Reforming language rather than society: a great essay by Nick Cohen on free speech

March 29, 2015 • 11:19 am

Until recently I didn’t know of the English writer Nick Cohen (we Americans are so parochial!), but having read several of his pieces in the last few months, I’m becoming more and more impressed. Although I’m told he’s been in bad odor in the UK for having supported the Iraq War (shades of Christopher Hitchens), that is no reason to devalue the pieces he’s writing now defending good old-fashioned liberalism.

And, in the April issue of Standpoint, Cohen has perhaps the best essay on free speech that I’ve seen in several years, “Political correctness is devouring itself.” Not only does it reprise the classic arguments for free speech, but shows how the principle is being rapidly eroded by the very people who once espoused it—the Left. More and more, Cohen—as I—finds himself alienated from the Left, but no less disdainful of the Right, as the principles of the Enlightenment are effaced by identity politics, the mantra of “hate speech”, and other aspects of political correctness. It’s a sad situation when, for example, I find myself agreeing more with Fox News than with Jon Stewart about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book (but more on that soon).

Read Cohen’s essay, please, as it’s a Professor Ceiling Cat Recommendation™. I’ll give just a few excerpts.

Cohen traces the resurgence of free-speech prohibitions to the attempt by some feminists to ban pornography without any empirical evidence showing its purported harms. He then reprises the understandable reasons why people are “wounded” by offensive speech but then adduces the main reason we should ignore such hurt feelings:

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive?

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornographymight harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

That is positively Hitchensian. And I couldn’t help think of certain strains of left-wing atheism, the so-called “social justice warriors,” whose idea of of social justice is to obsessively comb the writings of other atheists, even dead ones, for rhetorical infelicities—when I read this:

Identity politics and the demands for freedom from offence it breeds create a Hobbesian world where everyone can demand the censorship of everyone else. There is no better proof of this than the fate of the politically correct themselves.

Strip away the appearance of a solid ideology, and you see the contradications. The tendency of the modern liberal-left to excuse radical Islam is supported by the politically correct belief that liberals should support a religion of the disadvantaged. In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian. Their political correctness has turned their principles inside out, and led them to abandon their beliefs in female and homosexual equality.

But the difficulties in pretending there are no conflicts between groups are as nothing compared to the pretence that there are no conflicts within them. Michael Ezra, a friend who is researching the growth of the illiberal intelligentsia, says that he is constantly reminded of Trotsky’s warning about the Bolshevik party’s claim that it represented the working class. A rapid descent follows, Trotsky said: “The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” Or in the case of feminist identity politics the people with the loudest voices substitute themselves for an entire gender.

. . . We have gone from the principle that only speech that incites crime can be banned to the principle that speech that incites gross offence can be banned to the principle that speech that provokes discomfort can be banned. This is not so much a slippery slope as a precipitous drop.

Cohen mentions a lot of censorship and free-speech bullying by the left: the Hirsi Ali retraction at Brandeis, the National Union of Students blacklist, and so on, and fixes the epicenter of free-speech opposition on college campuses. That’s absolutely correct.

Cohen’s is a long piece—five single-spaced pages printed out in 10-point type—but eminently worth reading. Cohen is a brave man: a liberal who doesn’t shy away from criticizing the excesses of liberalism, or from saying what a lot of us think but are reluctant to vocalize, as he does at the end of his piece:

Despite the Crash, the Occupy movement has fizzled out, and the American Left’s apparent candidate is Hillary Clinton, a shifty politician of no fixed conviction, who has been pretty much bought by Wall Street. And with today’s retreat come all the 1990s’ problems of speaking in private PC codes, which are as alien to ordinary voters as Nancy Mitford’s U and Non-U English. With the retreat comes the pathetic insistence on reforming language rather than reforming society, and the old seductive delusion that you can censor your way to a better tomorrow.

The rest of the population should worry about the future too. The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities which teach that free debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a free one.

 h/t: Ken

120 thoughts on “Reforming language rather than society: a great essay by Nick Cohen on free speech

  1. Excellent!

    I am glad that the rational left is fighting against these ‘social justice’ warriors.

    Bill Maher also had a go at them on Friday night, and it was wonderful. An excerpt, from the article:

    [W]e joke about everybody here, and that’s something a lot of liberals have forgotten how to do. For folks who take such pride in their love of diversity, liberals increasingly seem to tolerate none in their own ranks…

    For example, The Economist last week drew the wrath of the liberal website Media Matters, who said that their jalapeno flag cover was the sort of stereotype that ignores Latinos as a multifaceted community and relegates them to chili pepper-consuming constituents.


    How deeply stupid has the far Left become when gay designers can’t get along with gay musicians? When vegans attack vegetarians for not being pure enough? I’ve seen this. “Cheese-eater! Burn him!” I see agnostics and atheists bitching at each other. Why is this even a thing? Do you believe in a talking snake? Me neither. We’re on the same team!

    At Mount Holyoke [College] this year, they canceled a production of The Vagina Monologues because they said it offended the transgendered by offering “an extremely narrow perspective on what if means to be a woman.” Yes, we forgot all about the 0.3% of women who don’t have vaginas but still want a monologue. I’m sorry. I love the transgendered, but if you’re transgendered and you can’t handle The Vagina Monologues, you don’t need a vagina. You’re already a giant pussy.

    The last one, about the Vagina Monologues, blows my mind. Apparently ‘female bodied’ in reference to the ability of people with XX chromosomes to get pregnant is hate speech directed at trans persons, because trans women (must use the space, as no space = more hate speech) can’t get pregnant.

    I’m not joking.

    1. That is at once hilarious and sad. Some in our liberal circle are like a snake eating its own tail.

    2. Watched it. Love it.

      Unfortunately there’s an authoritarian streak in many people which does not correlate with ‘left’ or ‘right’ politically. Authoritarian on the right = fascism, authoritarian on the left = political correctness. (I’m over-simplifying there, too, undoubtedly).

