Forgive the length of this piece, but this is a very big issue that should concern not only those who embrace academic freedom, but also more generally individual freedom and the importance of reason.
As Mary Wakefield in The Spectator last week put it:
As Mary Wakefield in The Spectator last week put it:
Back in the 1990s, PC students would stamp about with placards demanding equal rights for minorities and talking about Foucault. This new PC doesn’t seem to be about protecting minorities so much as everyone, everywhere from ever having their feelings hurt.
The illiberal left (and I am not being pejorative here, but believe that despite their claims, these are people who are as illiberal as any hardline social-conservatives, in their own way) regard the term "political correctness" as a reactionary pejorative label against "liberation" movements that seek equal treatment of people based on a whole set of agreed identity politics based categories. It is swiftly dismissed, rather than the key arguments behind it tackled, not least because, unfortunately, so many who claimed "political correctness gone mad" (as if it was ever sane) were themselves not particularly articulate about their concerns, or (if you scratched the surface) racist, sexist and homophobic.
Today the illiberal left (yes there is a genuinely liberal left) have moved on, into what I call the new tyranny of emotionalism. It is the belief that if something someone says or gestures or does, hurts your feelings, the person who says or gestures or does whatever, should refrain from doing so, to protect the hurt feelings of the "offended".
It is seen in the reaction of illiberal left to the Charlie Hebdo murders by Islamists - after a cursory expression of horror, their first reaction was that nobody should say anything to upset Muslims, by taking on the tyranny of those seeking Islamic blasphemy legal principles to apply to the free world. Then it went much further, with television in the UK refusing to show the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine, because it might offend a tiny minority of viewers.
It is seen in the anonymous vitriol poured out by those offended by an article published in a newspaper that was neither illegal, nor gratuitous (but the newspaper was from the spawn of the devil - being The Times, owned by the illiberal left's own pantomine villain - Rupert Murdoch - whose main crime has been to establish or buy media outlets that express views they not only disagree with, but importantly disapprove of). It saw the newspaper pull the article because of the angry mob.
It is seen in the complete absurdity of a UK National Union of Students Women's Conference asking delegates to not applaud speakers because it "triggered" anxiety for some students. So "Jazz Hands" were suggested instead. The language used by one of the advocates for this hyper-emotionalism responded by saying:
Our jazz hands request enraged Twitter trolls and sparked a flurry of tweets, unfortunately fuelled by some of Oxford’s own (students and tutors!). Often, these tweets used the language of oppression to mock and belittle us, by ridiculing issues of cultural appropriation, ableism and racism (as well as the very mature “jizz hands” parody).
There you go "the language of oppression". You can't mock people who are being political, who are seeking power over others, and out comes the identity politics. The intellectually lazy assumption that because you are of a certain sex, race, etc, you're automatically either empowered or a "victim", rather than looking behind the categorisation of people, into their actual individual backgrounds and cases.
The "ableism" word adds another dimension - because the issue of applause was about those who had "anxiety triggered". It reflects the inexorable growth of the trend of psychology not just pathologising reactions people have to difficulties in life, but rendering the pathology permanent and not the fault (or the responsibility) of the person with the pathology. There is not the time now to go into that maze, but categorising anyone to be disabled if they identify themselves as such, means anyone can now join the identity politics circus and be "oppressed". Finding that a group of people applauding makes you anxious, now makes you disabled - and you're "ableist" (which is just like being racist - the biggest sin in the illiberal left world).
The psychology and psychiatry professions are now pathologising boys who like wearing dresses and girls who like being tomboys as "transgender" and recommending when they get medical intervention to suppress their hormones. It is as if the great changes inspired by the late Thomas Szasz's "The Myth of Mental Illness" have been for nothing. Psychiatry remains embryonic in its scientific understanding of the brain, but it hasn't stopped the illiberal left from using it to justify both surgical and pharmaceutical interventions based on emotionalism, rather than a hard-headed rational discourse about reality. After all, if you criticise pathologising children behaving in ways that could imply "trans-gender identity", you'll get hounded as being transphobic, because you're probably "cis-centred".
