, the 22 year-old who murdered six people in California in 2014 because women rejected him…

(And just as I was writing this post, I note that The Guardian has, earlier this evening, picked up on the video above (although they don’t include the clip itself in the article): UKIP MEP candidate blamed feminists for rise in misogyny )

In case you couldn’t quite get the jist of Carl’s message there, here’s what the UKIP South-West MEP candidate (945K YouTube subscribers and counting) had to say about the murders:

When someone takes the option of absolute, insanely last resort, you have to wonder what kind of system is producing them. And I tell you what … it is a fucking feminist system that’s doing this

But it gets worse.

I tangled with “Sargon” and a few of his chums — including the gentleman advocating for paedophilia described in this Twitter thread – a few years back; I described Mr. Benjamin as “odious” on more than one occasion back then and I’ve certainly not seen any reason to revise that opinion just yet. (This was before I copped on and realised that, by reacting, I was simply taking the bait and doing nothing more than helping generate Patreon income for Benjamin and his ilk.) Kristi Winters, a political scientist based in Germany, has documented many instances (here are just a few) of Mr. Benjamin’s cluelessness on feminism and social justice. Indeed, she formally debated Benjamin a number of years ago, deftly highlighting the paucity of his ‘arguments’.

Benjamin’s “I wouldn’t even rape you” tweet neatly sums up all you need to know about the man’s quality of argumentation and wit in just five words. As Jess Phillips, MP, at whom Benjamin targeted his tweet, points out:

While the reading comprehension of a not-insignificant fraction of the “Sargon” fanbase doesn’t quite stretch to understanding the role that the inclusion of “even” plays in his infamous tweet, Mr. Benjamin himself certainly knows. He very deliberately left out the word when he called his mum to tell her about how naughty he’d been, and then uploaded the footage. (Yes, you read that right. A 38 year old man, and father of two, filmed himself calling his mum to tell her what he didn’t say to an MP about raping her. And then uploaded it for his cheering fans.)

Benjamin doubles, triples, and quadruples down on his tweet at any available opportunity, claiming that he doesn’t care about the “moral outrage” it generates. But then, as with most who claim to be vigorous defenders of freedom of speech, who whine incessantly about putting “facts above feelings”, and who throw around the “snowflake” label with relish, Mr. Benjamin does not respond at all well to jokes at his expense. When a “Sargon of Akkad” parody account was set up, instead of taking the criticism (the “banter”) on the chin, Carl was very clearly outraged. Some might even say that he was hurt. By jokes.

He’s also not quite grasped the concept of freedom of speech.

I’ve just finished reading the incredible “Rising Out of Hatred” by Eli Saslow. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a powerfully affecting account of how Derek Black — son of Don Black, godson of David Duke, and arguably the most important person in U.S. white nationalism before he rose out of the hatred — came to change his views and mindset. That happened not through ostracising and demonising the man but, remarkably, because his (Jewish, Hispanic, liberal, progressive) friends listened, countered the prejudices and deeply engrained ideology, and changed his views. They changed him.

I’d like to think that Carl might similarly one day realise just what role he is playing in stoking up hate and division; he’s been lauded by no less than Richard Spencer as a “gateway” to the alt-right. I don’t think he’s entirely comfortable with that dubious accolade. But he’s got a long way to go before he can let go of the fragile rage that drives him. It is now nearly two years since Heather Anable, a contributor to a channel called The Skeptic Feminist, was murdered by her boyfriend. Carl Benjamin, along with a number of other sick individuals, participated in a livestream, hours after Heather’s murder, to laugh at her death. Even some of his fellow Manospherians were disgusted by this.

I wouldn’t even, Carl.

I wouldn’t even.

I did not ever meet Heather but I got to know her via Facebook messages while I was a member of a social justice/feminist FB group for a few months. Heather was the first to see the good in someone. The irony is that she would have tried her best to talk with Benjamin, to try to find some common ground and to appeal to his humanity. She’d have loved to have read “Rising Out of Hatred.”