      As an aside, I wonder how many of the transgendered really object to Vagina Monologues, and how many of the objectors are, umm, social justice warriors who feel obliged to object just in case some transgendered victim of their imagination should have their feelings hurt.

      1. Exactly.

        I am not in agreement with the scientists who keep coming out with studies which claim to ‘prove’ that righties are naturally intolerant and authoritarian, because they are more easily discomfited.

        I suspect that such personality types exist equally on both sides of the political spectrum, and that they tend to be extremists precisely because they get the squicks easily and are naturally authoritarian.

  2. This really is the heart of the matter:

    Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive?

    I don’t trust anybody with the censor’s pen — not even myself.


      1. Being a censor is somewhat like being a politician, if you want the job that should automatically disqualify you.

            1. Hmmm, not sure. I do remember an AC Clarke story in which leaders were chosen by random selection.

              The same story also included the same idea that Simon Hayward expressed. That anyone who wants to be the leader should be excluded from consideration. I can’t remember if that was actually a point of law in the society or a sentiment expressed by a character. The story was The Songs Of Distant Earth, a novel expanded from a much earlier short story of the same name.

              1. Ah — I misremembered it quite badly (but in my defence I read it only once and that maybe 40 years ago).

                The story is “Franchise” and the computer (Multivac, of course) chose the single “voter” whose answers’ to various questions would be used as a basis for selection amongst the various presidential candidates.


            2. There’s also Douglas Adams’ work, where Zaphod Beeblebrox is somehow President of the Galaxy because, being an outrageous good-for-nothing, he would distract the population from the folks with *real* power.

          1. Lotto Democracy. Crank up the machine, generate a nine digit number, match that against the Social Security files and send that person a registered letter ‘Congratulations, you have been elected to Congress’
            If the purpose of an election is to create a representative body, what more perfectly representative could there be than a random sample? It would be half women, 15% or so African American, 10% or so Gay and of course, only 1% from the 1%. It would of course have some percentage of egotists with a burning agenda but at least it wouldn’t have the present government with 100% with a burning agenda.

              1. Jury duty on steroids, yes. Political propaganda is less effective if the mark is educated. When a representative goes to Washington he/she doesn’t vote for the first two years but gets to spend the time getting educated about how it works. Much of that time can be spent actually talking to people who they wouldn’t know in real life. Then they can only vote on a bill if they attended the debates on it.

              2. I’ve said for a long time we need a balance between careerists and everyone else, so have a “jury senate”. I broached this in the Canadian neverending debates on Senate reform, so it may not be applicable directly elsewhere.

              3. I think the term limits movement is an attempt at getting the careerism out of government. Some of my favorite and worse favorite legislators have been veterans of multiple terms.

            1. “The Italian research team that received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2010 for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random has extended its work (as well as gained some team members). Their new study is:

              Accidental Politicians: How Randomly Selected Legislators Can Improve Parliament Efficiency“, A. Pluchino, C. Garofalo, A. Rapisarda, S. Spagano, M. Caserta, arXiv:1103.1224v1, March 7, 2011. They explain:

              “We study a prototypical model of a Parliament with two Parties or two Political Coalitions and we show how the introduction of a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators can increase the global efficiency of a Legislature, in terms of both number of laws passed and average social welfare obtained. We also analytically find an “efficiency golden rule” which allows to fix the optimal number of legislators to be selected at random after that regular elections have established the relative proportion of the two Parties or Coalitions.

              These results are in line with both the ancient Greek democratic system and the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations…. [We] think that the introduction of random selection systems, rediscovering the wisdom of ancient democracies, would be broadly beneficial for modern institutions.””

              [ ; my bold]

              1. Thanks Torbjörn for that link. The usual objection that I get is that the average person can’t be trusted to make decisions because they don’t know what they’re talking about. Which is different from the politicians we get now in what way?

              2. I’m sure the political and economic establishments loved that result. How deeply odd that it wasn’t trumpeted from the rooftops…

            2. Didn’t the Greeks do that? The idea of ‘professional’ politicians and all their attendant vested interests was anathema to them.

    1. “I don’t trust anybody with the censor’s pen — not even myself.”
      Exactl., It’s scary when one is so confident in their vision of the world that any opposing views (and in the case Cohen writes about, even minor disagreement) must be silenced in whatever way possible.

      As Jonathan Haidt put it in The Righteous Mind: “Morality binds and blinds.” Can’t trust anyone hooked on that moral feeling!

  3. I consider this a vitally important subject. Too many seem to have forgotten too that the debate is a vital part of the process. The statement, “I am offended,” effectively shuts down debate these days. No one even has to think about why they’re offended, let alone explain it so others understand – the statement is enough.

    1. The illiberal left operates by a double standard.

      They have every right to be offended, you, however, do not.

      If you innocently slip up and use the wrong word, such as, per my other comment, forget to put a space between ‘trans’ and ‘woman’, you can be accused of being a ‘hateful transphobic bigot’. If you apologize, and inform them that they could have been nicer about it, they will say that you deserve such treatment, because offending their [pet grievance here] is a far worse crime than being told, by them, to stop being such a terribad person.

      And if you have the gall to defend yourself, and your intentions, they accuse you of being ‘defensive’ and use this as *proof* of your vile and dishonest nature.

      When I deal with the SJW’s in such scenarios, I often feel like I am in some alternate reality.

      1. It’s an extremely hostile form of passive-aggressiveness. If the offense continues even after an apology is extended, the other person is only interested into browbeating you into submission — and not just submission on this point, but submission in all respects. It’s a move for domination, and little else.


        1. They rationalize it by saying that the inaccurate language leads to real world harm.

          For example, the phrase ‘female bodied’ is a form of ‘gender essentialism’ as it erases the true sex, of people born with penises and xy chromosomes who *feel* that they are women. And that if you erase their true biological sex (which is a social construct, they say) you are guilty of creating a hateful environment which 1) gets them murdered in the streets 2) causes them to commit suicide.

          This is especially frustrating when one is speaking about pregnancy and reproductive matters, since even using ‘women’ in reference to ‘people who can get pregnant’ denies trans women their sex.