Universities across the United States are also seeing requests from illiberal left student unions for "trigger warnings" to be produced for books. University students, who are demonstrably not children, who are invariably seeking an education to have a career, where they may create, innovate, produce, assist and be adults who have autonomy over their own lives, maturity and can manage not only themselves, but to raise families, run businesses, be lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, seeking protection from words. It is the equivalent of extending the warnings that apply to movies and (the fading) media of DVDs of content, largely to assist parents in deciding what content their children should watch - but being extended to adults - because it might hurt their feelings.
Even the Guardian article warning of this trend going "too far" accepts the fundamental principle, that people need to be protected from words and art:
Nobody should have to feel victimized, or traumatized, particularly when they may have already been a victim of a trauma mirrored on the pages of a book. And, of course, everyone should have access to the information they need to judge for themselves what they should or should not be exposed to; there should be no horror by homework, nor any rape reminder by reading assignment.
Well yes, no one should "have" to feel victimised in an ideal world, but demanding that others have their actions or expressions prohibited or restricted to protect you is fundamentally illiberal and removes any responsibility for ones emotional reaction and more importantly how you deal with your feelings and places it upon others.
It is a recipe for insanity.
We have prohibitions on not wearing certain costumes because it "offends" people, but don't for one moment start saying that wearing hijabs offends some women. You see criticising the cultural expressions of Islamic cultures is "Islamophobic" even if they actually embody the principle feminists reject that a woman is "asking for rape" if she reveals - any - of herself.
On public issues where, at the fundamental level, I agree with the key premise (in this case, that gay marriage should be permitted), the illiberal left proselytising this view are exactly that. Illiberal. Anyone who expresses a different view is to be shut down. It is the classic example of being "politically incorrect" as Mao coined it. The illiberal left take it further, with a level of adolescent vitriol and profanity that makes you wonder about the things they don't get this upset and angry about - like Islamism. A Christian baker in Northern Ireland gets fined because it refused to bake a cake expressing support for gay marriage. The illiberal left want to criminalise those who refuse to give them a platform for their own views. However, they will happily shut down anyone who they find offensive or demand others exclude them.
They are profoundly opposed to freedom of speech, because their conception of free speech (just like the Marxist-Leninist tyrannies that murdered and starved millions) is that it gets dominated by those they disagree with (invariably labelled racist, sexist et al.) so free speech must only be granted to the disadvantaged by their identity politics classification (and only expressing their received view or minor variants on it). They want the media and social media especially, to be there for them - like their own Pravda, Central People's Broadcasting House, to allow the "diversity" of single opinion that they hold.
Of course, when they want to talk amongst themselves, they can't cope with being challenged, and so comes the trend for universities to create "safe spaces". Mary Wakefield describes them as thus:
My favourite is that this daft bunch, who insist they’re quite sane, are demanding padded cells. Universities must provide ‘safe spaces’ in case a ‘triggered’ individual needs respite from a frightening lecture, on Shakespeare, say. The safe space at Brown University contains cookies, Play-Doh and videos of puppies. I feel a little triggered just thinking about it.
The infantilisation of adults is execrable . The contradictions abound with this. As part of the identity politics silo classification of people, anyone under 18 is automatically vulnerable, and not responsible for their actions, so is to be protected. Young people can take explicit nude photos of themselves and distribute them, but it is others responsible for their abuse - the social media websites, the internet service providers, the "culture". Similarly, if they are violent, or verbally abusive and threatening, it isn't their fault, they are either reacting to being victims or are themselves, mentally ill and you're being "ableist" as is "society" for not giving them the help the need.
Yet these same vulnerable people, seemingly incapable of moderating their behaviour or acting rationally, are entitled to be "heard" and even to participate in the political process. The illiberal left has supported extending the vote in the UK, to 16 and 17 year olds, with vocal support from leftwing political parties (who think they will benefit). The claim is that they have a "right" to have their views heard. The same people who are incapable of looking after themselves are deemed to have opinions that should shape who governs us all. I don't have a fundamental problem with discussing extending the electorate down to 16 year olds, but it should also be accompanied by full adult legal responsibilities for your actions - something the illiberal left aren't too keen on, as they seek to erode even adult responsibility.
