I tend to steer clear of YouTube content promoting the dubious agenda of men’s rights activism, but unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. When I read the news of English teacher Will Knowland’s dismissal from Eton for refusing to take down a video from his YouTube channel, I had to see what it was all about.
I kind of wish I hadn’t. The video itself (which is freely available on YouTube) is pretty vile – and I don’t use that word lightly. The issue with the video is that it presents inaccuracies as if they were established facts, and false logic as if it were sound reasoning. Will Knowland sounds measured and intelligent as he speaks – something that ultimately makes what he says more worrying.
The essence of what the video is trying to convey is that gender differences have nothing to do with social constructs and all to do with biology. Knowland alleges that women use their biology as an excuse to get out of all the necessary toil in this world, and to avoid participating in active warfare. He claims that women seek to make men fight over them and that men are hard wired for violence. Bizarrely, Knowland seems to have forgotten that women make up a huge and likely underestimated proportion of the world’s farmers. He also forgets that while women may not be as commonly deployed on the frontlines as men in war situations, they often bear significant economic and social burdens as a result of war. With rape and enslavement frequently used as war tactics, women and children are affected by combat in ways that men don’t experience quite so often.
Knowland’s arguments are specious, and some of them seem to stem from an ideology much like that of the incels – a ‘men’s rights’ group who claim to be ‘involuntarily celibate’ as a result of female sexual choice. They believe that women only go for ‘alpha males’ and thus leave the remainder of men without the sexual and romantic partners they ought to be entitled to. Not only is no-one entitled to sex, but the plain facts of life disprove this. Nevertheless, Knowland’s video seem to echo incel ideology – something that has inspired around 44 killings since 2014. According to Knowland, women would revert to a primitive state without men.
Anyhow, I have gone into his video in enough detail. What I want to focus on is the row that has ensued over Knowland’s dismissal.
The video he made was intended to be part of a critical thinking course for students. It was never actually shown to pupils but it was shared on a staff intranet where another teacher saw it and complained. The video has now been viewed well over 100,000 times on Knowland’s YouTube channel.
For many media outlets, Knowland’s dismissal is a question of free speech, and a symbol of how Eton itself is being pulled in two directions – one being progressive and liberal thought (decried as ‘wokeness’ by some) and the other being tradition. I don’t think Knowland’s video has much to do with ‘tradition’, and I frankly don’t think this has anything to do with free speech.
Freedom of speech in the UK is legally limited depending on the context – and this has always been the case. As a teacher in a school, Knowland has to uphold certain behaviours in accordance with his position there. Many teachers are required to adhere to social media usage policies, as established by the schools in which they work. It must be remembered that Eton’s headmaster, Simon Henderson, did not automatically dismiss Knowland upon viewing the video; he simply asked him to take it down – a request that is contingent with any typical social media policy that a school might have.
Knowland’s case is not so much about freedom of speech but what is appropriate in an educational context. You see, the idea of a male teacher showing such a video to a classroom of impressionable and already privileged boys is deeply troubling. Such an environment may mean that the ideas Knowland expresses will not meet a counter-narrative – perhaps the only thing that could make such a biased piece of content even vaguely healthy.
You see, all schoolchildren – of all genders – are impressionable. And schoolchildren have already normalised and accepted a society where girls are often subject to ills that boys do not face. Sexist attitudes creep in at a young age and stay with our young people; they can often only shake these off if they deliberately ‘unlearn’ them in adulthood. This is why a video such as the one Knowland made is totally inappropriate; society is in no way biased towards women – reinforcing a falsehood that it is only furthers sexist thought.
Schools can be – inadvertently or not so inadvertently – hotbeds of sexism. At my all-girls school I had a male form teacher in years eight and nine who probably was a bit of a Jordan Peterson type. This man also taught my class PSHE – which for about a whole term consisted of him giving us a budget and telling us to ‘plan our weddings’. Fast forward a few years to sixth form, when I took part in a Model United Nations club, joint with the boys’ school from across the road. For context, Model UN was one option out of a series of extra-curriculars – at least one of which we were obliged to take; very few people actually wanted to be there. I nevertheless did. I was always a good debater, but this was the first time I had debated boys. Yet instead of a debate, I faced full-blown aggression – including thinly veiled hints of rape and violence – all of which occurred in front of a female teacher, who appeared to be just as scared of the boys as I felt. All this because I showed confidence in speaking my mind. I lost quite a lot of confidence after that.
Though the boys’ school across the road was certainly not Eton, it was an entirely male environment. In such environments, sexist narratives can run rife with nothing to counteract them. I think Knowland’s video is probably just the very visible tip of the iceberg in this situation; with so many parents and pupils defending him, it seems that such narratives may sadly already be ingrained in many of Eton’s students.
Eton boys are the very privileged men of tomorrow – and they ought to go on to use their privilege for good (seeing as they likely have an abundance of it). But that cannot happen while teachers like Knowland are allowed to brainwash students. Henderson was right to sack Knowland for refusing to take down that video – but maybe it’s a good thing he refused, because anyone who makes a video like that to show to their students probably shouldn’t be a teacher anyway.