          So, we must all play along with however SJW’s wish to define reality, and if we don’t, we are doing harm equal to that of the KKK.

          1. Bullying and suicide are serious phenomena that deserve serious responses. And bullying people into silence or locking them up if they don’t shut up is not the way to solve the problem of bullying. (Which, of course, you know.)

            When it happens with children at school, that’s the time for the teacher to step in.

            When it happens to adults outside of school…first, there are laws against assault and harassment and the like if the situation really is serious. And if it’s simply “everybody hates me so I’ll just go eat worms,” then that’s something that needs to be addressed by a mental health professional.

            Along, with, of course, speech to raise awareness and change the tenor of society’s conversation.

            But none of this PC bullshit.


            1. Bullying and suicide are serious phenomena that deserve serious responses.

              Yes, and attacking people who are already on your side simply because they use the wrong terminology tends to weaken the cause. It says that the wrong language is the worst crime of all. It makes you a laughing stock.

              Then again, I am not sure if those who are doing the attacking really, truly care about furthering ‘the cause’. They just want to dominate anyone they can. And many lefties let them, because no one wants to be seen as a bigot.

              1. There was a link in a comments section from a while back to a truly jaw-dropping back and forth in PZ Myers’s forum(?). I don’t tend to interact with those guys that much(maybe I should) so it was truly eye-opening to see a really, friendly, polite first timer get coolly and determinedly hounded out as a result of describing the other forum members as “intelligent'(this being an ‘ableist’ insult to those people who are unintelligent). I seem to remember him apologising very politely but this – somehow – only made things worse. There was no desire for anything but conflict amongst his self-declared opponents.

                I can’t remember the location of the link, but it gave a bit of an insight into this disconnected, airy, slightly unhinged world that SJW often inhabit, where someone offering an ordinary compliment is subjected to nasty, mean-spirited condemnation whilst someone supportive of Islamic extremism would almost certainly be met with polite, ‘I see what you mean about the need to throw infidels off buildings, but,’-style responses.

            1. Correct.

              And trans men exist.

              However, their beef is that describing any group of people who can get pregnant as having characteristics that one would *generally* assume to belong to those with female bodies/XX chromosomes/uteri = transphobic hate speech.

              1. I would like to see this discussion have better citation. It’s easy to generalise about what “they” (“SJWs”, “the illiberal left”, “the Politically Correct”) do and escalate each other’s outrage over what may have been an isolated or unimportant or misinterepreted or decontextualised instance.

                I’ve just been booted from a Facebook page called “the Freedom from Atheism Foundation” for daring to challenge their repeated and amplified (in much the same way) claim that atheists 1) hate God 2) hate Christians 3) have no morals, when I was the “they” in question. (I was pulling their tails a little, suggesting that Muslims and polytheists should be welcome there, being theists too.)

                We should also distinguish between asking for some usage and imposing it.

                I don’t like the expression “politically correct” because it’s never clearly defined. In the end it often seems to mean no more than “more sensitive than me to some minority and I don’t like it”. It’s worth remembering that yesterday’s political correctness (gone mad) has often become todays standard usage. “Chairperson” “flight attendant” “police officer” and “firefighter” are cases in point. But maybe that’s only here in New Zealand.

                (I also cautiously support some censorship of hate speech that is likely to result in violence. This arose in connections with “Christian” movies of the 19902 with titles like “The Gay Agenda” that used quite 1930s propaganda techniques against gay people, and did result in gay bashing outside churches that showed the films.)

      2. Yes, I agree. As a matter of fact, last night I was conversing with my Xian cousin, and he started (as usual) to bring up religion. I told him to base his thinking on religion is idiotic. He said, “are you calling me an idiot.” I said “no, your belief system is idiotic.” He hung up on me. He is a liberal Xian, and couldn’t handle the “offense”. I hate being hung-up on…talk about effectively shutting down the debate.

      3. I am reminded of an “offensive” remark by Bono, lead singer of the band U2, at a live show I attended in the US several years ago.
        After opening with a few of their radio hits, he paused the set to deliver a blistering rant against the US intervention at the time in Central America — and specifically the dropping of bombs that were causing many innocent civilian deaths. The mostly college-age American audience was stunned into uneasy silence.
        Bono then asked sarcastically, “Did I bug ya? Didn’t mean to bug ya!.
        The band then tore into an emotional version of “Bullet The Blue Sky” that brought many cheers.

    2. “…no one even has to think about why they’re offended…”

      Yes. It is an automatic response. The easily offended have simply been inculcated as to what should cause them offense. It’s unfortunate that the accepted way of dealing with claims to being offended is to capitulate, rather than demand compelling reasons for being offended. The fact that the easily offended typically have no reason other than “my ancestors have traditionally been offended by this” makes the whole thing a ludicrous and unnecessary game.

      1. Yes to everybody. Ben’s “passive aggressive” comment in particular is on point, and Buffy where she points out how allies are insulted because they’ve accidentally used the wrong word.

        Even apologies come out wrong because they’re heard as “some of my best friends are (insert appropriate group)”. When people are like this, you just can’t get it right. Having good intentions and wanting to learn doesn’t count, which it should.

        If you’re going to put up barriers even between yourself and your allies, you’re never going to gain the acceptance everyone should have.

    3. Any time someone says “that’s offensive” (the extreme version of “I’m offended” where they embody an objective standard), my reply is what does that have to do with anything? It’s amazing how tongue-tied people get when they have to justify why their offence should matter, rather than it simply being a rhetorical showstopper.

      This technique usually doesn’t save the conversation, but it does seem to puncture the self-righteous attitude – or exacerbate it to an emotional extreme, which is hilarious if nothing else.

  4. Cohen writes good stuff. I recommend his book What’s Left?, which, although primarily British in context, applies in many ways to the American scene.

  5. I haven’t had time to read the essay yet, but certainly will, since I was very very impressed by Nick Cohen’s book: “You can’t read this book: censorship in an age of freedom”. The first part on the book dealing with religious censorship (chiefly Islam) was especially excellent. I cannot recommend it enough.

