BOZO Meets: Angelos Sofocleous


Elliot Leavy

Earlier this month, we glumly yet gleefully learnt that universities are now accepting papers riddled with feministified Mein Kampf quotes, others which proposed to train men like dogs and others still which attempted to answer one of the world’s greatest mysteries: why are there no fat bodybuilders?

At the other end of study aisle, we also became privy to the fact that even (perhaps the most lamentable of) scientists cannot speak out against the progressive paradigm, and instead are being sacked for infringing on people’s feelings rather than facing any kind of scrutiny under the scientific method. Who knew feelings had a place in science? Apparently they do. Here’s hoping that quantum computing will be the next big thing in the gender debate – are all robots binary?

It seems that we are truly undergoing a renaissance. Fortunately, the week before, I had a chance to speak to someone on the cusp of this new period of enlightenment: Durham Masters Philosophy student Angelos Sofocleous, former President-Elect of Durham University’s Humanism society, ex-Editor-in-Chief of The Bubble and ex-Assistant-Editor of Critique.

Why? The clue here is in the word former. The Philosophy student was sacked from an impressive number of university positions for retweeting the now infamous Spectator article, Do Women Have Penises? Whether or not you agree with this growingly grey area is irrelevant — it is exactly what makes it a topic worthy of debate. What matters more is that universities have begun to attack ideas and are adopting an incorrect definition of oppression – one synonymous with discussion.

Speaking over the phone, I began with the obvious: how did we get here? Why are universities treating certain topics with taboo? And why it is that the rule of the mob gets to decide an individual’s fate in 2018? At the other end of the line, a stoic and perhaps understandably dismayed Angelos first explained to me that it is not rule of the mob or the majority, but the minority who are calling the shots today.

“Universities are cautious not to offend and to be politically correct in an attempt to be inclusive and accepting of all people – which is of course what we should be doing. The problem is that they have gotten it very wrong, and by doing the right thing in bringing marginalised groups into these communities, we have conversely restricted any discussion on the ideas that are central to these fringe groups.”

In trying to establish a broad church then, universities are becoming more of the Puritanical sort, wherein any deviation from the perceived dogma is hunted down and dismissed in the hopes of achieving their own salvation. In such a world, there can be no shades of grey in thought  – the holy texts are exactly that, sacred and infallible.

“Many journalists, academics and researchers don’t feel comfortable or able to publish their findings due to worries that it will be construed as politically incorrect. The risks are high here, income and reputation are what is at stake,” Angelos added, experience being a given. His point was further demonstrated this week upon the release of a ComRes poll which detailed the opinions of 150 MPs on transgenderism. Alarmingly, the poll stated that 54% of those polled disagreed with the statement: “I feel I can speak freely on transgender issues without undue fear of social media attacks or being accused of transphobia.” 

Education aside, when we cannot even discuss topics in government for fear of offending, or later retribution, there is a problem.

Unfortunately, who deems what is and is not offensive has not been made clear at all. Is there a tool which we don’t know about? An oppressometer perhaps? Or maybe it’s an individual, a Pope of the Progressive Church? I referred back to the labour activist Miranda Yardley who, although a transwoman herself, received huge backlash and was banned from Twitter in May for echoing the viewpoints shared by Angelos.

“That’s the whole problem with being offended. No-one can say what is and what is not offensive as it is all entirely subjective. This whole scenario may have just have been orchestrated to fire me from my roles, which again reflects the problem of going, once again, on purely subjective terms – anything can be taken as offensive and, thus, weaponised, barring its discussion from the public forum, and not for entirely ethical reasons. Offence is not a valid reason to not engaging in debate. It’s the opposite. That is the beauty of getting outside one’s own bubble: to get offended and exposed to views you did not know to exist.”

Perhaps, naively, I thought that it would take thousands upon thousands of complaints to derail a student’s life so, I asked if he had received any details about who was actually offended. “No, they didn’t give any details about the event. It seems like it was a combination of a small outfit of people here at the university, and online. I’m not entirely sure and haven’t been told if there were any formal complaints, as such. It seemed to be the outrage and backlash on Twitter which fuelled it.”  

I asked if he worries at all about the fact that the intention behind a perceived injustice is no longer a factor in general discourse; what was his own intent, and why it was ignored?

“Two things are important here. One is intent, it doesn’t matter anymore if your actions were intentional or not, it can and will be deemed offensive if an individual decides it so. The second part is that it is now always the person who gets offended who gets to dictate the importance of the situation, the one who caused the offence has no say in the matter. It is a failing of distinguishing between the personal and ideological. Many ideological critiques are now being taken as personal attacks due to emotional bonds to ideas.”

