POLITICAL CORRECTNESS is destroying its own. It is abandoning its children, and declaring them illegitimate, and shouting down activists who once subscribed to its doctrines. Women are suffering the most, as they usually do. “Radical feminist” is now an insult on campuses and in many “progressive” corners of the Western left. Fall into that pariah category, and your opponents will ban you if they can and scream you down if they cannot.
It is tempting to say “serves you right” or “I told you so” to the feminists on the receiving end of the new intolerance. For years, a few of us have warned that the modern liberal-left would live to regret abandoning the principle that you should only censor opinions when they incited violence. It is only human to want to enjoy our vindication with the usual self-righteousness. But we will not understand why Western societies have become so hypocritical and tongue-tied if we do not understand what drove feminists to ban and what drives so many to ban them today.
A generation ago, a faction within Western feminism campaigned to make pornography illegal. They believed it caused harm by inciting men to rape. If that was not enough, they added that sexual fantasy spread stereotypes that demeaned women as well as inciting violence against them. “You have no identity, no personality, you are a collection of appealing body parts,” the American law professor Catharine MacKinnon told her followers in the 1980s. Pornography “strips women of credibility, from our accounts of sexual assault to our everyday reality of sexual subordination. We are reduced and devalidated and silenced”. If a woman applied for a job, the man behind the desk would think only of getting her into bed. If she reported her rape to the police, officers would think that she “wanted it really”.
However hard they tried, they could not prove pornography harmed women and nor could anyone else. No psychiatrist or sociologist has been able to show that pornography brutalises otherwise peaceful men rather than, for instance, providing a harmless outlet for repressed desire. As for the second claim that pornography led to women’s wider subjugation, it was too airy and declamatory to test.
For all its faults, America has the First Amendment, which protects free speech and freedom of the press. The US Supreme Court duly struck down an ordinance MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted for Indianapolis City Council in 1984, which would have allowed women who said pornography had harmed them to sue. The judges might have killed the law but it did not kill the argument. The impulse behind the original demands drives the zealous campaigns against sexist advertising and naked women in tabloids, which continue to dominate so much of feminist debate.
Even if you think that a wing of feminism moved into a puritanism not too far away from the God-given puritanism of the religious Right, you should accept that the debates about free speech are unavoidably ferocious because the desire to suppress is close to universal. It is certainly universal among the politically and religiously outraged.
WHEN HE drafted his “harm principle”, which placed liberal limits on speech, John Stuart Mill considered the case of corn merchants. They were the bankers of the mid-19th century, hated and feared. Radical agitators denounced them for hoarding grain and forcing the masses to choose between inflated prices and starvation. Conservatives feared riot and revolution, and wanted to protect the social order by silencing the agitators. Mill said they could censor only if radicals were inciting a mob to commit a crime: to burn down a corn merchant’s house, or attack him in the street. Incitements aside, radical journalists should be free to write what they wanted, even if their charges against corn merchants were outrageous. Their opponents could test, and mock, expose and refute them. They could use all the weapons a free society offered to change the public’s mind. But they could not use the law to stop opinions they loathed. In the silence that followed, conformism would suppress new ideas and challenges to conventional wisdom.
To a woman struggling to be treated equally and taken seriously, Mill’s permissiveness must appear next to useless. All around her society shows women as lumps of meat for men to drool over and prod. They challenge her sense of who she is and what she may become. But according to the old liberalism, she cannot censor unless she can prove that pornography and sexualised films and advertising are causing rape or promoting prejudice. Why should she accept a bar raised so high she can never jump it? Why should she spend years arguing for men to change, when experience has taught her that men don’t change? State power could spare her from hard and unsatisfactory argument and give her what she wanted in a moment.
The same applies to a black man confronted with the everyday racism of parts of the Right, or a Jew confronted with the everyday racism of Islamists and parts of the Left, or a gay man worried about homophobia or a Muslim frightened of Islamophobia. They don’t want to be told they can ban speech only if a speaker whips his audience into such a state they are ready to attack a mosque or a gay bar or a synagogue. They feel the urgent hurt of prejudice now, and they want it stopped. A failure to demand that newsagents take sex magazines off the shelves, or that the police arrest a racist on Twitter, or that the government pass laws against “hate speech,” is a kind of betrayal. Defeating your opponents in argument is not enough, when argument contains an admission that they at least have a case that is worth arguing against. Only silencing them can show your commitment to the cause, and provide an authentic measure of your disgust. Anything else is a collaboration with those who hate you.