  6. Censorship is ugly business regardless of which side does it. The shock expressed today is that the glorious liberal is as responsible for it as the crazy right. You might say this is one thing the parties can agree on. Actually two things. They both also believe the country should be run by big business and finance and people are of little importance although we will pretend they are if it makes them feel better.

    1. Leftist, not liberal.

      Though the left/right political spectrum is really insufficient to describe the outlooks we’re talking about. A more useful spectrum is two-dimensional. Left and right deal with economic philosophy (roughly describable as left wanting a welfare state and right not wanting it). Up and down deal with authoritarianism versus libertarianism (note the small ‘L’).

      The problem-people we’re talking about are on the left side of this 2D spectrum, and way up on the authoritarianism scale. Typical republicans would be on the upper right, and typical Libertarians would be on the lower right.

      Actual liberals are on the lower left – favoring just economics and personal liberty.

      1. Ah! That’s roughly what I just said, though less coherently, in my comment to #1 (which I posted long after Thanny posted this, but of course slots in well before it on the page, so of course I posted mine before I read this).

        Obviously, I agree.

      2. Actually, there’s another useful axis in my experience: evolution/revolutionary. I wrote to the “Political Compass” folks about it years ago, but never heard back.

  7. “With the retreat comes the pathetic insistence on reforming language rather than reforming society, and the old seductive delusion that you can censor your way to a better tomorrow.”

    Hear, hear. I see a similarity between the kind of censorship under discussion here and the prohibition of the early 1900s. You can’t legislate human nature. What you do is figure out how to deal with it, if necessary.

    1. I wish I’d come to Jerry’s post a bit earlier – Nick Cohen has crystallised exactly what I think, and have been clumsily trying to say, about the liberal left today.

      Re. your comment on historical similarities – reading Orwell’s collected essays on the political situation pre- and during WWII is to read about today, only with Russia replaced with Islam, and accusations of ‘crypto-fascism’ replaced with accusations of Islamophobia. I hope the current situation doesn’t go downhill as badly as it did in Orwell’s day, because the similarities are striking.

  8. This has given me a lot to think about.
    I would like to lay bare an innermost qualm, which is that I still find myself hesitating to disagree fully with the basic/i> stance taken by the SJWs regarding feminism. That they occasionally overreach is DEFINITELY true, but I still see and hear evidence that there is a rape culture in some specified circumstances, especially in fraternities and in high school and college athletics. That problem is embedded in a culture that objectifies women, and that culture includes the use of pornography.
    Anyway, like I said I need to think about this one.

    1. The answer to objectionable speech is always more speech.

      There’s no question that, say, the Nazis who marched on Skokie where attempting to bring about a culture that objectifies Jews and renders them subhuman. Yet their speech was not interfered with, and rightly so.

      If you think pornography objectifies women, don’t consume it. If it really bothers you, try to persuade others, including those who produce and buy it, to your perspective.

      But, for the sake of all that’s holy, don’t try to shut it down…not unless you want somebody else to forcibly shut you up about something you want to say but somebody else doesn’t want you to say.


      1. Thanks for bringing up the Skokie march. The march created the momentum for building the National Holocaust Museum. The answer to bad speech is more speech.

    2. …and that culture includes the use of pornography.

      That culture also includes the consumption of beer and cheeseburgers. But nobody tries to blame those for rape because there’s simply no evidence of any casual connection. Nor is there for pornography. So why the double standard?

      1. For that matter, I’ll wager that far more rapes can be directly traced to consumption of beer than of pornography. Even if consumption of pornography inclines the consumptors to rape — a proposition I find most extraordinary and would expect comparably extraordinary evidence to support — we know that alcohol consumption leads to rape, and in significant numbers.

        Yet we know that prohibition of alcohol is an even worse thing than legalization and regulation (and prosecution for drunk driving and all the rest)…so why would we even momentarily consider prohibition of pornography on such grounds?


      2. Why is there a double standard? Because religion is obsessed with sexual behaviour, and always has been, because it’s such a good way to control people.

    3. There is a rape culture in the US, but it’s entirely about male prisoners. That’s another discussion, however.

      When it comes to women, there is zero rape culture. The only thing worse for a man than being described as a rapist is being described as a child molester.

      Regarding prevalence, the first thing you need to understand is that the rape-slash-sexual-assault figures you keep seeing (they never separate them anymore) are fabrications. The CDC study, for example, includes “attempted forced kissing” as sexual assault, and bundles that in with the infamous 1 in 5 figure. They don’t report what purported victims describe their experiences as, and label them according to their own standards (e.g. drunken sex is rape, even though legally it isn’t). There are a host of other methodological problems with that study and others like it, but even at face value the figure doesn’t mean what people believe it means.

      The actual truth, from studies done by criminologists who know what they’re doing, is that college women are less likely to be raped than the general population, and that the lifetime chance that a woman will be raped is about 1 in 50. That’s still too many, but it’s hardly an epidemic worthy of the rape hysteria we see today.

      Like all violent crime, rape has been in relatively steady decline, and is less frequent now than it has ever been.

      Beyond that, you need to be aware that the idea of objectification is a fiction. That’s just not how humans do things. Adding the quality of “sexual object” to a person does not remove any other qualities. Studies actually suggest that perceiving someone as sexually desirable makes one more empathetic – more interested in their direct experiences. There is no subject/object dichotomy.

      And finally, the evidence with pornography is crystal clear. Their is a direct inverse correlation across societies between the accessibility and prevalence of porn and the frequency of rape. That is, where there is more porn there is invariably less rape. Whether the relationship is causative or results from a common cause remains to be seen. But it does refute any notion about porn causing rape, unless you want to seriously entertain the notion that rape is at record lows for other reasons entirely, and ubiquitous porn is keeping it from dropping to nothing.

      1. Thanny, your analysis matches my understanding…and it would seem to me that you might have the citations to back it up. Do you, so I might be able to refer to them to back my position should the need arise?



        1. The DOJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey would be a place to start:

          Don’t about the “objectification” study, as I heard that one second-hand (from a reliable source), and haven’t had a chance to track it down yet.

