Some years ago, the liberal writer Michael Kinsley described the different attitudes to free speech in the U.K. and the U.S. as follows: “In a country like Great Britain, the legal protections for speech are weaker than ours, but the social protections are stronger. They lack a First Amendment, but they have thicker skin and a greater acceptance of eccentricity of all sorts.”
Today, both sorts of protection for speech — legal and social — are weaker than before in both countries. This year, official regulation of the press was passed into U.K. law for the first time since 18th-century juries nullified press prosecutions. These new restraints enjoyed the backing not just of all the parties but apparently of the public as well.
In the U.S., the case of Mann v. Steyn, let alone a hypothetical case involving Quran-burning, has yet to be decided. But Democrats in the Senate are seeking to restrict political speech by restricting the money spent to promote it. And in the private sector, American corporations have blacklisted employees for expressing or financing certain unfashionable opinions. In short, a public culture that used to be liberal is now “progressive” — which is something like liberalism minus its commitment to freedom.
The U.S. and Britain have long thought of themselves as, above all, free countries. If that identity continues to atrophy, free speech will be the first victim. But it will not be the last.
John O’Sullivan, “No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech”, Wall Street Journal, 2014-10-31.
October 15, 2016
October 11, 2016
[P]olitical correctness represents something far more profound than its critics appreciate. The victory of PC is built upon the demise and decay of traditional forms of authority and traditional forms of morality. It is parasitical on what we might call the crisis of conservative thought. In fact, I would argue that the power of PC is directly proportionate to the weakness of the old, taken-for-granted forms of morality.
I can understand the temptation to present political correctness as simply the imposition of a stifling framework by small groups of illiberal liberals, to see it as the conscious project of a cut-off, head-in-the-clouds middle-class elite determined to remake everything and everyone in its own image.
Yet to look at political correctness in that way only — as a kind of new Ten Commandments enforced by tiny elites — is to miss what is the foundation stone of PC, the ground upon which it is built. Which is the inability of the traditional moralists to justify themselves and defend their way of life and moral system. It is that inability which, towards the end of the twentieth century, created a moral vacuum that was filled by instinctive and often kneejerk new forms of moral control and censorship.
Because when you have a profound crisis of traditional morality, which governed society for so long, then previously normal and unquestioned ways of behaving get called into question. From speech to interpersonal relations, even to nursery rhymes — nothing can be taken for granted anymore when the old frameworks have been removed. All the given things of the past 200-odd years start to fall apart. Political correctness is really the scaffolding that has been hastily erected to replace the old morality. It represents the tentative takeover by a new kind of modern-day moralist. And the end result is undoubtedly tyrannical and stifling and profoundly antagonistic both to individual autonomy and freedom of speech.
That is why political correctness is so hysterical, so intolerant, so keen to govern everything from how professors communicate with their students to whether teachers can touch their pupils to when it is acceptable to say ‘blackboard’ — not because it is strong, but because it is weak and isolated. It has no real roots in society or history, like the more traditional forms of morality did. It enjoys no popular legitimacy or public support; in fact, the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ rather reflects the disdain amongst large sections of the public for today’s new speech codes and behaviour etiquette. It is the shallowness of PC, its parasitical nature, which makes it so insatiably interventionist.
Because at a time when it is no longer clear what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, who is respectable and who is not, then everything is thrown into a kind of moral chaos, giving rise to a weird hunger among the new elites to clamp down on and closely govern what were previously considered to be normal interactions that required little, if any, external intervention.
Brendan O’Neill, “The new war against PC – it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target”, Spiked, 2015-01-29.
October 6, 2016
My favourite example of political correctness involves the American Navy. In October 2001, shortly after America invaded Afghanistan, some of its Navy personnel were preparing missiles that were going to be fired at al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds. One of the Navy men decided to write some words on the side of his missile to express his anger about 9/11. So in reference to the 9/11 hijackings, he wrote the following message on his missile: ‘Hijack this, you faggots.’
Now, little did he know that even though the American military had rather a lot on its mind at that moment, his message would still cause a massive controversy. When they heard about what had happened, the upper echelons of the Navy were outraged. They expressed ‘official disapproval’ of the homophobic message. They issued a warning that Navy personnel should ‘more closely edit their spontaneous acts of penmanship’. Some unofficial guidelines were issued, covering what could and could not be written on post-9/11 missiles. So it was okay to write things like ‘I love New York’ but not okay to use words like faggot.
That is my favourite example of political correctness for two reasons. Firstly because it sums up how psychotically obsessed with language politically correct people are. Because what these Navy people were effectively saying is that it is okay to kill people, but not to offend them. It is okay to drop missiles on someone’s town or someone’s cave, just so long as those missiles don’t have anything ‘inappropriate’ written on them. Heaven forbid that the last thing a member of the Taliban should see before having his head blown off is a word reminding him of the existence of homosexuality.
This really captures the warping of morality that is inherent in political correctness, where one becomes so myopically focused on speech codes, on linguistic representation, that everything else, even matters of life and death, can become subordinate to that.
Brendan O’Neill, “The new war against PC – it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target”, Spiked, 2015-01-29.
September 27, 2016
Too often these days, critics of PC play the victim card. Many right-wing thinkers claim that a conspiratorial cabal of PC loons is ruining our lives. This conveniently absolves these thinkers of having to account for what happened to their morality and traditions. Where did they go? It is far easier to claim that society has been taken hostage by gangs of lentil-eating, language-obsessed nutjobs than it is to face up to and explain the demise of a way of life that had existed for much of the modern era. Indeed, in many ways the term ‘political correctness’ doesn’t really have much basis in reality — it is the invention of traditionalists unable to explain recent historic turns, so instead they fantasise about the onward, unstoppable march of sinister liberals riding roughshod over their superior way of life.
Of course, the demise of traditional morality did not have to be a bad thing. There was much in those old ways which was also censorious and pernicious and stifling of anybody who wanted to experiment with lifestyle or sexual orientation. The problem is that the old, frequently stuffy morality was not successfully pushed aside by a more progressive, human-centred moral outlook – rather it withered and faded and collapsed under the pressure of crises, creating a moral hole that has been filled by those who have influence in the post-traditional world: the increasingly vocal chattering classes.
But let’s not play the victim in the face of an apparently all-powerful ‘PC police’. No, if you feel like you are being treated as a heretic for thinking or saying the ‘wrong things’ in our politically correct world, then you should start acting like a proper, self-respecting heretic: have the courage of your convictions and say what you think regardless of the consequences.
Brendan O’Neill, “The new war against PC – it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target”, Spiked, 2015-01-29.
September 24, 2016
I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom … [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.
H.L. Mencken, quoted in Letters of H. L. Mencken (1961) edited by Guy J. Forgue, p. xiii.
September 2, 2016
I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech — alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.
H.L. Mencken, “What I Believe”, The Forum 84, 1930-09.
August 26, 2016
Tim Black explains how Brendan O’Neill got up the noses of “right-thinking” Australians this time:
On Q&A, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship political panel show, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill once again prompted the right-thinking first to tweet their spleen, and then to fire off snarky op-eds. And the reason for the riling? Was it O’Neill’s criticism of the Australian state’s incarceration of migrants on the micro-island of Nauru, ‘a kind of purgatory, a limbo where aspiring migrants are stuck between a place they don’t want to be and a place they want to be’, as he described it? Or was it perhaps his criticism of pro-refugee campaigners, whom, as The Australian reports, O’Neill accused of ‘infantilising’ migrants, treating them as weak, helpless, other?
Nope, none of the above. What got up the nose of the unthinkingly politically correct was O’Neill’s attack on Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits speech ‘reasonably likely… to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people’ because of their ‘race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. Or, to put it another way: Brendan O’Neill defended free speech. And, it was this, this defence of one of the cornerstones of radical, liberal, enlightened thought, that outraged the nominally liberal and leftist.
Here’s what O’Neill said: ‘I love hearing hate speech because it reminds me I live in a free society.’ Got that? O’Neill loves hearing hate speech, not in itself, not because he just loves vitriol, as some of his detractors really seem to believe. No, he loves hearing it because of what hearing it means: namely, that we live in a society that is confident enough in itself, in its liberal values, that it can tolerate dissenting and hateful views. O’Neill then went on to explain why freedom of speech is precisely the mechanism through which we can challenge racism: ‘The real problem with Section 18C is it actually disempowers anti-racists by denying us the right to see racism, to know it, to understand it and to confront it in public. Instead it entrusts the authorities to hide it away on our behalf so we never have a reckoning with it.’
For anyone faintly familiar with a liberal and radical tradition of thought, from Voltaire to Frederick Douglass to Karl Marx, O’Neill’s argument shouldn’t be controversial: it is only through the airing of prejudice that it can be reckoned with. And it certainly shouldn’t be difficult to understand. But sadly it seems that, for too many, it is. To these, the liberal-ish and the right-on, it is an anathema, thought from another planet.
July 27, 2016
Having lived all my life in a country swarming with messiahs, I have been mistaken, perhaps quite naturally, for one myself, especially by the others. It would be hard to imagine anything more preposterous. I am, in fact, the complete anti-Messiah, and detest converts almost as much as I detest missionaries. My writings, such as they are, have had only one purpose: to attain for H. L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. Further than that, I have had no interest in the matter whatsoever. It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own. I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech — up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable.
H.L. Mencken, “For the Defense Written for the Associated Press, for use in my obituary”, 1940-11-20.
June 3, 2016
I don’t make statements like this a lot, and I don’t really feel like engaging in a huge debate. But there’s something I need to say regarding Charlie Hebdo.
God knows I have little in common with the folks who died. I doubt we’d have agreed on very much. Looking over some of their work, I find myself rolling my eyes a lot.
But I do agree on at least one matter with them — they should be free to speak their minds without fear.
I saw this tweet attached to one of the cartoons responding to the massacre:
“Still mortified about our fallen cartoonist colleagues, but free speech will always win.”
No it won’t.
The history of the human race demonstrates /very/ convincingly that free speech is the /exception/ to the human condition, not the rule. For millennia, those who spoke out were imprisoned or killed. Hell, you could say something that wasn’t even subversive, just inept and stupid, and be destroyed for committing the crime of lese majeste.
Make no mistake. What we have today is a level of freedom and self-determination on a scale unparalleled in the history of our species. We live in what is, in many ways, a golden age. So much so that we give tremendous credit to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
But everyone always forgets the first half of that quote:
“Under the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.”
I’m not sure I know of anyplace that’s ruled by anyone “entirely great.” That adage wasn’t a statement of philosophy, as it was originally used: it was a statement of irony.
Don’t believe me? Look around. Notice that everywhere you go in the world, whoever happens to be ruling seems to have a great many swords.
Still, the idea contained within the quote is a powerful one — that intangible ideas, thoughts, and beliefs can have tremendous power. And that’s why we should be paying close attention.
After all, intangible fear can be mightier than the sword, too. Hell, it has been for quite a while now. Don’t believe me? Try getting on an airplane without taking your shoes off in the security line. While you’re doing that, try cracking a joke about having a knife.
That’s the power of fear, guys.
We. Are. In. Danger.
Jim Butcher, “Freedom v Fear”, jimbutcher, 2015-01-07.
May 30, 2016
As Orwell noted in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” He was speaking, of course, about control of written history, of what we know to have happened — and thereby how we allocate our political support. It is not a small matter if the company that is coming to be the nation’s most significant source of news skews that news toward its own political preferences. In fact, it’s just a tiny bit chilling. Government censorship is, of course, terrible. But censorship by a small group of unelected young people is not all that much more appealing.
This problem existed already on another scale. The socioeconomic, racial and political homogeneity of the media is a problem, one that I have written about before. That said, those media were operating in a competitive landscape, and no one outlet really had all that much market power. In each medium there were outlets of different sorts of political leanings, and more of them with the rise of the Internet.
Facebook, on the other hand, dominates all other social media outlets for news to an extent that no print outlet ever dominated the American landscape. The only arguable parallel is the big television networks from the 1950s to the 1980s, and at least there were three of them, rather than one. Besides, for most of that time they operated under the Fairness Doctrine — in other words, under heavy-handed government interference to limit their power to shape the national debate.
The greater danger is that liberals will end up falling back on an argument that is gaining more and more currency on the left: that this biasing of information is not merely an unfortunately insoluble problem, or so minor that it doesn’t make much difference in our politics, but that it is actually an affirmative good. These are the people who embrace Orwell’s dictum and say: “Yes, absolutely, the left should have control over what people are allowed to hear and know, because that’s how we’re going to build a better future.” The first argument may be unsatisfying. But the second is … downright Orwellian.
Megan McArdle, “Facebook Dislikes Conservatives, and That’s OK”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-11.
