If a student finds on an American university website a lecturer’s essay about Lord Elgin; if that essay uses intemperate language about him, with words like looting, plunder, robbery, and even atrocity; and if the essay contains the clichés of advertising and journalism: then that student needs to be suspicious about the accuracy of what he or she is reading. It is prudent, when someone is careless about their language, to beware lest they be careless about their facts.
We have been reminded of this since our recent visit to the British Museum, and it was timely to remind students of it. There remains controversy about whether the Parthenon sculptures should remain in London or be returned to Greece, and feelings are strong on both sides; but character assassination, or indeed emotive language of whatever kind, has no place in academia.
The article in question was disquietingly close to what can be found on the social media, where people’s bona fides can be undeservedly questioned, damaged or ruined. There, by some strange dialectic, when someone—living or dead—has been identified online as a villain, then the digital mob that appears out of nowhere for the lynching of that person’s character believes that anything you care to say about him or her—true, false, fact, fiction, abusive, accusatory—is appropriate or even requisite. It is an unsettling feature of the internet.
But to return to the Parthenon sculptures: