Friday, 21 November 2014

Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence

Progressive Authoritarianism & the Death of Debate

"It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry." 
                                                                   - Thomas Paine

Before I get into describing the abysmal state of disrepair in which progressive thought currently languishes, I should start by pointing out that there never was a time when Leftist politics existed in a state of harmonious consensus. From the birth of the concept of left-right politics, when internecine quarrels amongst French republicans were settled beneath the blade of the guillotine, through to the bitter intra-socialist sectarianism of the Cold War, the Left have been a disputatious bunch, bickering over the narcissism of their various small differences.

The progressive movements of the early New Left were no different, encompassing a broad plurality of views, often at odds over ends and means. But there was, nevertheless, general agreement that the principal basis for civil rights activism and struggle lay in liberal, egalitarian, and universalist values. Relativist and separatist arguments were advanced by some, of course, but, until relatively recently, they lacked any meaningful currency. What galvanised activists were internalised Enlightenment-derived ideas of liberty, equality, and solidarity. For if people are fundamentally the same, irrespective of skin colour, gender, or sexuality, then on what basis can rights and protections be afforded to some groups or individuals and denied to others?

With the clarity of arguments like these, progressive politics in the West achieved much. Activism, and the emergence of a vibrant and aggressively liberal counter-culture, precipitated a change in societal and political attitudes, which in turn led to the passing of transformative legislation: voting and labour rights were won; segregation was abolished; reproductive rights were enshrined and expanded; discrimination in all sorts of areas was outlawed; hiring and employment practices were reformed; attitudes to everything from racism to domestic abuse evolved (and continue to do so), while sexual and creative permissiveness flourished. As taboos collapsed with stunning rapidity, conservatism and traditional social values were forced into retreat.

But then something interesting began to happen. Having fought for and (mostly) won parity under the law, progressive activism found itself faced with an existential dilemma. What was it now for? It was, after all, not simply a vehicle for social change; it was also a productive receptacle for anti-authoritarianism and a valuable crucible of radical thought. Where was all this energy to be directed next?

In response to this challenge, progressivism took a dismaying and thoroughly retrogressive turn. Since inequity in society indubitably persisted, often disproportionately affecting minorities and women, it became increasingly fashionable to question whether universalist struggles had actually achieved anything of consequence at all.

Having built progressive movements on the basis of liberal values, it became an imperative to kick those values apart with the same enthusiasm, just as a child might destroy a sand-castle which hadn't turned out quite as well as expected. The spread of French critical theory, multiculturalism, and post-colonialism in radical circles midwifed a thoughtless denigration of the West, scorn for the perceived complacencies of "the Enlightenment project", and the dismissal of the 'Dead White Males' whose ideas and writings had done so much to unshackle Europe from feudalism and superstition.

The arrogance of Western cultural supremacism, it was argued, was the status quo now in need of vigorous radical assault. A commitment to universalism was replaced by the fetishisation of difference and specificity; a belief in egalitarianism gave way to demands for exceptionalism and double-standards (only this time favouring the 'oppressed'); and the language of emancipation and liberty was replaced by a cult of victimhood, self-pity, and a brooding, masochistic solipsism. "We have nothing to lose but our chains" was drowned out by the resentful injunction "Listen to my suffering".

In academia, the humanities began a process of decline as the demands of rigorous and fair-minded scholarship gave way to the requirements of a stultifying and increasingly censorious political correctness. The pursuit of objective truth and knowledge fell before endlessly competing claims from subjective 'lived experiences' and 'narratives', and international solidarity fell before a grotesque cultural relativism, itself informed by a neurotic culture of self-lacerating guilt. The lexicon of political activism - originally developed to identify irrational judgements made about people based on their  unalterable characteristics - assumed a metaphysical dimension. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were no longer alterable matters of law, belief, and practice - they became immovable structural toxins, against which not even the most broad-minded liberal could be reliably immunised, and to which well-intentioned people were often subject without their knowledge.