          Regarding porn vs rape, the pioneering work was done by Berl Kutchinsky about Denmark in 1970 or so. He continued studying the phenomenon into the early 1990’s, and others have replicated the results in other nations. Here’s one I found with a quick search:

      2. Ok, I know when I am rebutted. I know about the exaggerated claims of the rates of rape, but that was not what I was referring to. What I was getting at are situations where young men commit an assault and their actions are covered up by higher ups. That is what I mean by rape culture — an insular society where an authority will put their narrow interests above the law and by allowing these incidents to happen they are also allowing them to happen again. I was not clear on that point.

          1. Yes, what I understand about rape culture is the way it’s covered up. However, official figures while bundling assault and rape, which they shouldn’t, also under-report hugely. Most women don’t report when they are raped.

            I don’t believe their is a causal connection between pornography and sexual assault. I think it’s always been assumed because of the way religion treats sex. Women suffer much more from sexual assault in countries where pornography and legal prostitution are less available. Other violence has actually reduced since we’ve had a plethora of violent computer games – I believe they gives young men in particular an outlet.

            Being forcibly kissed by someone much bigger and stronger than you is a revolting and very frightening event, and I don’t like to see that minimized in the way it is above.

            1. I remember an Asimov essay I read about thirty years ago that argued for that inverse relationship between porn and rape – very crudely (!), that viewing porn leads to a happy ending for the man, in general reducing any latent inclination to rape.


              1. Saying “porn is bad (or good)” or “porn leads to [this type of behavior],” sounds to me a lot like, “drugs are bad.” There are different kinds of porn. Some appear, not just harmless, but educational and empowering. Others appear pathological and disturbing. And a lot are just funny.

            2. Rape culture is… Cover ups. Crappy treatment by cops when a victim reports a rape. Backlogs of unprocessed rape kits in some jurisdictions. Requiring victims to pay for their own rape kit in some situations. Casual dismissal of rape by politicians (a conservative pol makes some incredibly stupid public statement at least once a week). The default assumption in society is that while it isn’t okay to take advantage of others in most situations, it’s totally okay to take advantage of a woman who is too inebriated to give consent. (And yes, I agree that becoming so inebriated isn’t a good idea. That doesn’t turn the person who does it into a legitimate target.)

              There is the default assumption that if a woman is raped, she did something to encourage it… and if you turn that idea around there’s an implication that all men are potential rapists given the right encouragement. This is rape culture. It is real. We can do better.

              And pornography has nothing to do with it, in my opinion. Yes, our culture objectifies women. Some cultures where women are less objectified (like parts of Western Europe) are happy porn consumers. Some cultures where women are seen as barely human ban porn altogether. Porn is a red herring.

            3. First, the 1 in X (some scary single-digit number) stats, and the realistic results of 1 in 50, are not based on reported crimes. They are based on confidential surveys about experiences. They thus account for all rapes or sexual assaults, reported or otherwise.

              Second, the notion that raped women aren’t believed is, at best, several decades out of date. Far from covering rapes up, the de facto response these days is to tar and feather the accused without any due process at all (prominent public examples include the Duke lacrosse team and, more recently, the treatment of fraternities at UVA following a transparently false gang rape allegation). The attitudes you’re describing are staples of fiction, not a description of the world we actually live in.

              And lastly, objecting to the notion that “attempted forced kissing” (you missed a word) belongs in any category with rape is not minimizing the former in any way. There are a host of behaviors which are unacceptable, but which are nowhere near as unacceptable as rape. Lumping those stats together is an insult to actual rape victims.

  9. Is it wrong for the dozen or so countries that make “holocaust denial” speech illegal? How about hate speech prohibitions? What is the line, if any, on free speech?

    1. Yes, that’s not only not justifiable, it just drives the real problem underground where you’ll lose track of it before it erupts into something you can’t handle.

      The proper response is to let the fuckwads march and publish and what-not…and to outnumber them ten-to-one with sane people.

      In a fair fight of ideas, I have no doubt that the fuckwads will lose miserably and only find favor amongst similar idiots. Don’t you?


    2. I wrote a thing I think was clear and good about this issue, when I hear the same question asked in a Q&A session with Pinker.

      If you don´t mind, I´d like to copy-paste my minor defense of free speech inspiried by the objections you just made:

      Many of the complaints against free speech seemed to be of the quality of defeatist whining about how things are not perfect and issues are hard and complicated, so why not take the easy route of protecting sacred feelings and simply censor what can be said to avoid all the hassle. Examples brought up were of the sort that what about those pesky holocaust denialists and what of some racist ideologue back in 1990 in South Africa in some speech arguing that some race is inferior mentally and otherwise, and that these should be difficult areas for defenders of free speech and perhaps even situations – contexts – in which it would be justifiable to stifle open debate and discussion.

      No. These are not difficult for free speech. We let them voice their “opinions” – A word I despise on almost all accounts of the reverence we give to it these days – in their venues. The point is, we get to respond back. Liberals need to stop being scared of honest inquiry, we have had the upper hand since the enlightenment on all accounts. This is where I get yet again a perverted satisfaction of taking another swing at a walking dead horse, the postmodernists – The pseudoliberals of modernity. You see, opinions are not sacred – nothing is, and what a great thing that is! – and they are not equal amongst each other. The point is, as I repeat now in more detail than I did above, we good fighting liberals get to respond back, our weapon is reason in the face of irrationality and xenophobia – the fear of the unknown, and people fearing the unknown have only the fallacious arguments from ignorance at their disposal, or deluded fantasies. The point is you allow in their proper places people to voice what they think, and you can dismantle those ideas with reason, argument and evidence.

