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.