Like a lot of people these days, I’m spending far too much time watching Netflix. There is a lot to enjoy, but one series that has stood out for me is The Chair.
This takes place in the somewhat decrepit English department of Pembroke University, a fictitious establishment that looks to be located in New England. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh of Killing Eve fame, has been appointed chair. She is the first woman to hold that position. Student numbers are down and attendance for some of the lectures is in single figures.
The whole story is told in just six half-hour episodes, but it still manages to explore weighty issues around freedom of expression, the nature of truth and the dangers of social media. I’d like to deal with just one plotline here, and I should warn you there a spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you intend to watch the series.
Bill Dobson is perhaps the most popular lecturer in the department, and a favourite with the students. However this term he is in a bit of a mess on account of the recent death of his wife. He is drinking too much and behaving erratically. He commences his second lecture, in front of a packed audience, by writing the words ‘Fascism’ and ‘Absurdism’ on the board. He points to the first and says “All meaning is ascribed to the state”; he points to the second and says, “There is no meaning”. He then performs a Nazi salute and says “Heil Hitler” before continuing with what sounds to be a fascinating lecture on how contemporary writers did not despair in the face of fascism but continued to fight in whatever way they could.
However the students are no longer listening. As I suspect is common these days, they are recording the lecture on their smartphones and have realised they have captured their lecturer performing a Nazi salute. Before you know it someone has popped a Nazi-style hat on Bill’s head and the video has gone viral, posted to social media and shared around, gathering hits as it goes. Pretty soon the students are stood around in groups loudly protesting “No Nazis at Prembroke!” and the national press is starting to sniff around.
Ji-Yoon realises she has to do something or the reputation of the department will fall even lower. A disciplinary meeting is held at which the long-standing Dean (an elderly white male played by David Morse), reminds her that they have a “straightforward protocol” for such situations which dictates that Bill issue an apology. Later we see Bill addressing a group of students. He attempts to apologise with the words, “I am sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings.” However, as the students point out, that is not an apology for committing the act itself, and the scene ends with them chanting “No Nazis at Pembroke!” and “Dobson out! Dobson out!” with renewed vigour. The students have ‘cancelled’ Bill which means any possibility of further dialogue is over.
The problem for Dobson is that he doesn’t think he’s done wrong, and I am inclined to agree. Some might argue that there are no circumstances in which you may execute a Nazi salute because it is simply too offensive. And yes, a Nazi salute is a powerful symbol, conveying very effectively a blind acceptance and belief in the Nazi regime, whatever it may do or say. In the context of Bill’s lecture it reinforces “All meaning is ascribed to the state” as a fundamental characteristic of Fascism. However the idea that it implies Dobson himself must be a Nazi is, to use his own words, “demonstrably stupid.”
Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and defended in the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States. That said, most countries do provide a legal framework limiting a person’s right to disseminate falsehood or incite crime. If you slander or libel then you should be held to account, but if you shock or upset then the situation is more nuanced. Holocaust denial, for example, is illegal in Russia and many European countries, but not in Britain or the United States. The American historian Deborah Lipstadt endured the experience of being sued in London for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving (as portrayed in the film Denial). The case was eventually dismissed and she has since stated that she remains “… a firm opponent of laws against Holocaust denial” and that she’s “… a pretty fierce advocate of the First Amendment.”
But alongside freedom of expression lies the obligation to take responsibility for what you express. Bill takes full responsibility for his actions – indeed he has no choice as it is clearly him in the video, fictitious hat notwithstanding. The student who created the video does not, choosing instead to hide behind the anonymity that social platforms provide. They were aware of the context surrounding the salute, but chose not to share it. They choose to remain silent when the video is disseminated as ‘proof’ that Bill is a Nazi.
The students are clearly outraged by Dobson’s actions, but whether their outrage is genuine is harder to establish. We only see a couple of minutes of the lecture, but presumably it continued for at least half an hour. Did they really sit there in silence all that time, having disseminated the doctored video, and then quietly make their exit? Bill is clearly approachable: we see a student responding to a question. If they were that outraged, why didn’t they express their feelings there and then? Do they really believe their lecturer is a closet Nazi? Or is it rather that outrage serves to enhance status, and even boost income? After all outrage is now a major component of the business model of many social media platforms.
What is also interesting is that no one from the department questions the actions of the students, or suggests that the creator of the video bears any responsibility. Instead, powerless in the face of relentless algorithms, they can only cower behind the barriers and hope that an apology will make it all go away.
Ostracism has always been a powerful sanction, threatening social status and even livelihood. Dobson can hardly continue as a lecturer if he has been ‘cancelled’ by his students. The students, with their ‘outrage’ and the powers of the algorithms of social media behind them, may have ‘won’, but in the process they have effectively destroyed the college they attend. What The Chair demonstrates is how social media has shifted the balance of power, but if your response is to limit the scope of your expression for fear of provoking outrage, then you are doing exactly what the real fascists amongst us want. As George Orwell put it, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”