      Let people see the weakness in the logic used by people with confused morals, show how fragile and thin the grounding is under their assumptions, with the clear outcome of implying how the measures proposed by them are simply not justified by their reasoning. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, it takes time and effort. But these are important issues, and taking the childish stance of dodging the responsibilities of fighting by the just and reasonable means at any liberal philosophers disposal – logic, free debate, evidence, argument, appealing to our better angels of critical thinking and general thoughtfulness, instead of baser emotions in attempts to manipulate a person. I ramble, but avoiding hard work in favour of quick and easy illusions of solutions in stifling what is allowed to be said and thought by people around us, is arguably, not a working long term way to foster progressive values and the betterment of the human condition.

      Cynics might outright claim that it is impossible – what an indefensible claim! – to get people to think and come to the same enlightened conclusions liberals hold that yes, we should be tolerant of diverse people with diverse ways of life, and that we need to allow people to live as they choose, as long as they do not interfere with others with similar desires. A cynic might add that we need to use every tool at our disposal to nudge people to behave and think in better ways – An “ends justify the means” -way of thinking about how to create a society worth living in. The cynic has a weak argument, for the evidence is on the side of all the liberal enlightenment thinkers, who originally argued for the grounding in the morals of the very same cynics in question. I’m saying this all as a cynic in heart myself, who had to admit that I couldn’t justify what came intuitively, naturally, to myself, in thinking about the state of affairs, in face of the evidence and arguments.

      The great disinfectant to bad ideas is to shine a spotlight on them, that is what the revolution during the Republic of Letters was all about; removing barriers of communication and making matters visible to many from all directions. Slavery was abolished when it became apparent, through open discussion and allowing everyone to see what it was about, that it was simply indefensible. Long standing assumptions and customs were not living on isolated islands any more, where they could live in unconscious habit of people not sharing openly, like the people in the fable of the Emperors New Clothes. Now, all it took was one person laughing out loud, asking why is something still enforced, and their echo could ricochet throughout the globe. And as people started to scramble in making up excuses for atrocities they themselves never before were aware of needing to defend, it became even more painfully obvious to bystanders that perhaps there simply is no good reason to do horrible things, and even notice that there was something horrible in the first place.

      A cynic needs to look honestly at the turn of events throughout history, for evidence shows how free and open inquiry has made the world a better place, it has made humans a better race. If I seriously need to remind what that history looked like in the past, I’ll refer to slavery, public gruesome executions as entertainment, or the code of honour which allowed people to arbitrarily kill their loved ones for the slightest perceived insults at their social standing. We still have a long and tortuous road ahead of us, and utopian visions are hindrances that are irrelevant to even the case for progressive liberals, for the issue is the age old one of what kind of people do we want to be, and as such, the road is even more important than any destination we seek or hope for. This is merely applying the humanistic value of life, on life in general in our society as well, that we should leave fantasy to the fiction and armchairs, and do our best to make the here and now more noble for our principles.

      Free speech works. You allow discussion, you don’t need to respect viewpoints – respecting people is fine and well. Viewpoints are topics to flesh out and dissect, they are not the next case in need of their own animal liberation revolution to point in horror as we dissect and subject ideas to horrifying experiments to see what makes them tick. Viewpoints are what inhabit our minds and drive us to liberate others, so let us be thoughtful of what liberates us in thinking and being thoughtful to others. We show respect by caring of what others think as well, not merely feel. Why not empower people to think more clearly and allow everyone the chance to freely look upon the world and see dissenting viewpoints? The point is we must argue, for arguably we gain more by seeing issues more clearly, even though reason can feel uncomfortable in the very nature of how it forces us to become conscious of when we hear a good argument, or find ourselves without good justification in what we hold to be true.

      We still value that extra step we take towards truth, regardless of if there are unattainable steps to be taken ahead of us. I hope a theme of mine is clear here: I feel history is on the side of the liberal philosophers who started to question authority back during the enlightenment, and we have enjoyed the push they gave us towards freedom, equality and a shift in goals to pursue happiness and well-being in this life, and working practically to solve real world issues, rather than the old puritanical, dogmatic delusions which valued afterlives and perceived purities of souls. Notice, for the first time in history, our standards flipped from the ancient way of codifying everything and weighing every characteristic of our being, making lists of what is or is not allowed on everyday life, to the revolutionary new principle that we mustn’t hinder the human potential and experience, that as we saw how indefensible so much of the arbitrary rulings were, we went with the alien new default that, as long as it doesn’t harm or hinder the freedom and well-being of others, we will allow it. The burden of proof shifted from the liberal wanting to free us to have more power, to the conservatives having to justify their case for whatever they want to stop everyone else from doing.

      This default is defensible, the case was made by many brave souls already in wanting to free us up and only caring of the harm done, the real, tangible harm, and not the supernatural and unevidenced perceived harm that was usually given more weight than for actual people. Thinkers have made their liberal arguments in the face of multitude people being forced to reason their contrary positions for the first time, when violent and oppressive force in general was considered an appropriate tool to force your likings and beliefs upon everyone else, for the majority of history. Free speech is the greatest strength for people on the right side of history, who unfortunately have seemed to lose sight of the fruits born out by the most effective way to bring us a little bit closer of having life of more and more diverse people being valued just as much as we value our own.

      I am a liberal because I think I have good reasons to be a liberal, and value freedom, equality, a society concerned with the well-being of all, the environment and every species on this planet, and many more principal conclusion liberals arrived at a mere 200 years ago. I will gladly argue for liberalism in a constructive manner, and in the face of better arguments and reason, I think I’d leave my liberal values behind. I do not think that will happen, however, for I have heard opposing cases being made, and the point is everyone will benefit from hearing how weak the opposition is, for it will be made clear how progressives actually do have the better arguments in favour of what is considered the contrasting position to what was the prevailing attitude throughout history until only recently.

    3. Is someone inclined to accept a conspiracy theory more or less likely to buy into it if the government forbids it?

    4. I don’t think holocaust denial should be illegal, which I’ve said several times. As Ben says, it drives the speech underground, and creates things like conspiracy theories too. Holocaust deniers should be openly encountered with the facts.

      Hate speech should be countered. It is wrong if it incites illegal activity, especially violence. However, this is one of the reasons we need to get all blasphemy laws abolished because in many countries they stifle free speech, and speaking against religion is illegal.