May 16, 2016
I rarely agree with much that Barack Obama says, but I can’t disagree with this part of his speech to the graduating class at Rutgers University this weekend:
President Obama strongly condemned the rising anti-intellectual streak on the right — but also on the left — in his remarks at Rutgers University’s spring commencement on Sunday.
He harshly attacked the policies and rhetoric of Donald Trump (without mentioning him by name), asserting that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s deliberate ignorance is destructive.
“That’s not challenging political correctness,” said Obama. “That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”
But he reserved some time at the end of his speech to also criticize students who are too “fragile” to listen to people whose opinions offend them. He said it was a mistake for students to seek to disinvite speakers with whom they disagree.
“I know a couple years ago some folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement,” said Obama. “I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former secretary of state or shutting out what she had to say, I believe that is misguided.”
The answer to bad speech is more speech, Obama continued.
February 27, 2016
In Spiked, Kevin Rooney tells the tale of a young soccer fan who faces jail time for joining hundreds of other fans in singing a song:
Imagine the scene: a young man is led away in handcuffs to begin a prison sentence as his mother is left crying in the courtroom. He is 19 years old, has a good job, has no previous convictions, and has never been in trouble before. These facts cut no ice with the judge, however, as the crime is judged so heinous that only a custodial sentence is deemed appropriate. The young man in question was found guilty of singing a song that mocked and ridiculed a religious leader and his followers.
So where might this shocking story originate? Was it Iran? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan? Perhaps it was Russia, a variation of the Pussy Riot saga, without the worldwide publicity? No, the country in question is Scotland and the young man is a Rangers fan. He joined in with hundreds of his fellow football fans in singing ‘offensive songs’ which referred to the pope and the Vatican and called Celtic fans ‘Fenian bastards’.
Such songs are part and parcel of the time-honoured tradition of Rangers supporters. And I have yet to meet a Celtic fan who has been caused any harm or suffering by such colourful lyrics. Yet in sentencing Connor McGhie to three months in a young offenders’ institution, the judge stated that ‘the extent of the hatred [McGhie] showed took my breath away’. He went on: ‘Anybody who participates in this disgusting language must be stopped.’
Several things strike me about this court case. For a start, if Rangers fans singing rude songs about their arch rivals Celtic shocks this judge to the core, I can only assume he does not get out very much or knows little of life in Scotland. Not that his ignorance of football culture is a surprise — the chattering classes have always viewed football-related banter with contempt. But what is new about the current climate is that in Scotland, the middle-class distaste for the behaviour of football fans has become enshrined in law.
H/T to Natalie Solent for the link.
February 9, 2016
From a short interview in The Economist:
I probably wouldn’t have imitated the grandiloquent style of a notorious former slave holder. And I would have been a bit more humble about the “Citizens of Cyberspace” creating social contracts to deal with bad behavior online. The fact remains there is not much one can do about bad behavior online except to take faith that the vast majority of what goes on there is not bad behavior. Yeah, I hate spam, and viruses, and worms, and surveillance [by America’s National Security Agency], but the fact remains that if you can censor one of these bad behaviors, you’ve endowed yourself with the ability to censor almost anything you don’t like online. This is not an ability I wish to extend to any existing government in the physical world. If we assert it, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from doing the same.
And I would make it more obviously clear that I knew that cyberspace was not sublimely removed from the physical world, with which it has exactly the same relationship that the mind has with the body: deeply interdependent but qualitatively different. I think that point often got lost.
Over the decades, it has been continuously fashionable to make a straw man of my declaration, to hoist it up as the sort of woolly-headed hippie nonsense you’d expect from techno-utopians like me. This is done largely by people who have never read it, or take a strong interest in believing that government is about to come stomping into town, there to “civilize cyberspace.
November 28, 2015
Brendan O’Neill reminds us that being a supporter of free speech requires you to support those who don’t always agree with you or express themselves in ways you’re comfortable with:
It’s the 21st century and Europe is meant to be an open, enlightened continent, and yet a man has just been sentenced to jail — actual jail — for something that he said. Will there be uproar? It’s unlikely. For the man is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the French comedian, and what he says — that Jews are scoundrels and the Holocaust is a fiction — is deeply unpleasant. Yet if we’re serious about freedom of speech, if we are truly committed to ensuring everyone has the liberty to think and say whatever they please, then the jailing of Dieudonné should outrage us as much as the attempts to shut down Charlie Hebdo or the jailing of a Saudi blogger for ridiculing religious belief. We should be saying ‘Je Suis Dieudonné’.