I will go further and say that, regardless of colour or creed, most people who have suffered from insults have wanted their abuser silenced, even if what he said was true—especially if what he said was true.
In the mid-20th century, conservative philosophers provided justifications for banning homosexual acts between consenting adults, which “harmed” no one. “Society is justified in taking the same steps to preserve its moral code as it does to preserve its government,” said the British judge Lord Devlin as he upheld the use of criminal punishments to regulate sexual expression. “The suppression of vice is as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities.”
By the late 20th century, it was the turn of the left to demand that the law suppressed vice, even when the vice did not provoke the harm of violence. As the authoritarian strain in the left – which is always there – became dominant, intellectuals rushed to justify their friends and allies’ belief that the giving of offence was a good enough reason to call the police. In the 1980s, the American legal philosopher Joel Feinberg attacked Mill by saying that offence was a harm, which we feel like a wound. You only have to think about the hurt from slights that have stayed with you longer than the pain from a broken bone to see the truth in Feinberg’s argument. Societies and individuals feel disgust, revulsion, shock, shame and embarrassment when they hear views that don’t physically harm them, Feinberg continued. They can and should replace Mill’s “harm principle” with his “offence principle”—that the law can stop speech that causes serious offence.
Feinberg’s mild authoritarianism buttressed the illiberal version of liberalism that flourishes to this day. It supports the speech codes and the laws against “hate speech” which may not be so hateful it provokes its audience to violence, but is still grossly offensive. It provides the philosophical justification for the incessant Twitter storms and media fits about “gaffes”, “misspeaks”, or to use a modern phrase that reeks of the Victorian drawing room, “inappropriate language”.
Go into the modern university and you won’t hear much from Mill, John Milton, George Orwell, or from the millions around the world who have had to learn the hard way why freedom of speech matters. Instead, academics promote philosophers far less rigorous than Feinberg. Jeremy Waldron, for instance, suggests speech which attacks the dignity of others should be banned. Rae Langton of Cambridge University puts the arguments of the anti-pornography campaigners of the 1980s into obscure – and therefore academically respectable – prose. Pornography silences women, she argues, not by actually silencing them, but by making their protestations harder to believe.
None deals adequately with how the law should gauge the pain of offensive speech. You can say that, of course, words can hurt more than blows, But that does not mean that psychic wounds are the same as real wounds. If I deliver a blow, the broken bones can be seen; the damage measured. If I incite violence, the court can again measure the consequences. But if I deliver insults, one target may be delighted to have provoked me, another may not care what I say, and a third may be offended. In other words, governments and illiberal intellectual movements are asking the law to assess the psychological states of insulted parties, and introducing a vast element of subjectivity into the legal process. Mill’s tight definition may be hard to live with but at least it can be measured.
The worst but perhaps the most honest proponent of censorship is Stanley Fish, an academic much favoured by the “liberal” New York Times. He dispenses with the pretence that we should respect universal human rights, or find coherent justifications for censorship, and descends into power-worshiping thuggery. “The only way to fight hate speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy,” he says. “And what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out.” Take a breath and think about his assumptions. This is the tyrannical language of an illiberal intelligentsia that thinks it no longer needs the rights it once championed. We don’t care if we are being consistent, it says. We have fought and won a culture war. We have the power to censor now, and we will use it against those who offend us.
Admit it, for all the crudity, haven’t you felt the same? Sexism, homophobia and racism are so plainly wrong there can be no reason for allowing them. Sexists, racists and homophobes “punch down” on the weak. We can learn nothing from them, for they have no arguments worth hearing. We are the masters now, and can protect the weak and preserve our version of Lord Devlin’s “moral code” just by censoring.
Far from causing harm, abandoning the harm principle can do nothing but good.
FEW CONTEMPORARY theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. Mill, like all optimists, wanted freedom because it would allow new and better ideas to flourish. In our more pessimistic times we worry – or should worry –about who suppresses and why. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they could not answer the next question: who decides what is offensive?
If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private bureaucracies, they will decide that whistle-blowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services, they will say that leaks about surveillance must be stopped because they may harm national security, just as pornography may harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?
Philosophers raised in the enclosed world of the Anglo-American university never explain why the punishments they inflict on their enemies should not be inflicted on them. In Britain, the state is giving them a course in the consequences of their folly. It is telling academics they must ban Islamists, who denounce democracy and human rights, but stop short of promoting violence. “Thank you very much,” the politicians and secret policemen seem to be saying to the illiberal philosophers, the organisers of blacklists, and the intellectuals who dismissed free speech as an illusion. “If you say you can ban speakers even though they are not provoking violence, we can demand that you spy on and ban Islamists, even though they are do not provoke violence either.”
All of a sudden and with a blackly comic haste, British academics are scrambling to proclaim the importance of free of speech, a liberty they spent a generation denigrating. All of a sudden. And much too late.
No, no, no, the liberals protest. We only wanted to censor on behalf of the marginalised and excluded. Leave aside that their protests too easily translate into “we want to ban our opponents and free our friends,” and consider who has the muscle. Power is not fixed. It depends on where you stand. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but when he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is a figure to be feared. When they give in to demands for de facto blasphemy laws, and accept the censorship of satires of Muhammed, “progressives” think they are protecting the dignity of an “excluded” minority. But they are also upholding the real blasphemy laws of dictatorial Islamic states, which “exclude” all who challenge them.
It is no use saying the violence of the offence taken should be the decisive factor in allowing censorship. If it is, then Islamists, who feel the hurt of blasphemy so keenly they will murder anyone they deem to have blasphemed, will triumph. We would have to back down if Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Scientologists, Satanists and atheists followed suit, and said that satires or critiques of their ideas inflicted pain. If conservatives could prove that the discussion of left-wing ideas were hurtful, or left-wingers could say the same about right-wing ideas, we would have to take the logical step of deciding that political argument was offensive, and should be banned too.
Identity politics and the demands for freedom from offence it breeds create a world where everyone can demand the censorship of everyone else. There is no better proof of this than the fate of the politically correct themselves.
STRIP AWAY THE appearance of a solid ideology, and you see its discontents. The tendency of the modern liberal-left to excuse radical Islam is supported by the politically correct belief that liberals should support a religion of the disadvantaged. In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian. Their political correctness has turned their principles inside out, and led them to abandon their beliefs in female and homosexual equality.
But the difficulties in pretending there are no conflicts between groups are as nothing to the confusion the pretence that there are no conflicts within them brings. Michael Ezra, a colleague who is researching the growth of the illiberal intelligentsia, says that he is constantly reminded of Trotsky’s dismissal of the Bolshevik party’s claim that it was a substitute for the entire working class. A rapid descent follows: “The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”
Or in the case of feminist identity politics the people with the loudest voices substitute themselves for an entire gender.
Until the 1990s, the loudest voices in feminism belonged to those who wanted to ban pornography and prostitution, and believed that a biological gulf separated men and women. Today they are being shouted down by rival feminists, who believe that to deny sex workers the right to work is to display “whorephobic” prejudice, and to set limits to womanhood is to display “transphobic” bigotry. Before they will allow a feminist a hearing, she must answer a question few asked 30-years ago: how do you define a woman? If she gets that wrong, she’s damned as a TERF – a “trans exclusionary radical feminist”.
The old feminists did not accept that men who have undergone sex reassignment treatment were women. They asked whether a transwoman should deal with the victims of rape, or be allowed into women’s prisons, toilets or changing-rooms. What if she had had hormone replacement therapy, but not full sex reassignment surgery? What, to put it bluntly, if she still had a penis?
As with pornography, the hurt caused was real. Feminists were questioning a transwoman’s identity and hopes. Put yourselves in her position. She has undergone drug treatment and maybe surgery too. She has rejected the expectations of her family, her friends and wider society. She has faced prejudice and violence. Then she hears feminists tell her it has all been for nothing; that she can never belong. Despite all she has gone through, she is not a real woman. Feminists have already taught her she need not prove that arguments she loathes are inciting violence against her. By their own admission, all she must do is show is that they offend her.
Her pain is understandable, but it is hardly insufferable. It is not as if there is an organised feminist campaign against trans-women. In a sign of an age when identity politics has gone haywire, censorship is not provoked by a comprehensive attack but by an offending passage in an article or book written years ago.
One of the banned, Julie Bindel, has done more to help rape victims than any British activist I know. Her good work counts for nothing. Every time she tries to speak on any subject, trans campaigners and their supporters try to stop her. For years, they had her on a National Union of Students blacklist. All because she wrote a piece in 2004 that disparaged a transsexual who had gone to the courts to demand the right to counsel raped women, even though she had recently been a man herself.
Neither Bindel nor anyone else I know on the Left excuses attacks on transsexuals. No matter. Feminists are now denounced as the equivalent of racist bigots: the Ku Klux Klan in sensible shoes.
