LR: A spate of iconoclastic protests and demands for social reform this year has eventually culminated in a letter—a remarkably controversial letter, signed by over 150 academics, writers and activists. Perhaps most notably by J.K. Rowling, who has lost much of her fan base amidst accusations of transphobia. The piece, published in Harper’s Magazine, criticises the culture of “public shaming” and “ostracism” that is starting to prevail.
Yet for so many people, who innocently experience the adversities and reverberations of our liberties being eroded, the topic is still too difficult to speak about. What do you think this letter means for those of us that aren’t J.K. Rowling? Are we witnessing the last vestige of free speech, reserved for those who can endure the prospect of “ostracism”? Or are we at a turning point, where we begin to challenge the apparent dichotomy between social justice and toleration of differences?
JS: I think that letter seems controversial now but would have seemed merely reasonable about twenty years ago. That’s how far the new Left has lowered the bar of political debate and put so many of us on our back-foot. Even Noam Chomsky—an old-fashioned Liberal—signed the letter because he no doubt is slightly embarrassed by all the censorship and intellectual fraud being produced on the academic and cultural Left.
Here are three sentences near the end of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” (July 7, 2020):
The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.
That those entirely sane and fair-minded sentences now require strenuous advocacy by well-known writers and public intellectuals demonstrates how wildly successful the censorial Left has been in belittling common sense, rationality, logic, and good manners. The truculent reaction to the letter and to its more or less brave signatories vindicates its publication.
To answer your questions, I do think free speech is imperilled, especially in the UK, which has no First Amendment. But the universities in the US are doing all they can to wipe out free speech there as well. If Biden wins in November and brings an ultra-Left V.P. along with him (as he must, to win), then I fear the First Amendment will be effectively repealed. At that point, the cultural civil war may very well spill over into something more than a war of words. We are at a turning point and that’s why it is vital for reasonable, enlightened individuals to speak out against the fatuity and arrogance of the “woke” Left. It would help to have a billion dollars in the bank (J.K. Rowling) but I am getting pretty damned weary of always having to quote G.B. Shaw: “Get your money first, then your morals.” I think we should have a strong ethical stance now, no matter how broke we are financially. What do you think?
LR: I think you are correct that the article would not have seemed controversial twenty years ago. The broadening measure of what is offensive, coupled with growing sensitivity, is part of an alarming and insidious problem—and one only has to consult George Orwell’s 1984 (which I anticipate becoming increasingly relevant) to deduce what is happening within our society:
Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
A concerted effort by the more moderate members of the Left could prove to be instrumental, as they may be able to depress the “woke” Left with a reduced risk of further provocation (as they are, superficially if nothing else, on the same side). Perhaps this is one of the reasons the article mentions the Right multiple times, yet doesn’t mention the Left—an attempt to galvanise the moderate Left into action? Preventing a monopoly on thought, as well as averting a descent into Puritanism, should be a cross-party effort—I think many fail to recognise this.
When their opponents are individuals, the “woke” Left is very successful in suppressing them. This is why it is so difficult to defy G.B. Shaw. I can’t tell you how many times I have redacted a text message, refrained from replying to a social media post, for the fear of becoming a martyr. Maybe this article will start a new movement—one that defends both the right to protest for social reform and the right to be offended?
JS: Puritanism without God. Puritanism without metaphysics—that’s one way of thinking of what we are seeing today. But should not that make it slightly easy to vanquish? Cromwell’s God presumably backed up his cancelling of Christmas, dancing, and heretical forms of merriment. But our new Puritans—the ones going around censoring speech and statues and ruining entire careers—have no God on their side. Their arrogance and righteousness are merely ideological posturing, but there is nothing deep about it. Perhaps their intense touchiness about ideas suggests that they know they have weak arguments. It is another reason that many on the Left don’t show up for proper debates, preferring instead to Tweet nastily from the side-lines to see what horrible mischief they can concoct.
Orwell did see all this coming. It wasn’t just Stalinism that spooked him. I think Orwell intuited that both the Right and the Left are capable of reducing speech to clichés and using language to tell one smiling lie after another.
I fear that the “woke” are going to inherit the Earth for a time, and it may be that Russia and China—and India, perhaps—will dominate history for the next few centuries because they are not shy about putting down liberal or left ideas and practises. The West fell asleep at the wheel and assumed that no one in her or his right mind would even attempt to roll back the signal achievements of the European Enlightenment.
LR: The predicament that we face in having Russia and China as our only forces of resistance is that these countries are still far from being advocates of the freedom we desire—they actively suppress opposition. If these two nations are to be the only obstruction to the “woke” movement, we will lose any happy medium we have enjoyed in the West. The world will be polarised into authoritarian governments and mob rules; states where the government punishes citizens or where citizens punish citizens. Unfortunately, there might not be a great difference between the two.