Image credit: http://whenthekidsgotobed.com/2013/03/12/the-bookshelf-no-girls-allowed/

15 minutes of…

Quite why it’s taken me so long to discover this Tim Minchin gem, I don’t know. It was released back in January. Aeons ago. But it’s not just Minchin’s signature clever lyrics — case in point,

Pick up your pitchfork and your torch. We’ll go hunt the monster down. But keep an eye out for uneven ground.  We’ll turn on you if you stumble.

— his quirky vocals, and his wonderful “earworm” melodies that have had me playing “15 Minutes” on an infinite loop. It’s also about the closest to new Jellyfish music we’re ever going to get ever since that transcendent band went to the great gig in the sky. (Well, OK, let’s not be over-dramatic. They just split up; the band members are still with us. It still felt like a bereavement to me, however, because “Belly Button” and “Spilt Milk” have been constant companions.)

And on a similar theme to that of “15 Minutes”, there’s also this criminally over-looked recent classic by Shattered Skies…

“To be seen, to be scene, to be seen…”

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]

There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:


My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))


“I’m a social media manager who hates social media”

A very, very quick blog post about this brutally honest and deliciously forthright cri de coeur: “Anonymous: I’m a social media manager who hates social media“. Well worth a few minutes of your time to read.

Sample quotes:

I hate being part of this machine. I hate helping these platforms grow – these spaces that fail to deal with fake news and abuse, and that are contributing to so many people having poor mental health.

These are all the kinds of things you’d probably expect to hear from a middle-aged man – the sort of old git who loves to get on his high-horse about, well, anything that disagrees with his world view.

But – surprise! – the person writing this article is actually a millennial. Moreover, a millennial who also happens to be a social media professional with more than a decade’s experience.

Crossing The Divide: Communicating with the Comms Crew


I’m just back from a fascinating and thought-provoking day at Woburn House Conference Centre in London where I had the pleasure of contributing to Making An Impact: Marketing and Communications in Higher EducationI’ll quote directly from the blurb for the conference:

 Making an impact: Marketing and communications in higher education will bring together communications, marketing, external relations and digital professionals to discuss the particular nature of university marketing and communications, to draw inspiration from outside the sector, and to examine case studies to help you progress and enhance your own marketing and communications strategy.

At the start of the academic year, the conference organisers, Universities UK, invited me to present and run a breakout session on the upsides and dark sides of social media in academia. I was delighted to have been invited, but what I found rather surprising, if not a little disconcerting, when I scanned down the list of hundred or so delegates this morning was that I was apparently the only academic attending.

Now, I realise that, as is clear from the blurb above, the conference was pitched at those in higher education comms, marketing, and external relations. But still. A conference on core aspects of HE that was largely academic-free is symptomatic of the troublesome “us and them” divide that increasingly exists between those “at the chalkface” and our marketing and comms colleagues at the “centre”. Although I’ve been fairly — or unfairly, depending on which side of the divide you fall — scathing of the more corporate aspects of HE branding, I of course fully recognise that we academics need the support and guidance of our colleagues in marketing and comms. But that runs both ways; there has to be mutual recognition of each other’s expertise. I hope that more academics will get involved with this type of conference in future.

Despite initially feeling like a stranger in a strange land, however, I got a great deal out of the conference. Robert Perry‘s opening presentation on “influencer mapping” was fascinating. Perry made a strong case for the much greater online influence of the individual academic over that of the institution, which chimes with our experience with Sixty Symbols (and Brady Haran‘s other channels): the lack of a corporate “sheen” in connecting and engaging with an audience is almost essential.  As a fellow geek, I was also intrigued by the “connectivity mapping” that Perry presented in the self-styled “Geeky Bit” part of his presentation.

Next up was the engaging and informative Sian Griffiths, Education Editor for the Sunday Times, who was interviewed by Michael Thompson of Universities UK. This was a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from the unhelpful defensiveness of a certain breed of  university press officer to whether unconditional offers for university applicants are a good idea. (As an admissions tutor, the latter certainly piqued my interest.)


Closing the morning session, we had Kirsty Walker, Director Media Relations, University College London and Beth Button, Campaigns Manager, Universities UK on the #MadeAtUni campaign. Georgina Munn’s tweet below captures the core rationale for #MadeAtUni. (Georgina is Customer Success Manager at The Access Platform (TAP)).

