Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Disgrace of Andrew Dobson

On my way into town this morning, I received a text message. "Have you seen today's Sentinel!" The exclamation mark indicated urgency. What could it be? Had Paul Nuttall finally declared for Stoke Central? Had egregious backroom shenanigans made the paper? Has another local MP announced their resignation? It was something much more shocking. When I got to see a copy, the headline read: "University professor's online sex chats with underage girls". That doesn't properly convey the seriousness of the crime: said man was found in possession of some of the most disgusting and abusive imagery as well. What made it shattering was who the conviction was handed down to: Professor Andy Dobson, formerly of Keele University.

For those not familiar with his work, Dobson was, and I suppose still is, the world's leading green political theorist. His main contributions were around the notion of ecological citizenship, that large numbers of people were entering into politics with ecological and environmental concerns in mind, and this conditioned their activity, their modes of organisation and issues of interest, and the construction of their identity. Ecological citizenship had also become diffuse. As the state took on the language and practice of bureaucratically mandated equality, it too encourages moments of ecological citizenship. Engaging in recycling, saving energy, pedalling about or using public transport are green virtues that have integrated themselves into mainstream notions of good citizenship. Dobson wasn't content with allowing the state to become the repository of environmental virtue; the crisis of climate change could not be averted just by leaving out the recycling bin. It required active agency by citizens to change their behaviour and push for green policies. He was therefore an advocate of critical citizenship education in schools. This went beyond conventional understandings restricting citizenship to the sanctioned political process (i.e. the responsibility of voting and perhaps joining a political party). As the environmental crisis pays no attention to constitutional niceties, he argued that citizenship classes must teach students how to organise non-conventionally. In other words, alongside learning about politics and parties, they must cover the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, how to mobilise participants for demonstrations, lobby politicians, organise civil disobedience and so on. Latterly, Dobson was also exploring the the place of listening in political theory. With the decline of dialogue and the reduction of political debate to name calling, outright lying and affected ignorance, a major study in this area could have been as timely as potentially useful.

When I was doing my PhD, I saw and spoke to Dobson almost everyday. He was a popular member of staff and was very well liked by the students. Considering his superstar status, there was none of that arrogant nonsense surrounding his person. And as far as I knew, he had a teaching load no different to his less celebrated colleagues. Dobson is partly responsible for my doctorate, he was the internal examiner of my thesis. And everyone knew "Andy" to be an extremely busy man. When he wasn't discharging academic duties, Dobson gave the local Green Party a lot of time and personally oversaw many of its campaigns in North Staffordshire. He went so far as to write the party's 2010 General Election Manifesto. Always busy, always up to his neck in one project or another. I can remember more than one occasion where postgrad students and lecturers wondered where he got the time from to do all this stuff.

And then, suddenly, it all stopped. I was talking to someone a couple of summers ago, and they told me about Dobson's disappearance. One day he was there, the next he was gone. There was no explanation. His website was wiped of all material, he answered no text messages or emails. The University basically scrubbed him, though no one apart from senior management knew whether he was remained employed or not. The assumption I and many others made was the volume of work had got the better of him and he'd undergone a crisis or mental collapse of some sort. The disappearance and extreme withdrawal from his career and friends a means of trying to find balance. And this was very much the view of one of his friends I saw just before Christmas. Now we know it was because he'd been arrested on sex abuse imagery and internet grooming charges.

I have absolutely no sympathy for Dobson. I feel for his young family, for his friends and colleagues he disgracefully let down. And most of all, the young girls he groomed online. I hope Dobson's predatory behaviour will not leave them with psychological scars and lasting harms. Unfortunately, his sentence - 10 months suspended and 10 years on the Sex Offenders Register - does not reflect the seriousness of the offences he admitted to. His reputation is in tatters, most of his friends and acquaintances will now forever shun him, but he should be thanking his lucky stars. If he hadn't got a brilliant career and wasn't a pillar of the local establishment, if he was a postman from Cross Heath or supermarket worker from Shelton, how likely is it the judge would have proven so forgiving and lenient?

What this means for the future trajectory of his work is unclear. Academia tends not to be like the world of pop, whereby the works of sex offender rockstars are placed on the list of proscribed tracks. When Louis Althusser murdered Hélène Rytmann, his wife, apparently in his sleep, he was remanded to psychiatric custody. There was a tidal wave of shock, but all throughout the early part of the 1980s Althusser's ideas were taken seriously, discussed, critiqued and eventually abandoned as intellectual fashions moved on. What will be the reception to Dobson? Will his ideas and the emerging research programme survive his disgrace? One thing is sure, he himself is done. There is some assistance available to people who have unacceptable desires, as explored a couple of years ago by Channel Four, but Dobson chose not to avail himself of this. Instead he secretly, craftily made the decision to abuse young girls online, and compound that suffered by others by acquiring abusive imagery. We'll never know why he risked everything for a cheap criminal thrill, but he is entirely responsible for his choice.


Speedy said...

Heidegger is a good example of someone whose personal choices were repellent but whose philosophy is still respected. Also Celine.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Thank you for your clear post.

Matthew Wyman said...

Phil, I don't think anyone could disagree with your shock and horror about Andy's choices. But your excellent blog shows there is more to him than that too. I always loved the quote from the Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” I do think we need to put everything into the balance, including the important influences you so articulately acknowledge.

Anonymous said...

Is there any chance of his work continuing?

K Fearon said...

Thanks for this. I used to be a Circles volunteer, and I think their work is incredibly important - it certainly does seem to have a positive effect.

For anyone who has thoughts of child abuse on their mind, I'd urge them to phone the Stop It Now helpline and talk to someone - anonymous, confidential and non-judgemental. They are there to support you in stopping or preventing abuse.

Anonymous said...

Millions of people around the world bought the book 'Fifty Shades of Grey' or watched the film. They were all voyeurs in fantasies of rape, bondage and sado-masochism. If all these people were prosecuted for fantasy, a sizeable proportion of the population would be on the sex offenders' list. The point of this case is that it involved fantasy, not reality. In reality, Dobson was probably not in an online chat to a 13-year-old but to another 50-year-old believing he was in an online chat with a 13-year-old. It is sad, but not criminal. Possessing offensive pictures is also subjective - Facebook recently decided that the picture of the naked girl fleeing the Hiroshima bomb was obscene - this without any sense of history/context/proportion/common sense. As it stands now, a good man and brilliant academic (to all accounts he was popular with staff and students) will never publish, work, or be listened to again. Which of us could really say that if the entire contents of our computers were open to public scrutiny we would pass the shame test? And then that we would deserve our entire lives/careers to be ruined without any possibility of redemption?