This can be seen in the new puritanism about consensual adult sexual relations on universities in the United States, seen now in State laws enshrining a radical feminist approach to how consenting adults should interact. Unsurprisingly, mainstream US Democratic Party politicians, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Nancy Pelosi are cheering this on, all with the best of intentions I would think, but the impacts are chilling. Yes, there is an issue with women under-reporting rape out of shame and shock, and that rape - by its very nature - is difficult to get convictions for. Not least because it involves private acts between individuals where it is one person's word against another, in circumstances that (outside the commonly held view of rape being an unexpected abduction in a public place) can be interpreted in various ways. Proving a serious offence beyond reasonable doubt is inherently going to difficult, but it is not a reason to create new rules or to dilute the presumption of innocence.
The new rules grant amnesty on rules on drugs if any student makes an allegation of sexual assault. So if are caught snorting cocaine, against college rules, just say you were sexually assaulted, and you'll get off.
As Joanna Williams wrote in Spiked, what advocates of new laws on such behaviour are seeking can be seen in Goucher College in the US which has a 33 page policy that includes:
Each participant is expected to obtain or give verbal consent to each act of sexual activity. In order for consent to be valid, all parties must be capable of making a rational, reasonable decision about the sexual act, and must have a shared understanding of the nature of the act to which they are consenting.
It is not difficult to see what this does to intimacy. It formalises, dehumanises and ultimately destroys it. Imagine gaining verbal consent for "each act". "Can I touch your boob"? "Can I touch your bottom?" "Can I kiss your lips?" "Can I use tongue?". The death of passion.
It declares that consent cannot be given by anyone who has consumed alcohol or drugs. Ergo if you engaged in any sexual behaviour when drunk or even after one drink then you may be accused of rape.
This is the new puritanism. It is effectively a new set of rules that, instead of the old Christian religious values of shaming about the naked body, it shames about having any inkling of passion or spontaneity in intimate relations. It removes any responsibility at all for your own conscious volition and relinquishes all power, as it implies that any touching that did not get explicit consent, is an assault.
Rape needs to mean something specific. ‘Unwanted sex’ or ‘unenjoyable sex’, is completely different to ‘non-consensual sex’. We need to understand the difference if we are going to have a sensible discussion about rape. You may agree to have sex that you don’t passionately desire for all kinds of reasons.
It comes from the radical feminist claim that there is a so-called "rape culture" that pervades modern Western society. Setting aside the relativism that ignores the true rape cultures prevalent in countries like India, South Africa and Pakistan, it is so utterly detached from the thoughts, feelings and actions of most of the public to give cause to pause and think. Beyond the small number of those who rape or fantasise about rape, what tolerance is there for sexual assault? Almost everyone would be horrified if a family member, friend or acquaintance had been raped, and would want the assailant caught, charged, prosecuted and appropriately punished. Yet what you think of as rape (and the law considers rape) and what radical feminists call rape, is not quite the same. That sets aside the insane Orwellian notion that all sex is rape. Ella Whelan says it is a victim culture being perpetuated through identity politics at university.
What it comes back to, again, is emotionalism. The belief that what matters the most is that people's feelings are protected. The woman who had sex she regretted is being told that she didn't really consent to it, either because she was drunk and wouldn't have "touched that guy" had she seen him sober in the "cold light of day", or because he lied to her about his job, or she "doesn't want to be the sort of woman who does that sort of thing" (except she is and did). Even Transport for London now has an advertising campaign, understandably targeting women who get sexually assaulted on public transport, but starting with describing a man who "stares at you", as a reason to get distressed. Really? A reason to call for help in and of itself?
Daisy Buchanan in the Guardian epitomised this when in the context of figures about reported sexual assaults on train she said:
Any travelling woman who has ever sunk down in her seat and opened her book, only to be tapped on the shoulder and asked “What are you reading, then?” will be surprised that the numbers aren’t higher.