Not being aligned to a religion allows their base to become more comprehensive but also makes them vulnerable at times. Sometimes the movement takes a clear, united stance—for example, Germaine Greer being no-platformed after her alleged transphobic comments. In other instances, their stance is kept quiet and purposely ambiguous. Was there the same level of Leftist outrage against the Muslim parents in Birmingham that protested LGBT content in schools, as there has been against J.K. Rowling? Perhaps they have overestimated the synergy in their assortment of dogmas and doctrines?
I’m finding it more difficult to speculate about the upcoming US election with each poll release. They all show Trump undoubtedly losing, but as most of the media outlets have surrendered impartial journalism- and after their pitiful display in the run-up to the 2016 result—I’ve lost almost all confidence in both their predictions and reporting. The “gotcha” moments—which are compacted into concise and condemning soundbites, just short enough for our 21st Century attention spans—understandably rake in internet clicks but have helped change the political dynamic into this hostile and confrontational environment. Whatever our thoughts on the man, for the sake of the First Amendment Trump has to win. If he were to prove those polls and media outlets wrong- and overcome the massive efforts to prevent him winning- could that be a final blow to some members of the radical Left?
JS: Since you bring up the First Amendment, I am obliged to observe that many people in the US and around the world believe that Trump is actually the one who is flouting that Amendment. To remind our readers:
Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution (1791)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Many Democrats and people on the Left think that Trump tries to shut down stories he does not like (there are hundreds printed every day) and that he shouts down reporters at press conferences (to a CNN reporter: “You’re fake news, fake news!”). Oblivious to their own acts of censorship and, recently, penchant for “cancel culture,” these people cannot be persuaded that Trump is not in fact the worst enemy of freedom of speech. Trump infamously called the press “the enemy of the people” and, for many reporters, that phrase looks like an attempt to silence them. Trump is also involved in a lawsuit over his claim that Twitter is attempting to “moderate” his more inflammatory Tweets. The entire scandal comes down to both sides accusing the other of violating the First Amendment. So, who is right?
I note in passing that if you investigate Obama’s many violations of the U.S. Constitution during his presidency, you will find dozens of articles written by scholars from both ends of the political spectrum.
LR: I should have probably written “for the sake of preserving the First Amendment” in my response. Unfortunately, the US election system is practically binary so often we have to settle for the best out of a mediocre (at best) bunch. Out of Biden and Trump, as you’ve already written above, the First Amendment (in its current form and as part of the Constitution) is safer in the hands of the latter.
Trump’s actions could be considered secondary or consequential to the emergence of “cancel culture”—Trump was only elected in 2016, and “woke” ideas have been circulating since before then. Is criticising reporters for having a bias, or Twitter for moderating tweets, equivalent to the outright condemnation of opposing views? With context, there is a difference between what both sides mean for liberty—but that’s not to say that either of them is not unconstitutional.
However, it is important to remember that the First Amendment does not apply to non-governmental institutions. Are NGO demands to restrict speech, through societal means, technically constitutional for as long as there aren’t any laws prohibiting it? Do you think there is a possibility that the First Amendment, which many are relying on as indemnity against the fallout from resisting this “cancel culture”, could end up protecting the very people who want to repeal it?
JS: I need help with this sentence and the triple negative you used in the final phrase: “With context, there is a difference between what both sides mean for liberty—but that’s not to say that either of them is not unconstitutional.” Please clarify for me. I think the triple negative makes it negative, again, right?
Censorship is becoming a tricky devil in our times. “Cancel culture” is, to my mind, clearly practising censorship even as its advocates trumpet their right to free speech and expression. Trump may wish to silence pesky reporters but he cannot actually get away with it unless he burns down The New York Times building. Yes, you can “hide behind” the First Amendment to perform all manner of “free expressions” (in her prime, even Madonna cites the First Amendment), so the Constitution does protect the very people who like to tear down statues representing the authors of that same Constitution. What can you say about a country that constitutionally protects the very people trying to burn it down? I say: God bless America!
LR: The triple negative does make that sentence quite convoluted. It is probably worth a quick redaction but you are correct in your interpretation of it.
The idea that history is cyclical might be the best-case scenario at this point. Even so, we can’t be complacent in assuming it will de-escalate. McCarthy still ruined countless lives in the mid-twentieth century and the current situation is like politically-flipped McCarthyism, but with the amplified communication that has come with social media. Perhaps a new trend will prevail every 60 years or so, alternating between government and civilian oppressors.
I think this situation has unearthed a regrettable feature of our society—in giving people the freedom to think and speak we also give the freedom to weaponise morality, stifle both scientific and societal progress and, if they so wish, push us into authoritarianism. Does liberalism have any facility to prevent a dive into illiberalism, however wilful it may be?
JS: What baffles me is how liberalism, the kind that the eminent Victorians championed (Mill, Arnold) actually gave way to modern liberalism, the Left, and then, in its frothing wake, illiberalism. That narrative needs explaining, or at least sketching, to make sense of these ideas in a time when political terms, names, categories, shibboleths, and slurs are thrown around with such abandon that one needs a dictionary at the ready to keep from falling into utter terminological despair.
