TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
The commotion at Edinburgh University over the psychology lecturer Christopher Brand, which followed an exposition in this newspaper of his scientific-racist views on intelligence, has encouraged me to think that the Internet is a civilising force after all. In cyberspace, it's easier to tune into first principles than it is on the ground.

Brand's publisher, John Wiley, dropped his book The g Factor on the eve of its publication. As Brand's employer is not so free to jettison him on the grounds of his opinions, the local objections to him rapidly broadened into a chorus of complaints about his teaching style and his relations with his students. A few years ago, a similar furore blew up around Vincent Sarich, who used his anthropology class at Berkeley to air pugnacious views on a range of political and social topics. Percy Hintzen, a professor of Afro-American studies, said that his own class "acted as a release mechanism for the emotional and physical devastation of having to listen to Sarich".

Like Hintzen's melodramatic declaration, the reaction to Brand smacks of the idea that education is primarily a form of therapy, and that the role of educators is to protect their delicate charges from notions that might distress them. It also smacks of the belief that people can't be trusted to make up their own minds about dangerous ideas. Just what the world needs: a Californian view of the psyche combined with a Chinese approach to information management.

I've been following the Brand affair with particular interest, since my own Web site is devoted to the relationships between science, race and society. Having acquired a copy of Brand's book, I've been able to outline some of his ideas using the original source. I've also been commenting on the basic principles involved, that seem to have become lost in the fog of indignation.

Like many other sites, mine carries a small graphic depicting a blue ribbon, which affirms the principle of free speech on the Net. It's quite simple: I support free speech and oppose racism. Once upon a time, the connection between these two ethical imperatives would have seemed obvious and unproblematic. Nowadays, in the real world, it tends to bring out liberal squeamishness rather than pride.

On the Net, though, it's no big deal. In any other medium, all traces of ideological taint would be scrupulously expunged from something called Ethnicity, Racism and the Media. On the Web, one of the links provided by this anti-racist site is to Stormfront, a "White Nationalist Resource Page". In Norway, the "Nazism Exposed" site not only provides links to cyber-Nazis, but also a selection of Nazi graphic images.

Hate e-mail sent to the site is on display too - along with the authors' e-mail addresses. "Hate Page of the Week", a US-based site, goes further. "It's mean, I know," admits Frank Xavier Placencia, "but here's a White Nationalist phone list. Go crazy." This would be a step too far for traditional liberals, but they could only applaud Placencia's opening declaration that he is "NOT advocating censorship of these groups". Once again, the first principle comes first.

Sites like these express confidence that most Netizens are civilised individuals, who can be trusted to contemplate extremist rhetoric and images without being depraved or corrupted. Free speech is seen as the basis of a healthy online civil society; because it implies engagement, not denial.

The Race Gallery site is at http:// www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/racegallery/: the other sites mentioned can be found via its onward links.

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