Standpoint April 2016
You have to go back to Victorian England to find a match for the neurotic prudishness of contemporary culture. The BBC refuses to call Islamic State “Islamic State”, even though “Islamic State in the Levant” is its name. Instead of reporting neutrally, the broadcaster breaks its own rules against editorialising by pretending that religious terror has nothing to do with religion and calling it “so-called Islamic State”, to avoid offence.
The BBC is hardly alone. Everyone everywhere apologises to everyone else. Everyone demands the banning of everyone else. Societies where citizens bite their tongues and retract honestly-meant statements are neither particularly free nor particularly happy. And I don’t think our one will last.
However insulting the trigger warnings, the bans, the no-platforms, the demands for censorship are, their insistence suggests that a self-defeating variant of liberalism is approaching a terminal nervous breakdown.
You can argue about whether to call our culture post-modern, multicultural or politically correct. But its fatal contradictions ought to be beyond dispute. It was driven by the notion that a “rainbow coalition” of groups marginalised by straight white men deserved to be championed: women, gays, ethnic minorities. The alert among you will have noticed the first problem. There is no mention of class. An unemployed ex-miner coughing his guts up in a South Yorkshire council flat may be white, male and straight, but he is not more privileged than a female CEO, let alone a kleptomaniac politician in a post-colonial African state. Yet both the capitalist and the dictator can pose as victims and enjoy a global narrative that casts the sick old man as an oppressor.
Enormous consequences have flowed from the failure to think about economics. Across the developed world, Donald Trump and the European far-right parties are gratefully seizing on the lie that the white working class is by definition oppressive, and are busily detaching it from the Left.
A further difficulty is everywhere evident but hardly ever discussed. There is a distinction between believing in the value of anti-racism, say, or women’s rights, and defending a marginalised group regardless of what those who purport to speak for it say or do. Bertrand Russell’s “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed” floors you if you cannot grasp it.
What if the oppressed are not virtuous? What if a favoured group is the victim of racism one moment but sexist and homophobic the next? What if the rainbow coalition isn’t a coalition at all, but a collection of people of wildly different interests? What happens, in other words, when the colours of the rainbow clash?
The refusal to stick to principle and be against racism whoever the racist is, or be in favour of women’s rights regardless of whether the woman is white, brown or black, accounts for the hysteria on today’s middle-class Left. Feminists are banned as “whorephobes” or “transphobes”. Liberal Asians are derided as “house Muslims” and “native informants”. Jews are baited as “Zios”. Gay men are told they no longer suffer from the right kind of oppression.