A writer in the left-wing New Statesman described the frenzy:
Any discussion of experiences which are not shared by trans women because they were not born with female bodies is liable to be denounced as ‘trans-exclusionary’. That was the reason why a US women’s college recently announced it would be discontinuing its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues: it’s exclusionary to talk about vaginas when some women do not have one. Last year a trans activist on Twitter denounced feminist campaigns against FGM as “cissexist”. Discussions of menstruation, pregnancy and abortion rights are all regularly interrupted by the same complaint.
Tellingly, the prudent journalist did not put her own name on the article. She hid behind a pseudonym to spare her from having to spend the next decade dodging demands that she be “no-platformed”.
Proponents of banning feminists justify their censorship with a notion that infantilises adults. In America and Britain, student bodies say they their members should be safe “from intimidation or judgment . . . free from having one’s culture and beliefs questioned,” in the words of the University of Bristol students’ union. Safe spaces, which once provided women who had suffered rape with a place to meet and talk freely, have leaked into the wider culture. The have turned into an oppressive restriction on meetings that were once open to all. Far from being a means of encouraging speech, they have become a means of limiting it, as Oxford University’s Christ Church College showed. It banned a debate on abortion, after students protested that two of the speakers were men. The demonstrators said the decision “makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students”.
Mary Whitehouse and the American moral majority wanted to stop broadcasters from “pumping filth into our homes”. Today’s student leaders are their successors. The president of the Cambridge Union simpers that a university is a “home” where students should feel comfortable and safe. It has never occurred to him that intellectually universities are not, and should not be, anything like a home. Higher education is meant to take students away from the prejudices and certainties of their childhood, and challenge the ideas they learned from their parents. If students cannot handle the challenge without crying that they feel unsafe, they should not be at university in the first place. If universities refuse to challenge them, I wonder about their usefulness too.
We have gone from the principle that only speech that incites crime can be banned to the principle that speech that incites gross offence can be banned to the principle that speech that provokes discomfort can be banned. This is not so much a slippery slope as a precipitous drop.
Many want to take the plunge. Recently, intellectuals and activists wrote to the Observer to make the classic case for freedom of speech. They said that feminists critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists were being banned because the prevailing consensus held that the “presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety. You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic.”
Who could possibly object to that, I thought.
Just about everyone, it turned out. Hundreds of other intellectuals replied in the next issue of the Observer. They confused support for free speech with support for the speaker—the tactic of every grand dictator and little Hitler in history—and implied that standing up for open debate meant the letter’s signatories were indeed “transphobes” and “whorephobes”. Extreme though their reaction was, it was nothing when set against the reaction of online activists.
The indomitable gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is a hard man to frighten. He has fought homophobic vigilantes and Robert Mugabe’s security guards. But even Tatchell was unnerved by the 4,000 abusive Twitter messages he received for putting his name to the Observer letter. His abusers denounced him as a “homo”, “foreigner”, “misogynist”, “paedophile” and “nutter”. One correspondent wrote, “I would like to tweet about your murder you fucking parasite.” So much for the safety of those who seek to challenge “safe spaces”.
The best case against our snarling willingness to ban was put by Tom Paine 200-years ago. In the introduction to his Age of Reason, whose freethinking scandalised Christian America, he said, in words worth learning by heart:
You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.
It seemed so clear to me that religious, scientific and political freedom depend on freedom of speech that it has taken me years to realise that Paine’s argument does not convince everyone. What about those who are think they know the truth, and believe they need never change their minds? What about those who enjoy censoring?
Modern philosophers and legal theorists are hopeless at answering these questions because they do not think about character. Writers are far better guides. In his Areopagitica of 1644, John Milton asked who would want to go through the writings of others looking for reasons to ban them. His question was so obvious it answered itself. “We may easily foresee what kind of licensers we are to expect hereafter, either ignorant, imperious, and remiss, or basely pecuniary”.
Milton’s emphasis is just right. What we now call political correctness has always existed in the worst parts of the left and has its counterparts on the worst parts of the Right. It has always been motivated by ignorance and imperiousness in equal measure. In his furious memoir The Naked God Howard Fast, the author of Spartacus, described why he left the American Communist Party in 1956. Rather than fighting for equal rights for blacks, Communist commissars policed language. They were convinced that the smallest slip provided evidence of buried racism.
People were expelled from the Party for speaking of a ‘negro girl’ or of a ‘black night’, for both ‘girl’ and ‘black’ had become magical taboo words, the use of which indicated that a white person had deep well of racism within him. The particular horror mounted to a point where dozens of Communists I knew avoided I knew avoided the company of all negroes, so terrified were they of taboo words or actions that could lead to expulsion. Work among negroes collapsed completely.