As the Left's progressive movements splintered into a kaleidoscope of bitter, competing interests, sectarianism was transformed from a by-product of radical squabbles into an ideological imperative, and a divisive grievance hierarchy was constructed, based upon the intersection of privileged characteristics. The jargon of -phobias and -isms proliferated as every group sought to weaponise language to its own advantage, and arguments from remote etymology were deployed to police the expression of views and ideas. Over time, invective replaced argument and persuasion, and those committed to identity politics lost their ability to engage in constructive debate, to disagree, and - most damaging of all - to think critically about their own ideas and suppositions. Why bother when it is less effort to simply accuse your opponent of bigotry of one stripe or another, or of ignorance and bad faith?

We are now reaping the harvest of liberalism's agonising slow death on the Left. Consider the following recent examples:
  1. According to a report in The Guardian, the political director of Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan, has just publicly recommended the introduction of what amounts to a de facto blasphemy law in order to combat what he calls 'Islamophobia'. The press, he announced, has been “singularly unable or unwilling to change the discourse, the tone or the approach” of its coverage. Casually eliding matters of race, ethnicity, and belief, he continued: “We’re not going to get change unless there is some sanction, there is some penalty. This is not just about Muslims; it is about all minorities.” Similarly, on an American talkshow, a visibly distressed Ben Affleck responded to Sam Harris's criticisms of Islam by denouncing them as "gross and racist".
  2. Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists responsible for the awe-inspiring Rosetta satellite mission, found himself vilified by incandescent feminists when he appeared on television wearing a bowling shirt adorned with images of scantily-clad young women. It later transpired that the shirt had been hand-made for him as a birthday gift by a female friend and, as a rather touching token of appreciation, he had worn it on his big day. But an article for Verge decided that it was a symptom of the misogyny allegedly endemic within the scientific community, and reported Dr. Taylor's televised appearance beneath the headline "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing".

    The most risible offering in this embarrassing row came from (supposedly) sex-positive feminist Greta Christina, who spent the first paragraph of her post on the subject itemising her own involvement in the production of pornography. This, she appeared to think, placed her in the unique position of being able to explain that "freedom for me does not mean freedom for thee" as she policed the clothing of another adult: "[D]oing an interview about your team’s big science achievement while wearing a shirt with scantily-clad pinup girls does not say, “Sex is awesome!” It says, “Women are for sex.”

    Christina seemed oblivious to those who would seize on this argument to call for the suppression of her own work, as well as all other kinds of pornography and erotica she defends in her writing. Nor was she moved by arguments that men, like women, should be judged on what they say and do, not on how they choose to dress themselves. Nonetheless, clearly shaken by the uproar, Dr. Taylor ended up offering a tearful and humiliating public apology to his critics. It will be an individual of uncommonly thick skin who dares to transgress in this way in the future.
  3. Last Wednesday, the Independent ran an article by an Oxford University student named Niamh McIntyre, in which she crowed defiantly about the success of her campaign to cancel a debate between two male speakers, organised by a pro-life group to debate abortion. She explained herself thus: "The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups".

    Doubling down on her behalf, Tim Squirrell - the President of the Cambridge Union, no less! - took to twitter to declare that "shouting 'free speech' doesn't help anyone without a more nuanced conception of its impacts + aspects". He went on: "People have the right to feel...[s]afe from the expression of ideas which have historically been used to oppress them in very real ways."
  4. Late last year, in response to long-disputed and empirically dubious claims of an omnipresent culture of rape besieging women on university campuses, activists campaigned to have Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines banned from their Student Unions. When UCL joined upwards of 20 other Unions in banning the song from its premises, its Women's Officer Beth Sutton said: "UCLU have just passed motion to not play Blurred Lines in union spaces & events. Solidarity with all survivors!"