I had a woman sit beside me in an airport lounge some years ago and ask me about the book I was reading (it so happened she worked for the CIA, she claimed, and my book was about north Korea), I didn't think she was sexually assaulting me.
I don’t go out dancing any more, even though I adore it – because I know from experience that something bad might happen if I have to get home after midnight and the streets are full of potentially terrifying men who might not take it well if I don’t want to stop and say hello.
There it is "something bad might happen".
Yes, that's true for every moment of your life from the day of your first trauma - being born.
Buchanan talks about being tired of being "kind to creeps", having already decided that any man who spontaneously tries to talk to her wants to sexually assault her. Yes, there is a problem with anyone who harasses and assaults, and yes some people do think they have a right to others. Rape is a horrendous crime, and victims do deserve support and there remain long standing issues around how some law enforcement agencies handle complaints.
However, there are laws against all of this now, and a culture that openly embraces voluntary adult human interaction is not one Buchanan and her ilk tend to embrace, as they seek a hyper-vigilant layer of rules and enforcement to stop people being offended or having hurt feelings.
You see this sums up so much of the cultural pathology, fed by the illiberal left's intolerance of dissent and criticism, but centering on emotionalism. The idea that other people should have their behaviour altered so it doesn't upset you, even when what they do does not infringe upon your body, your property or objectively threatens either.
They want a society where nobody gets upset or offended (or triggered) by what others say or do, and where all people deemed to be oppressed (by an almost Maoist categorisation based on non-objectively relevant factors) have unbridled rights to express themselves and demand others accommodate their thoughts and feelings. They want to police this society with a Stalinist rigour and brutality that cares not one iota for the damage caused by those they harangue. Academic Tim Hunt's joke about female scientists saw an on-line lynch-mob demand he be fired, and so they won. Instead of simple criticism or even laughing at the silliness of his remarks, the offendotrons were out and they wanted his head - and got it. For all of their demands for sensitivity, the emotionalists are ruthless, cold and as brutal as the Khmer Rouge when they identify one who offends them. They have not the slightest concern about the impact on the lives of those they seek to destroy. They are the new Red Guards.
Brendan O'Neill (who is most definitely one of the labelled and hated by the emotionalists) summarised it well, although he was focused on modern feminism it applies more widely:
The new feminism, this global franchise, this pop and political phenomenon, is not really a movement. Nor is it, as men’s rights complainers argue, a feministic conspiracy to do down men. Rather, it is but the keenest expression of the mainstream misanthropy and turn against Enlightenment thought of the modern West itself. The ‘male’ values being attacked are really the universal values of reason, autonomy, progress and truth — values that both men and women need, and deserve. Forget the ‘sex wars’. We don’t need new feminism, nor do we need a new men’s rights movement. We need men and women to come together to challenge the illiberalism and backwardness of the modern West, which is so often expressed in new-feminist terminology.
The answer is not the populist reactionary conservatism of the likes of Donald Trump, which is intellectually and philosophically barren, but for a new embrace of Enlightenment values by those who still stand by them. Not just the objectivists, but the true liberal left (the ones like Nick Cohen, who confront the philosophy of Islam), and the tolerant conservative right.
Universities across the English speaking world are dominated, but not monopolised, by the illiberal left emotionalists. The political left is also dominated by them, be they far or centre left, and the so-called "conservative" right appeases them, because it lacks the philosophical foundations, motivation and intellectual fortitude to confront them.
It's about time that those of us who believe in Enlightenment values stand up - confront the intellectual vacuity of identity politics, the rational bankruptcy of emotionalism, and vigorously demand that our relatively free, open and tolerant culture not be undermined, infantalised and most of all, bullied, by the emotionally needy and power hungry.
For it is they that feed the culture of new laws on censorship, of new criminal laws (see Harmful Digital Communications Act) to sanitise consensual adult behaviour, and who demand an endless list of new "tolerances" to accommodate every hurt feeling by whoever claims it.