Yes, thank you, I know that no one says “negro” today. But Fast’s complaint from 70-years ago, ought to have a familiar ring. Then as now, dogmatists prefer changing language to changing society. Then as now, there is a particular type of witch-finder, always prominent in the universities, left-wing parties and public sector bureaucracy, who delights in hunting down “inappropriate” language. They delight in it because censorship is so easy.
I cannot tell you how many good people they drive out of left-wing politics. They are sincere, they want to see change, then some pointy-nosed prig accuses them of siding with the enemy because they did not realise that words which were acceptable yesterday are unacceptable today. Electoral calculation ought to stop left-wingers allowing conservatives to own the inspiring idea of freedom of speech. If they could only see how they appear to others, they would understand that the people they are trying to convert tend to suspect those who would tell them what to say and how to say it. Many who should be open to radical arguments will turn away because they associate the Left with the silencing of contrary views and the imposition of orthodoxy.
The best reason for politically engaged left-wingers to be wary of censorship, however, is that it is associated with defeat, and not just the defeat of the communist movement.
The first wave of political correctness came in the early 1990s, when the American Left was on its knees after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and triumph of capitalism. So risible was its condition, its chosen candidate for the US presidency was Bill Clinton, a shifty politician of no fixed conviction who had been pretty much bought by Wall Street. With no possibility of changing the world, campus radicals retreated into themselves and decided to change the culture instead. You cannot deny that they have succeeded. We can see their assumptions everywhere now:
A belief that a misplaced word or awkward phrase reveals your opponent’s hidden meanings and unquestioned assumptions. The wised-up need only decode the slips, and the mask will be ripped off and everyone will see the oppressor’s true face.
A willingness to take offence that would make a Prussian aristocrat blink.
A determination to ban and punish speech that breaks taboos.
A resolve to lump disparate individuals into blocs – “the gays,” “the Muslims,” “women” etc – and to treat real and perceived insults to one as group defamations that insult all.
A self-pitying eagerness to cast yourself as a victim, and an accompanying narcissism, which allows you to tell others just how much you have suffered.
This felt radical at the time. But the speech codes and censorship that followed were pathetically easy for the societies created by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to live with. Political correctness and neo-liberalism have marched together because the politically correct merely challenge what people say rather than how they live. A corporation or government can adapt to changes in language, and positively welcome the implicit permission to punish their own dissenting whistleblowers. The minor concession of following PC language rules in no way stops them from slashing public services or exploiting workers. They have learned that they can get away with any cruelty as long as they observe modern manners.
Insist that we, should stop describing the mentally ill as “handicapped,” “mad,” or “the mentally ill,” and say we must use the bland and non-judgemental “people with mental health problems” instead, and you may feel a righteous glow. But you will be implying that condition of the afflicted is so bland, they no longer need public resources. An obsession with politeness for its own sake drives the modern woman, who deplores the working class habit of using ‘luv’ or ‘duck’, but ignores the oppression of women within ethnic minorities. A Victorian concern for form rather than substance motivates the modern man, who blushes if he says ‘coloured’ instead of ‘African-American’ but never gives a second’s thought to the hundreds of thousands of blacks needlessly incarcerated in the US prison system.
The lie that you can change the world by changing language is back now because left wing defeat is back too. Despite the Crash, the Occupy movement has fizzled out, and the American Left’s apparent candidate is Hillary Clinton, a shifty politician of no fixed conviction, who has been pretty much bought by Wall Street. With today’s retreat come all the 1990s’ problems of speaking in private PC codes, which are as alien to ordinary voters as Nancy Mitford’s U and Non-U English. With the retreat comes the old seductive delusion that you can censor your way to a better tomorrow.
Fighting it can feel almost impossible. When I argue for freedom of speech at student unions, I am greeted with incomprehension as much as outrage. It’s not only that they don’t believe in it, they don’t understand how anyone could believe in it unless they were a racist or rapist. The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities, which teach that open debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a very free one.
To fight them, you must emphasise censorship brings the hypocritical observance of conventional pieties. You must welcome, rather than mock, feminists and so many others, who have seen the speech codes and restrictions they once espoused boomerang back to hit them. You must emphasise that censorship demeans the censor. And point out that, once you let go of the old constraints, and grant vague powers to censor on the grounds of “safety,” “dignity” or “offence,” no one is safe.
Censors never confine themselves to deserving targets. The record shows they aren’t snipers but machine gunners, who will hit anything that moves. Give them permission to shoot, and one day they will hit you.