    [The same panic over 'rape culture' and anger over low prosecution rates for sex crimes has also led to unapologetic attacks from the Left, similarly advanced in the name of "solidarity with survivors", on the presumption of innocence, the rule of law, and due process. An analysis of this disturbing facet of the effort to delegitimise liberalism lies beyond the scope of this post.]
  5. A few months ago, the New Statesman columnist Sarah Ditum wrote a rather good article protesting the illiberal use of 'no-platforming' to silence unpopular views held by those "deemed disagreeable". However, her arguments were offered mainly in support of Julie Bindel, a radical feminist labelled 'transphobic' and 'whorephobic' for her views on trans rights and sex work. Ditum is, from what I can tell, largely sympathetic to Bindel's positions on these issues, which made her defence of Bindel's right to speak a relatively straightforward affair, causing her no significant ideological discomfort.

    But when it came to the no-platforming of a repellent male chauvinist and self-styled pick-up guru named Julien Blanc, Ditum's principled defence of free expression evaporated, and she wrote a new blog post explaining that this was a very different matter. "There is no free speech defence for Julian Blanc" she concluded. (In response to the outcry, Blanc has since been denied a visa to enter the UK.)
  6. This is not to mention the recent fracas over the Exhibit B installation, deemed unacceptable by anti-racist campaigners (which I covered in an essay here), or the hounding of feminist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for her opposition to the veil and the demonisation of 'white feminists' (which I covered in an essay here). The latter post, incidentally, led The Feminist Wire to describe what I wrote as "racist and anti-Black specifically", and an attempt "to maintain white supremacy".
This handful of examples barely scratches the surface of the problem. Not one of the writers or campaigners above was detained by the need to establish a causal link between the expression of ideas they dislike and consequent harm. Censors never are, despite the fact that, in an open society, the burden of proof ought to rest with those who would restrict individual freedom. Instead, those inclined to defend free expression were variously tarred with the brush of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, or rape apologism (depending on what was at issue).

When taken together, these individual cases - niggling and petty in and of themselves - speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the midst of this reckless and dangerous onslaught against liberal values and the belief in the axiomatic nobility of the oppressed, there should be no room for sympathy with the Middle East's only functioning liberal democracy. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] campaign, ostensibly mounted in support of Palestinian nationalism, but actually aimed at the disestablishment of the only Jewish State, has been slowly gathering mainstream support and legitimacy in the West.

Reprehensibly, the BDS movement seeks not simply the boycott of Israeli goods (which would be bad enough); it also explicitly attacks academic freedom. In the foreword to a recently released collection of essays entitled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, the American political theorist Paul Berman argues that BDS activists are only able to make such arguments because they have convinced themselves of a misperception: they see what they are doing as "modern and progressive" when in fact it is "retrograde and disgraceful".

The same must be said of the examples itemised above. Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as "right wing", these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right's most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of 'safe spaces'; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.

Gazing with mounting dismay at the escalating authoritarianism on the left of the political spectrum where my own political sympathies lie, I have been repeatedly reminded of a post published by the late Marxist theorist Norman Geras five months before his death. With a minimum of preamble, Geras quoted Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the LSE, as follows:
I think the biggest shift that has taken place in my thinking over the past 30 years is that I'm a lot less tolerant of relativist ideas, and multiculturalist ideas than I used to be. And that's something that when you say it, it induces shock and horror sometimes. 25 years ago, I was writing material that, if it wasn't poststructuralist, was at least 'fellow traveling' with the poststructuralists, arguing essentially anti-foundationalist ideas, arguing that the Western liberal tradition was just one tradition among other traditions, and so on. In a way, I think I was in bad faith over a lot of that. I believed that liberalism would always be there, and so one can afford to attack it. The events of the last 20 years have shown that that's really not the case, that a lot of the traditional liberal values of freedom and tolerance are seriously under attack and need to be defended. So I've become a defender of the Enlightenment project in a way that I wasn't maybe 30 years ago - that's a big shift.
Unfortunately, there appears to be scant appetite for Professor Brown's critical self-examination on the postmodern Left. Instead it clings to its metaphysical conspiracism, and disdains empiricism and a meritocracy of ideas derived from free and open debate in favour of the imposition of speech codes designed to stigmatise, shame, and silence.