    5. I think laws banning ‘holocaust denial’ are pointless and a dangerous precedent. Let the deniers produce their evidence (if they can find any). Might as well ban ‘9/11 conspiracists’ (the ones who say the WTC was blown up by demolition charges) or ‘Moon landing hoaxers’.

      Insofar as ‘holocaust denial’ makes factual claims, it can be refuted. It’s not (quite) the same thing as hate speech, though it may go hand in hand. Or is it being banned because it causes offence (which seems to be a very bad reason).

      I just find it strange and illlogical to ban any claim (however preposterous) of historical ‘fact’.

  10. Cohen errs in framing his complaint as entirely to do with freedom of speech, which is really an issue to do with freedom from censorship from the government. Most of the folk complained about in the article aren’t trying to use the law to prevent the views they find objectionable from being voiced. Rather, they are using their free speech to protest against the speech of others. Arguably they do so in a way that is antagonising and unhelpful, but they do not thereby infringe on anyone else’s freedom of speech. And this applies even when their protests result in someone losing a platform to speak — freedom of speech does not entitle anyone to a platform for their speech.

    1. The problem is that these restrictions are getting the teeth of law behind them, plus some really disturbing quasi-law enforcement by state actors such as public universities.


      1. “The problem is that these restrictions are getting the teeth of law behind them”

        In the US? What laws are you referring to?

    2. This is something I would like to see a bit more discussion about. When right-wingers in the USA complain that somebody’s free speech is taken away because they lost their job for what they said or because their invitation to give a speech is retracted, there is always the reliable fall-back of “free speech means only that the government may not lock you up for what you say, but you are not entitled to a platform”.

      Now here is what I find puzzling: Why does the same left that (convincingly IMO) argues that libertarian freedom to do stuff is hollow if it doesn’t include the actual ability to do the stuff because one doesn’t have the money, the same left that (convincingly IMO) argues that equality under the law for women is hollow while women still face a glass ceiling and only earn 2/3 for the same work, why does that same left not realise that free speech is likewise hollow if you cannot find a platform and if campaigners can even destroy your economic existence for voicing your opinion?

      1. Yes!

        I recall a debate a while back where some media outlet (Youtube? maybe) was accused of censoring some point of view. It was argued by some that ‘only the Government can censor’ i.e. if Youtube does it it’s not censorship. This struck me as disingenuous BS; if a major ubiquitous medium of publication lets others speak and stops you, so your voice is lost in the noise, that’s de facto censorship however you look at it.


    3. If you read Cohen’s wonderful You Can’t Read This Book, you’d know he covers censorship in multiple forms – from the mob rule to what governments and corporations do. We should be wary that targeted outrage can be a powerful tool to silence disagreement, which is why it’s important to realise how our collective behaviour can have incredibly destructive effects on individual liberty. Indeed, this is the general censorship tactic of the religious.

  11. I stopped commenting over at the Pharyngula site because I keep cunking it. The last time was when I tried to defend someone who suggested that maybe a horrendous act of violence was not evil but maybe a result of mental illness. Because saying mental illness is attacking the mentally ill. WTF?

    1. I try hard (but occasionally fail) to just stay the hell out of commenting on those areas in Pharyngula. There was one where commenters were telling each other that there were no anatomical differences between males and females. It was hard to not respond to that one.

      1. Yes, biological sex is a social construct because intersex people exist, and if there exists a spectrum of biological sexes, sexual dimorphism cannot be a thing.

        I have done some research on this subject, and to my dismay, found this essay on it:

        A trans person in the comments also kindly wishes death on ‘cis’ people, since those of us who believe in biological sex are all evil, or something that I can’t quite figure out.

        1. For your 1st paragraph, you are of course being ironic.
          I find it very important to acknowledge that there is a virtual gradient in biological sex and in sexual orientation. One of the most instructive experiences I had on this area was many years ago when I paid several visits to our local PFLAG chapter in support of a person who is close to me. There I met quite a few people who were in the transgendered spectrum. One person that I met was at 1st was in full drag, but over the next couple months she gradually dressed more like a man. He (I assume that is correct) explained that some people actually oscillate their identities, and so dress according to how they feel. I have to admit that must be difficult, and my hat goes off to this person.

          1. Yep.

            Some folks are genderfluid – a mix of boy and girl, sometimes changing from day to day.

            Other folks are genderqueer, which is sort of the same.


            A good friend of mine is genderfluid, and I, out of respect for xer, refer to xer by the pronouns that xie prefers, as xie identifies as neither boy nor girl. I have no problem with this.

            I respect people’s choices. They can identify however they like.

            My issue is with the people who deny reality outright, and attack allies for not putting a space between words, or for acknowledging that, biologically at least, ‘woman’ = has xx chromosomes, owns a uterus, and can get pregnant.

            1. I always thought – if I do something that bothers you, *tell me*, and I’ll learn. But if you just storm away in a offended huff, how do I learn in such a negative environment?

              (Especially as the advice given in such situations varies from person to person!)

              1. The problem is, the language is always changing. What was acceptable terminology a year ago is now considered highly offensive. If you happen to be using old terminology, because you thought that it was approved language, and you come across an SJW who is up on the current terminology, you run the risk of being mercilessly shamed, no matter what you do or say.

                This was my experience two weeks ago. It was horrible. The worst part of it was, the SJW who told me to use the now non-approved language is such a fierce bully that she was recently banned from a well known SJW blog.

                It’s a minefield out there.

                I suspect that many of the SJW’s approve of the ever changing rules because that way they always have something to shame people about. It’s an excuse to keep claiming victimization and righteous bullying.

    2. I used to comment at the Patheos blog “Love Joy Feminism’ but have since stopped because I was accused of being an ‘ableist asshole’ for asking if there was a non-ableist way of saying that a right wing nutjob was a…nutjob.

      Like, the people who blow up abortion clinics. Or the folks who hatch plans to kill well known politicians.

      I wanted a word to describe them that would not hurt the genuinely mentally ill who do not want to do horrible things. I was told that such people are *never* mentally ill, and that it is simply assholery, because mental illness, apparently, can never influence horrible behaviour. Ever.