When the practices—and vitriol—of the Far Left and the Far Right begin to look identical, then we need to slow down and see what happened to make such a state of affairs possible.
Where do we begin? How can we show our readers how to be precise, thoughtful, responsible, historical, openminded, and openhearted in a time of chaos and incivility?
LR: I’m in a quandary about what to suggest. How can we preach tolerance, when it is our tolerance that has enabled some on the Left to become so powerful? We have reached a stalemate—despite the consequences, every bone in my liberal body does resist completely shutting these people down. They seem to leech off the brave who signify the flaws in their arguments—for whom they are armed with that barrage of slurs and shibboleths you’ve written about. So, how do we have reasoned debate with a group who have no regard for facts, or even sense?
I think that what has dawned on many of these radicals is that their ideas don’t play out well in democratic elections. The proportion of people, even of those on the Left and especially in the public, who are truly on board with these ideas is too small for them to rely on conventional methods for getting their demands into law. They resort to the strategy of mob rule—and it’s proving frightfully successful.
We must find a way to calm the acrimony without completely appeasing them. Do you think if our political leaders, from whom we rarely see intelligent and sensible debate anymore, were to present with open-mindedness it would percolate through the demographics and help our cause?
JS: Some American pundit has said that the conservatives are winning political elections but losing the culture wars to the left, especially to the academic left. It may be that the left—and the social justice warriors—are so prickly, defensive, and unreasoning precisely because their interests are not being served at the highest levels of government. Brexit, the election of Trump and then Johnson has shocked the left and many of them are reacting like scolded children flinging their toys from their pram. But that flinging has serious consequences because it jeopardises the Enlightenment values of the culture at large.
Witness the recent case of the Cambridge professor who has managed to get a promotion out being offended by a few tart responses to her Tweet (published twice for good measure): “White People Don’t Matter.” A British-Indian academic, she has remarkably few scholarly achievements to her name and seems to be one of those people who has turned taking offense into a minor art form, but Cambridge decided to reward her hurt feelings with a promotion. Vastly to his credit, the tireless Douglas Murray has wittily attacked this professor and her “Woke” presumptuousness in an article in Unherd— https://unherd.com/2020/06/cambridge-universitys-very-modern-bigotry/
To answer your question more directly, I think Douglas Murray—and those like him—have achieved the most effective ethical stance by publishing vigorously against the excesses of the petulantly “Woke” and by calling them out every chance he gets on social media platforms. He is tactful, generous, informed, and publishes well-researched and thoughtful books (The Strange Death of Europe, The Madness of Crowds). I wish Johnson and especially Trump were so graceful, intelligent, and courageous in presenting themselves. As it is, Trump really does inflame everything he touches and as a result most people know everything about his brash personality and almost nothing about his actual policy decisions.
LR: The Cambridge incident is detestable and illuminates how submissive the universities have become. It’s difficult to deny there’s a political agenda at play when we compare what happened to this professor with Jordan Peterson—who had his visiting fellowship offer revoked.
I remember scrolling through Twitter on the morning after last year’s general election, starting to wonder where the strong voices for conservatism were. These “echo chambers” are a wonderful way to convince themselves and others that their parochial and destructive views are upheld by many—seemingly even the morning after they have been democratically decimated. Winning elections is only the ultimate eventuality—they’re doing fine pushing their demands in society without making any laws for now.
Douglas Murray is a great example of how we can be active against this. The nature of their demands makes reasonable counter-arguments easy- and if the majority do this, the loud minority may just become nothing more than irritable and trivial heretics.
JS: Since we seem to be chronicling The Decline of the West, we might as well keep track of the triumph of the egregious in all its ignominious fatuity.
For those readers not brave enough to click on the link, the title says it all. There seems to be no claim too ludicrous for the academic left, including the claim that grammar itself is shot through with racism. Don’t bother to explain how, exactly—just make the claim, sling the mud, and watch the Internet Mob go crazy with delight.
I had a great-nephew (Arlo) born two days ago and in twenty years or so when I have more or less cheerfully returned to stardust, I want him—and all my other intellectual godchildren around the planet—to remember what odd times we lived through in 2020. Will Western cultural values—the ideals of the European Enlightenment—return? Will they gain ascendancy again? Is it enough to do what we are doing: cataloguing the excesses of the illiberalism and the arrogant absurdities of universities and professors who are, one hopes, cutting their throats? What more can be done to turn back the filthy tide of Resentment and Self-Hatred that characterizes so much of this political posturing. If grammar is racist, what next? Logic? Reason? Tolerance? How preposterous is this game going to get, and will it get far worse if Trump is re-elected?
LR: I think only time will tell the answers to those questions—however desperate we are to know or influence them. We can safely say, at least, that these rancorous disputes aren’t going away soon. Whichever way the coming US election swings, we should anticipate a cataclysm of acrimonious political contention.
As a concluding remark, I hope that our rational allies (from whichever part of the political spectrum they may reside) don’t relinquish their liberty as easily as is demanded. We must remember it is only once we have done this that we can fully comprehend its consequences.