In the name of a righteously-espoused 'inclusivity', such people have submitted to the worst kind of authoritarian elitism, and forgotten an elementary truism of Enlightenment thought. As the revolutionary 18th century pamphleteer and Dead White Male Thomas Paine observed in the short dedication with which he opened The Age of Reason:
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. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.


  1. This post is simply excellent. Only problem is that it negates the need for me to write several posts which would make the same points, only with less clarity and eloquence.

  2. Re Mehdi Hasan's call, for a new blasphemy law:

    Terry Glavin has posted the following (written by David Toube) on facebook:

    Here are a few points that could improve reporting and commentary on these issues, and indeed discourse generally.
    Ten Helpful Rules:

    1. Avoid making explicit or implicit sweeping generalisations about "Muslims". e.g. "Muslims are up in arms about [X]". Particularly if the story you're reporting is basically bollocks.

    2. There may be a position, or a set of beliefs, or a type of conduct which is more prevalent among Muslims (in Britain, or in a particular part of the world). But it is always possible to report accurately, in a way that makes it clear that there are a range of views held by Muslims.

    3. Be specific about the people or the organisations that you're talking about. When writing about these issues, I always made it clear that I was talking about *this* particular hate preacher, this particular institution, or this particular organisation.

    4. If you are a liberal, show solidarity with Muslims who are liberals.
    5. Avoid double standards. If you think that it is outrageous that an institution would give a platform to an Islamist hate preacher, I'll be unimpressed if you're comparatively relaxed about somebody who incites hatred against Muslims generally, in a similar manner.

    6. There are some areas in which there is an asymmetry. There are more Islamist groups seeking to revive the Caliphate than there are Christian or Jewish groups seeking to establish theocratic states. In those cases, I start with the principle: I support secular states which are liberal, pluralist and democratic. I oppose Islamist politics because those are ideals worth defending, and Islamist politics conflicts with them.

    7. There's no objection to considering aspects of broadly accepted Muslim doctrine, and their connection with political movements which attempt to put them into practice. It is important to note that the belief that Mohammed married Ayesha at a particular age is used by lawmakers in a number of predominantly Muslim countries to set a low age of consent, and so on. But there's a difference between saying that and saying "Mwhahahaha Mohammed was a PAEDO". That's just winding up Muslims, and assuming that you're not a wanker: why would you want to do that?

    8. The craze for Islamism clearly is closely related to theological and cultural developments over the last century within Muslim communities. That results in many people - both sympathetic and hostile - thinking of Islamism as 'the thing that brown people do'. Most of the people involved in this politics are from Muslim backgrounds. But not all are. Some are converts. Others are not, but are fellow travellers of sorts.
    I think that the closest parallel to this phenomenon was the mania for Soviet Communism in Britain in the 1930s, which also attracted the brightest and the best of a generation, and proved to be a grand motivating idea with remarkable longevity. The important fact about those recruits was not that they'd eccentrically become infatuated with Russian culture (although many were), but that they'd been entranced by what appeared to them to be a beautiful and pure idea which promised a bright new tomorrow.
    In other words, although the 'Islamicness' of Islamism is the key feature which shapes its particular form and expression, it belongs to a broader set of destructive and flawed Utopian ideals, which have gripped successive generations.

    9. If you object to the term 'Islamophobia', as I do - because it is often used inaccurately in defence of hate preachers and obnoxious politics - do actually speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry: which is a real and troubling phenomenon.

    10. Finally (although I'm sure we could think of more 'rules'): this. Try not to be a bore.

    1. "If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor."

      Otherwise your PC preface will be a hundred pages, and your content will be one line.

  3. "niggling and petty in and of themselves"
    The racist police will get you for that racist slur

  4. This is a fantastic blog post. It's actually a relief to realise that other people share these concerns.

  5. Number 3. The expletives I shouted at reading that are not fit for human consumption. That statement alone should have been enough to shatter the public perception/delusion of Oxbridge. There does appear to be no appetite for total freedom of expression in the UK.