      SJW’s also seem to disagree on whether or not the word ‘crazy’ is ableist. The people who, for instance, blow a gasket if you use the term ‘female bodied’ have absolutely no problem going around accusing people of being ‘crazy’.

      1. Or for calling you an asshole! You could have been a sponge or jellyfish for all they know. How dare they assume you are a deuterostome! 😉

    3. Pharyngula has become a disaster area. The regular commenters are a pack of pit bulls who’d chew their own legs off to make their (collective) point. And I think Myers has gone off the deep end.

      1. “Pharyngula has become a disaster area.”

        No, it hasn’t.

        The regular commenters are a pack of pit bulls who’d chew their own legs off to make their (collective) point.

        No, they’re not.

        “And I think Myers has gone off the deep end.”

        No, he hasn’t.

        1. Based on my own observations of the sad decline in quality of that bl*g, I was about to voice my agreement with the sentiment. But well, you said it three times, so I guess it must be true.

        2. Well, that’s changed my mind. I thought ripping a newcomer to pieces for describing his hosts as ‘intelligent’ was shitty behaviour, and the people involved in that incident(and plenty of others) are charmless bullies, but as you so cogently argue – “no, they’re not”.

          Seriously, if you treat people badly – yes, even if you believe the righteousness of your mission makes you morally bulletproof, and that the ends overwhelm all other considerations – you will get a reputation for being unpleasant. This is an example of the online world working fairly.

          1. The post I responded to gave his opinion, with no arguments to back them up, and I responded in kind. And expressions like “pit bulls,” “off the deep end,” and the like is hardly, as you so quaintly characterize it, the same as, “a reputation for being unpleasant.”

            1. There’s plenty of anecdotal, and documented, evidence for the argument made in the original post. Of course, the loudest voices are often the biggest tossers but there’s a general consensus that Pharyngula is not where you go if you want to have thoughtful discussions on the nuances of modern religious and cultural politics. Dissent is often squashed. Nor is it a welcoming environment for newcomers.

              I’ve no idea what you’re trying to convey in your last sentence – but if it helps, by “unpleasant behaviour” I meant nasty, bullying, joyless forum regulars treating perfectly innocent and polite newcomers like shit.

      2. Understandable hyperbole aside, I would agree, although I think this happened years ago. It’s certainly why I stopped reading and sought greener pastures.

        1. Same. The turning point for me was when I was attacked for denying their experience – not by actually denying their experience, but by defending someone that to them was denying their experience. (Turns out that wasn’t true either – apparently the notion of a false equivalency was lost on the horde.) It’s that kind of approach to criticism that shook me out of the delusion that pharyngula was “tough but fair” and that some commenters there are little more than self-righteous arseholes.

      3. I want to say that there has been a pretty good stretch lately. I still visit, and I still learn a useful thing or two.
        As is said here, even the likes of some personalities from the far right will occasionally say something that is right and when they do it is ok to agree with them.

        1. I still have Pharyngula bookmarked and lurk there because there is a lot of good shit there, it’s just that I don’t know when I’m going to cross some line that I can’t see. For instance, Prof Myer’s distaste for Evo Psych has led to some kind of complete denial that humans are animals with evolved instincts. On a biology blog?
          It’s well established that 90% of everything is crap but that’s not a good enough reason to ignore the 10%. It’s who we are.

          1. From the various SJW blogs that I read, including Pharyngula, I would have to say that there is a lot of good with some bad. And that can change, from day to day.

            Some groups of people completely dismiss FTB, and other SJW blogs, as being completely worthless, because at times, the bullying gets out of control.

            However, I would still have to say that the commentariat, and articles, at these various blogs, can be *very* good, as the people are, for the most part, highly educated and intelligent. I love hearing a good argument, too.

            Sometimes though, identity politics gets in the way.

  12. Unfortunately, we don’t have to worry about these folks because they’ve chosen to yield all real political power to the right. It’s the old Barney Frank dictum: Conservatives control the conversation in the US because conservatives view every liberal as a potential convert while liberals view every other liberal as a potential heretic. Every once in a while, the right seems poised to launch an inquisition, but it never seems to reach the fervor of the one on the left.

  13. I’m curious how these kids came to these stands. Did they get them from home? I doubt it. As a guy who came of age in Berkeley in the ’60’s it is very puzzling. Taking my life in my hands I suspect Islamic students are taking direction from their Imams.

    1. What do you mean, “What the hell”? As everyone knows (see the rules to the left), all first time commenters have to be approved, and, you know, I”m not always at my computer. After that, posting is automatic. Also, you’re supposed to be civil here. So apologize or leave.

      And I’m going to moderate you to make sure you’re civil, for this comment sure suggests you’re not.

      1. That may have been an attempt at humor –> the irony of a comment in moderation under a post strongly defending freedom of speech, but if so, it failed. And of course, no one reads da rulz until they’re instructed to read da rulz, but unless it’s his first time commenting on the internets, he should know better. It was rude and unnecessary.

  14. Replacing the “harm principle” with his “offense principle” can be traced to the impeccable Mills’ian credentials of Isaiah Berlin.

    In his “Two concepts of liberty,” Berlin states: “Political liberty is simply the area within which a man can be unobstructed by others. (…) Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings.” (pg. 122) In Berlin’s view, “negative” freedom should be upheld unreservedly.

    Whether the “others” coerce individually or through the state makes no difference. In Berlin’s view, any offense limits a person’s freedom.

  15. “If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
    — Benjamin Franklin

  16. “Although I’m told he’s been in bad odor in the UK for having supported the Iraq War”
    I had this reaction recently when I recommended on free speech to a UK leftie. It didn’t matter whether Cohen indeed wrote a cogent and articulate defence of free speech, he’s pro-Israel (gasp!) and supported the Iraq war, and that was the totality of the conversation.

    Why attack the message when you can attack the messenger? The reason why we need Nick Cohens in the world is because the Nick Cohens of the world are all to easily ignored.

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