So what was Angelos’ intent in retweeting the article?

“My critique was only on how gender today is being discussed. In my view, much of the current dialogue in the trans movement is reinforcing stereotypical ideas of what it is to be a man or a woman. Ideas which seem counter to the progress made in gender over the past decades.” This doesn’t sound like a particularly hardline point to make, and is one Angelos shares with many radical feminists. I can’t help but think that if Angelos was given even the slightest benefit of the doubt (read: assumed to not a be a bigot), then both his university’s and his own reputation would have remained intact.

The main problem with presuming persecution is that our idea of moral systems arose out of societal needs. If someone bumped into you on the street, we would never claim that they had physically attacked us personally, you would assume it was an accidental – without intent. This allowance/understanding of intent in our societal codes creates a buffer zone between opposite or opposing views – another grey area in which ideas can be discussed, lessons learnt, and society enabled through. 

So why now do we presume the opposite? Angelos is no racist, he’s not spewing hate at the bus stop — he is a Masters student of Philosophy at one of the world’s most established universities. If he is unable to critique an ideology, who on this planet can? I would argue no-one.

This all being said, it is true that the transgender movement holds a unique and difficult position. Almost uniquely, it goes toe-to-toe regularly with other leftist causes. I asked what makes the transgender movement so divisive, even in left-leaning circles, today?

“The T in LGBT is, fundamentally, different from all of the other letters because it denotes something which is different, in nature, to sexual orientation. It forces people to bend established biological facts in order to be accepted, while, like I mentioned, also reinforcing gender stereotypes of a bygone era.”

“Ultimately,” he explained, “the movement excludes the experiences of many other gender rights groups. Those who are intersex and don’t adhere to either traditional male or female types. Or those who are trans, such as the woman you mentioned, who don’t toe the line. These voices and views are being silenced by individuals who have taken over the debate.”

I raised the point that Martin Luther King referred to his “white brothers” and based much of his narrative on the commonality of Christianity. “Exactly, the Civil Rights Movement succeeded because it did not alienate itself from the rest of the population or groups within the population. Now, all marginalised groups are marginalising themselves even further through their identity. Going back to what I mentioned at the beginning, this is simply proving to be more isolating. My university, for example, has dozens of minority groups associations – this is understandable in many ways, but also can go too far and hinder group cohesion, which I think it has.”

Towards the end of my talk with Angelos, I thought it would be good to get his thoughts on the brilliant, but bitter Sarah Jeong of The New York Times. Jeong joined the editorial board of NYT last month and rose to fame/infamy for her bold, racist tweets attacking white people. The NYT said they were aware of the tweets and carried on with her employment anyway. In comparison, Angelos’ own retweet seems banal, yet the differences between how both authors were treated speak volumes. 

“It’s because it is perceived as anti-establishment and anti-privilege. White, heterosexual, middle-class males to be more precise. In an attempt to accept individuals, be inclusive and not say anything about minorities, identity politics has created an even greater gap between different groups.”

I then asked Angelos, who is Cypriot, if he thought people from Cyprus are privileged. Of course not, he laughed, but this led onto a point which I thought those on the left usually held close to their heart: “We come from a different place when commenting on these things. Cyprus is still a very old country in many ways, and what is deemed sexist or transphobic here wouldn’t be considered so at all there,” he said. “I had to explain to a lot of friends and relatives why what happened to me did.” Does this make the entire the population of Cyprus transphobic? Clearly not. Does this perhaps highlight the need for future discussion? Definitely. Does this show a complete lack of niceties in Durham University’s reaction? Quite.

At the end of the day, Durham has tarnished a foreign student’s reputation for voicing an idea reflected by both feminists and transactivists alike, an idea which is entirely scientifically sound and an idea which more likely than not has some ties to his upbringing and culture. Unfortunately, for Angelos, it is a currently an incorrect idea: one which adds one layer of nuance too many and one which paints a picture that offers a little bit more than the black-and-white world his punishers are comfortable with. 

In doing so, Durham joins the echelons of universities which are failing in their duty to act as places of learning. In some strange, Salem-esque haze, these establishments see nothing but oppression in discussion, Nazis around every corner, and significance in sacrosanct subjects such as Feminist Glaciology. If this is the path they wish to go down: one guided by a priestliness that feeds off a need to keep its students in a state of constant persecution and pariah, then godspeed to them. In doing so, I hope they understand that their reaction to a tweet, which will soon be forgotten by those it mollified, will not be forgotten by those who understand the importance of sapere aude (to dare to know).