  6. A very fine post - a pleasure to read and a relief, as ever, to be reassured that I am not alone. We need to change our ways on the left, and that means, one way or another, defeating these people who are dragging us to the depths. They are highly-organised and now partly control a great many of our institutions (including the liberal-left media), so it ain't gonna be easy...

  7. Interesting post. The regressive Left is the counter-Enlightenment in a modern form.

  8. Great piece. It put into context why someone like myself, who supports principles of liberty, equality and the enlightenment, is so disenfranchised with the modern Left cause. As you mention, I think cultural relativism has been the single most retarding force - because it has contributed to an atmosphere where only Western culture is a legitimate target of social commentary. This directly antagonises traditional liberal causes, such as feminism, which make a direct claim to objective and universal morality. You cannot, for example, square relativism with the ambition to get more Nigerian girls into education. It goes beyond modes of academic discourse as well: girls have been raped in Rochester because the efficacy of cultural relativism and religious apologism have been accepted by our institutions. Tens of thousands of girls have had their genitals mutilated and yet no prosecutions have ever been made precisely because progressive politics has made speaking out so unfashionable. I find this kind of exceptionalism completely unacceptable - not because I'm some frothing at the mouth racist who wants to have a pop at minorities - but because I genuine respect for traditional Liberalism and its undiluted application.

  9. Point 1) No quibble there.

    Point 2) You fail to raise a valid freedom of speech expression issue. Interestingly, you actually seem to agree that judging someone on their choice of shirt is acceptable when you say "Nor was she moved by arguments that men, like women, should be judged on what they say and do, not on how they choose to dress themselves." Surely dressing one's self falls into the category of judging on what someone does?

    Point 3) Again, you fail to raise a substantive freedom of expression issue. Those planning the "debate" were not carted off to jail because of their views, merely told they'd need to find another venue.

    Point 4) Mr Thicke has not been carted off to jail for writing this terrible song. Again, freedom of expression doesn't mean you have the right to have your song played anywhere.

    Point 5) Ditum's piece focused on a specific point of UK law. The subsequent denial of a visa would suggest she was correct in her opinion. You issue, if genuine, should be with the legislation. That you fancy the decision was influenced by an "outcry" rather than the facts is telling.

    Point 6) Agreed.

  10. While I agree wholeheartedly w the main thrust of Jamie's post, I'm not sure his list of examples support his thesis as neatly as he seems to imagine.

    Dr Taylor's choice of shirt was not a hanging offence and some of the criticism levelled against it were hardly what you might want to call "well calibrated" or "measured", but it was, I'd say, "inappropriate" for that occasion and I was surprised that none of his colleagues thought to suggest that he should wear something different and I don't think it was entirely out of order of some commentators - keen to encourage young women into science - to have made similar observations.

    "Islamophobia" is also a complex topic. This accusation is, as Jamie rightly points out, often simply used to stifle debate; but there is such a thing as irrational hatred of Muslims (as even people like David Aaronovitch - hardly a raving relativist when it comes to religious bigotry - have argued). While that very last thing we want is a blasphemy law, it is entirely in keeping with the principles that Jamie espouses for us to support laws against religious discrimination - be that discrimination against Muslims or any other religious groups. (In particular' we should argue for the universality of such laws and not - as bizarrely we currently do - have exceptions from such laws for school children. Such moves could only support Jamie's project of building a more liberal society.)

    Finally, while I have an open mind on the appropriateness and likely effectiveness of campaigns such as the BDS campaign against Israel, it's an uncomfortable example for Jamie to use here. I can't avoid noting here that Jamie tends to abandons his pretensions to belief in universal values as soon as his attention turns to the Middle East. As he asks: "on what basis can rights and protections be afforded to some groups or individuals and denied to others?" A good question I'd say and one which apologists for Israeli policies need to face up to just as surely as Left apologists for Islamist illiberalism.

  11. "...on what basis can rights and protections be afforded to some groups or individuals and denied to others?" A good question I'd say and one which apologists for Israeli policies need to face up to just as surely as Left apologists for Islamist illiberalism": please specify and give examples, Michael.


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