11 August 2016
The culture of offense-taking and withdrawal into identity politics has had a serious impact on free speech and open debate. As Mick Hume argued so cogently in his book Trigger Warning, a self-defined identity is seen as static; a self-enclosed state or sovereign territory immune to external laws or universal rules of engagement (a bit like the Vatican). The members of an identity group assume the right to define the truth about themselves from within, and they insist on a moral monopoly over their story. This is odd given that morality only makes sense in relation to morally significant others who could be beneficiaries or victims of an agent’s behaviour. Nevertheless, any outside attempt to challenge an identity group’s worldview is likely to be condemned out of hand as offensive or bigoted. As Hume notes, this has led to a privatised form of blasphemy; the criminalisation of criticism.
Unlike physical assault or institutional discrimination, where there are objective measurements of injury, it is solely up to the victim whether he has been offended or not. Since the claim that you have been offended is un-testable and subjective, the victim is always right. Thus there is a powerful incentive to be the victim, just because it provides a seemingly unassailable case for demanding redress in any situation.
Identity politics has become the sphere of competitive victimhood. Within this context, each individual is the only possible judge of whether he has been offended, regardless of the intentions of the “offender” or the context in which he speaks. The speech crimes from which such victimhood springs are potentially endless.
As a second year LSE philosophy student said in response to the banning of lectures and academic events there because of pressure groups, “they’re so eager to get offended that they don’t even listen.”2 The self-proclaimed victim’s opponent will always be put immediately on the defensive, and the ostensible ‘victim’ will have gained the upper hand and the moral high ground. This form of politicized offense-taking has become the fashionable alternative to reasoned argument. Julie Burchill took an appropriately snarky swipe at the tactic in a recent Spectator article, calling those who resort to its use ‘cry bullies’, a hideous hybrid of victim and victor.3
When the LSE University Student Union decided (on behalf of all LSE students) to ‘no platform’ Nick Lowles, the chief executive of HOPE not Hate, for his allegedly ‘Islamophobic’ views, something has gone terribly wrong. This is because, whether or not Lowles’s views really are accurately described as ‘Islamophobic’ is exactly what needs to be proved, and the only way to do that is to hear them. Even if they were Islamophobic, hearing them would only serve to ‘protect’ the marginalised and persecuted group against ideas. Ideas have never harmed people’s permanent interests as progressive beings except in contexts where opponents were not allowed to challenge them, such as is presently the case in Muslim majority countries. A case in point is the recent news that forty state-run media outlets in Iran have raised $600,000 (£420,000) to add as a bounty to Ayatollah Khomeini’s death fatwa on the writer Salman Rushdie, because of his novel The Satanic Verses.
In an atmosphere where many shades of criticism (not all of them stemming from ignorance, bigotry or non-Muslim perspectives) are lumped together as “Islamophobia” tout court, question-begging becomes the norm. This peremptory, dogmatic tactic of silencing dissent from the pluralist multiculturalist status-quo has become a kind of universal gambit. It stigmatises legitimate critics (including Muslim critics) of religious authoritarianism and recognises no valid form of criticism of Islamism or religious fundamentalist ideology. It simultaneously insists that there is no universal truth, and then paradoxically treats that claim as the only universal and infallible Truth.
Double standards seem to be perfectly acceptable where Islam is concerned. Generalisations about all Muslims are rightly deemed ignorant. Yet generalisations about all critics of Islamic religious ideology have become the norm. We can laugh at The Book of Mormon or The Jerry Springer Opera when they lampoon other religions, but try putting on a theatrical rendition of the ‘Book of Islam’ and you may find yourself murdered, yet that fact somehow does not become a subject of ridicule! Instead pseudo-liberals will pour scorn on you for your irresponsible’ use of free speech, reminding you that violent reprisals should be expected, since after all, you’ve brought them on yourself. Satirists are responsible moral agents. Religious murderers are not. They’re mentally ill, not morally bad. The impunity with which ‘victim cultures’ are treated is not a remedy for discrimination, but an egregious instance of it.
Instead, we need to welcome all faiths into the public square on equal terms. With the privileges and liberties of living in an open democratic society come the concomitant adult responsibilities. The price of living in a free country is that we all sometimes have to tolerate (not respect) ideas or speech that we find offensive or distasteful. Citizens cannot expect to reap the benefits of living in a free society without being willing to pay the costs. And the price of liberty is, at least for now, really quite cheap. However, as we continue to erode the principle of free and open critical debate, the price will increase accordingly