The Cherwell Affair

“Lying lips are abomination to the Lord, but they that deal truly are his delight” (Proverbs 12:22).

In February 2016, an Oxford student newspaper printed an article about me, alleging that I’d been involved in a campus “incident” in which I had made “verbally abusive, homophobic, sexist, and ableist” comments. One student quoted in the article (whom to my knowledge did not personally witness anything herself) went so far as to accuse me of having committed a “hate crime.” In the United Kingdom, it was defamation per se to have accused me falsely of committing such a crime. Shortly thereafter, that same defamatory account appeared in a different Oxford venue, Versa, which recycled the same falsehoods (the Versa article was pulled along with the rest of the website sometime in late 2018). The untruths from these Cherwell and Versa articles resurfaced obliquely in a second Cherwell article from September 2017 alongside new lies from one of the original false accusers quoted in the first Cherwell article, this time over a year after I’d already left Oxford to complete my doctoral work back home in the States.

Originally in 2016, I was advised not to take legal action to see the initial articles retracted, because opening defamation proceedings would potentially have only exacerbated the harassment I was then facing. However, late in 2017, I informally contacted the editors at Versa and Cherwell to see whether the articles might be taken down. I was told no. Because of their online presence for years (the Cherwell article was showing prominently all the way into fall of 2018 upon arriving at Wake Forest), it has caused many to form a false impression of both me and the events in question, and so I have felt it necessary to emphasize that I did not treat anyone wrongly as was reported, and that I am not the sort of man who would.

The allegations made in all three stories were false and malicious—I did not “threaten” or “disturb” my fellow Christ Church students. It is not necessary to take this simply on the authority of my word alone. Two separate eyewitness statements were supplied to the Christ Church Censors Office, independently establishing that I did not conduct myself in the way as reported by the Cherwell. There were many others present who  witnessed what happened and were prepared to speak out against the smear campaign that was being orchestrated against me. However, they were intimidated into silence. I do have, however, an anonymized copy of one of those witness statements, which is below. I have never been shown the second student statement, but I do know that the Oxford authorities received it, and that it corroborates what the first says. On receipt of that second statement, in fact, the Christ Church Senior Censor at the time, Dr. Brian Parkinson, said that he was expecting me to file a complaint against those also involved in the Cherwell hit piece.

Student Statement

Perhaps more importantly, here is a statement that I received from the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, on 30 August 2016, which sympathized with my situation, but advised me not to take legal action to have the article redacted, since my research and teaching record speaks for itself.

Christ Church Statement

It is true that I am not ashamed of my faith—I obey Christ. It is false that I mistreated anyone—I was not threatening or hateful, and it is untrue that, as one of my student accusers alleged, it had been “impossible to reason with [me].” If that description accurately characterizes anyone, it describes those who barged into the middle of a private conversation to accost me in a mob, lied in the Cherwell, intimated everyone who wanted to speak out about what they had seen happen, and then staged a self-aggrandizing photo-op to circulate over college email.

In smearing me, no doubt the students who supplied comment to the articles (or indeed whomever perhaps encouraged them to do so) meant to tarnish my reputation, in turn making securing an academic post basically impossible (I went two years without an interview); discouraging publishers from contracting any of my works in progress; supplying future ammunition for others to cast aspersions on me and my collegiality; and deterring others from including my work at conferences or inviting me for speaking engagements.

Occasionally, people ask me why I don’t take this tab down. Sometimes the implication is that I’m in the wrong by keeping the truth up. Often, there is the suggestion that this situation is in the past, as if in taking the truth down and moving on, all would be well. If only! The reality is that even though the facts have been in the public record for years, those involved even now ignore or misrepresent how their agitation propaganda worked in practice, and sometimes still they recycle the original untruths in ways directly damaging to my reputation and efforts as a philosopher.

In May 2018, for instance, my alma mater Cal Poly (SLO), from which I’d graduated in 2010 on very good terms, would not have me back to read from Phenomenology in France because Dr. Ken Brown, the chair of the philosophy department, told me “student activists” had threatened Dr. Doug Epperson, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, to “no-platform” me. Sadly, this sort of brainless Maoism was not a one-off. Later that year, I was ambushed by a student heckler at a Rice University talk, who, thoughtlessly regurgitating the Cherwell defamation, harangued me for half an hour during the Q&A session.

I know we live in strange times with increasingly bizarre standards of what counts as normal and acceptable, but I simply don’t see anything wrong with exposing lies. Deceit is what is in bad taste, not speaking the truth.