Due to the regimen of hate-speech laws in 21st-century Europe — which police and punish everything from Holocaust denial to Christian denunciations of homosexuality — Dieudonné has been having run-ins with the law for years. In 2009, a French court fined him €10,000 for inviting a Holocaust denier on stage during a gig. In March this year, a French court gave him a two-month suspended prison sentence for saying he sympathised with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and with the anti-Semite who murdered Jews at a Parisian supermarket a few days later. Now, this week, a Belgian court has given him an actual prison sentence: a court in Liège found him guilty of incitement to hatred for making anti-Semitic comments during a recent show and condemned him to two months in jail.
In all these cases, Dieudonné has been punished simply for thinking and saying certain things. This is thought-policing. It’s a PC, spat-and-polished version of the Inquisition, which was likewise in the business of raining punishment upon those who said things the authorities considered wicked. To fine or imprison people for expressing their beliefs is always a scandal, regardless of whether we like or hate their beliefs. Dieudonné really believes the Holocaust is a myth, as much as a Christian fundamentalist believes that people who have gay sex will go to hell or American liberals believe Hillary Clinton will make a good president. He is wrong, massively, poisonously so; but then, so are those Christians about gays and those liberals about Hillary. If every person who says wrong, malicious or stupid things were carted off to jail, Europe’s streets would be emptied overnight.
It is incredibly illiberal for the state to police hatred. Hatred might not be big or clever, but it’s only an emotion. And officialdom has no business telling us what we may feel — or think, or say, or write. Allowing the state to monitor belief represents a brutal reversal of the Enlightenment itself. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), set the tone for the Enlightenment as an attempt to ‘settle the bounds’ between the business of government and the business of morality. ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of every particular man’s goods and person’, he wrote. That ideal is now turned on its head. Across Europe, governments ‘provide for the truth of opinions’, and in the process they silence those they don’t like and patronise the rest of us, reducing us to imbeciles incapable of working out what is right and wrong, and of speaking out against the wrong.
All hate-speech laws should be scrapped. Dieudonné should be freed. And a continent whose governments argue against the imprisonment of bloggers in Saudi Arabia while jailing comedians at home needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
November 25, 2015
At least, she’s not planning on apologizing for making a few (not-even-PG-rated) jokes about Star Wars. Her critics, in addition to pouring scorn and hatred on her for daring to joke about such a holy topic, also threaten her life:
Now, I received a few death threats right after I posted the aforementioned tweet — which, by the way, was why I was saying Star Wars fans were “crazy” in the first place. Overall, though, it wasn’t a big deal, and I kind of forgot about it.
Then, this week, one Star Wars super-super-super fan who calls himself “AlphaOmegaSin” made a ten-minute (!) video brutally ripping me apart.
The YouTube comments on his manifesto were even better. You know, stuff like:
justin 12 hours ago
Maybe a SW nerd needs to sneak into her dark room, dressed like her bf, rape her, but she doesn’t know it’s rape because she thinks it’s her BF.
needmypunk 16 hours ago
I hope she gets acid thrown in her pretty little face.
sdgaara2 1 day ago
Wouldn’t it be great if she was beaten to death with “space nerd sticks”
Guardian978 22 hours ago
I want to cut that blonde c***’s face off and stick it to a thermal detonator. What a network full of c***s.
dethklok21 1 day ago
Wow what a f***ing thunder c***. I hope this b**** gets hit by a f***ing car.
Mikki Yeong 1 day ago
those death treaths are approved by me look at that b**** it’s a typical i wear big glasses to look smart but in fact i’m stupid as f*** btwthose glasses used to be only weared by nerds stupid h**
TheValefor1984 1 day ago
We should get her address then bury her a** in Star Wars memorabilia lol
TheGreenStreak452 1 day ago
I just want to burn Fox News to the ground and all their stupid employees.
[Asterisks not in the original.]
To be fair, AlphaOmegaSin did say that he denounced threats on my life because “Just because you’re a f***ing idiot doesn’t mean that you should have to die.”
A problem with being a free speech absolutist is that you have to accept that some members of the community are going to use it to be as grotesquely offensive as they possibly can. Way to live down to expectations, Star Wars fans.