At this point I had not imbibed caffeine for a good ninety minutes, so rushed to grab a coffee before the palpitations kicked in. (Again.) Then it was up two flights of stairs to the Boardroom for a session on crisis management from Will Marsh, Head of Media at Bristol University, and Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager for the Science Media Centre. Universities UK worked Will hard for the conference — not only did he co-present this session but he and I jointly delivered a breakout session after lunch (see below). Will discussed the tragic student suicides that have happened at Bristol University over the last two academic years, describing just how he and his team dealt with the issues with sensitivity and insight. (Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail did not exactly cover itself in glory in its coverage of the tragedies. Handling intrusive tabloid coverage was a recurring theme of Will’s talk.)

Tom Sheldon similarly made mention of tabloid hyperbole in his presentation…


Despite being very much of the “glass half-empty, fallen on the ground, crushed to bits…and we’ll never get the wine stains out of the carpet” persuasion, I was hugely encouraged by Tom’s slide below:


In case you can’t read the text above, the headline message is that 90% of the UK public (via the MORI Public Attitudes To Science survey in 2014) trusted scientists working for universities to follow the rules and regulations of our profession. That is remarkable (and, from certain perspectives, rather at odds with attitudes to academics across the pond).

Will and Tom’s Q&A had to be curtailed so we all could go to lunch. Will and I made our way back to the Boardroom for our session, “Communications professionals and researchers: Collaborating for success”. I discussed my rather polarised relationship with social media. Working with Brady Haran on Sixty Symbols, Numberphile (and, very, very occasionally, Periodic Videos), and with Sean Riley on Computerphile, has completely changed how I think about not only public engagement but teaching in general. But I’ve also written about the deep downsides of social media engagement both here at Symptoms… and elsewhere.

The key message I wanted to get across to the comms/marketing audience in the room (who kindly listened to me drone on for twenty minutes or so) was that it’s a mistake to think that there’s an adoring public out there waiting for academics to enlighten them about our most recent world-leading, pioneering, game-changing, cutting-edge (add buzzwords ad nauseum…) research. As ever for this type of presentation, I asked how many in the audience had heard of GamerGate (just five hands went up) or Anita Sarkeesian (three hands raised). This is a concern, given that this was an audience of (social) media professionals. My slides are below.

Will’s presentation focussed on just how a university Media and Communications team can collaborate with academics who have been targeted on social media (and beyond) due to research which is perceived as contentious. Remarkably, one especially contentious area of research turns out to be work on chronic fatigue syndrome. Will, depressingly, discussed how Bristol academics have received death threats due to their work in this area. (This article in The Guardian, which Will cited, highlights one example of targeting of a Bristol researcher.)

There is, of course, no silver bullet solution to protecting academics from the adverse consequences of engaging publicly. (The related issue of just where the line is drawn between professional and personal online activity was something that was raised in the Q&A session following our presentations.) Will made this point repeatedly for very good reason throughout his talk. Regardless, however, of just how we respond to each crisis, what is essential is that there are always good lines of communication and a strong professional relationship between the comms/media team and the academic staff.

For all of these reasons (and many more), next time I attend a conference on marketing and communications in HE, I sincerely hope that, as an academic, I’m not in a minority of one.

Update 09/11/2018: I’ve just scanned this week’s Times Higher Education over breakfast and read Charlotte Galpin‘s insightful and timely article on academics engaging via video: “Video must not kill the female stars of public academic debate“. Her article certainly resonated with me — Galpin echoes a number of the points that Will and I raised during our breakout session yesterday:

Live streaming, live tweeting, posting and podcasting of academic events has become a standard part of universities’ dissemination strategies, and I had been asked to participate in this one just months into my first lectureship. Yet, it is not clear that the wider implications of the practice have been considered in any depth.

My university has been supportive, but it also expressed surprise over my Daily Express experience, and reassured me that nothing like that had happened before.

It beggars belief that a university can express surprise at the type of backlash Dr. Galpin received. This lack of appreciation of just how toxic and aggressive it can get “out there” is troubling and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. For one thing, Galpin’s article should be on the list of required reading for all HE media and comms professionals. Anita Sarkeesian’s TEDx talk should similarly be part of the learning resources for Social Media for Academics 101…