TAG | Free Speech
Cross-posted on The Corner.
Looked at one way, the attempt to silence Charles Murray and the violence that followed it was nothing more than another chapter in a long power struggle, but there was something else about it, something more disturbing still.
Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan:
At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.
“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.
It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required…
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.
And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Here’s how they begin: “This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.”
Sullivan’s article comes with a few nods to orthodoxy of its own, but the fundamental point he makes, which can be applied to many other religions beyond Puritan New England, not least to Marxism (itself a millenarian creed) and its offshoots, is very well worth noting.
And here, writing more explicitly from the left (his observations on the role that class has to play in what’s going on in the colleges of the elite is something to think about), in The American Scholar, is William Deresiewicz. If I had to guess the article was written before the events at Middlebury, but:
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion…
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Deresiewicz understands how this religion uses of the mechanisms of social control:
So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.
There is always another sin.
Speaking of which, there was this in Reason:
A residential advisor at Pitzer College sent a campus-wide email informing students—white women, in particular—that they should stop wearing hoop earrings.
[Three Spanish feminists] are facing charges for crimes against religion for mimicking Spain’s Easter processions – replacing the Virgin Mary with a giant plastic vagina. Three women who carried a giant plastic vagina during a march to celebrate Worker’s Day, held every year on May 1st, are facing charges of “crimes against religious sentiment”.
The three women, who have not been named, allegedly mimicked Spain’s famous Holy Week processions that take place in the run up to Easter. The women “carried a plastic vagina a couple of metres high in the style of the Virgin Mary,” said the Seville-based judge.
Many Spanish religious festivals feature processions during which locals carry a statue of the Virgin Mary above their shoulders. The prosecution argue that the women made a mockery of this religious practice by lifting the plastic vagina onto their shoulders and parading it during a march organized by the Spanish union the General Workers’ Confederation (CGT) on May 1st 2014.
Some of the women also wore mantillas, the black lace veils commonly worn by devout Catholic women during religious celebrations in Spain while others sported the conical hoods commonly worn by the members of religious brotherhoods over Easter. The three women have been ordered to appear in court in February 2016 for a crime against religious sentiments….
Childish? Sure, but it should not be criminal.
And as for the precedent that is being set, well…
Cross-posted on the Corner.
A writer for the Guardian, on cue (my emphasis added):
We are in perilous territory. Slaughter as political protest cannot be defended. Free speech as legal and moral pre-requisites in a free society must be defended. But there are also other obligations to be laid upon those who wish to live in peaceful, reasonably harmonious societies. Even after Paris, even after Denmark we must guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative in the publication of these cartoons if the sole objective is to establish that we can do so. With rights to free speech come responsibilities.
After the uproar that followed the appearance of the original Mohammed cartoons, an article was published in Jyllands-Posten (the newspaper that first published those cartoons) included this phrase: “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”
The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
But there is.
As I noted the other day, Jyllands-Posten is singing a different tune these days, made all the bleaker by its bluntness. The newspaper declined to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the Paris murders saying this:
“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”
In writing about the (first) Copenhagen murder last night, I linked to a 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer story that revealed how a number of the meetings due to be addressed by Lars Vilks (the artist whose event was attacked) had been canceled.
If I had to guess, I suspect that those who, however sadly, canceled those events, are today feeling, however sadly, that they did the right thing. Violence works.
There will be many more cancellations, many more invitations that go unissued, many more articles that do not get written, and many more cartoons that do not get drawn.
The noose tightens a bit more.
In a piece published by The Spectator before Copenhagen, Douglas Murray writes about a rally held in London a week or so ago:
Yesterday in London a crowd of more than a thousand British Muslims (carefully divided between males and females) gathered outside Downing Street. The rally – organised by something calling itself ‘The Muslim Action Forum’ – was a protest against freedom of speech, specifically to cartoons of Mohammed in the French publication Charlie Hebdo. Among the banners carried by protestors were ones that read, ‘I am a servant of holy prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’, the sinister ‘We love prophet Muhammad (pbuh) more than our lives’, ‘Jesus and Moses were prophets of Islam’ and the even more presumptuous ‘Learn some manners’. Among those holding a banner reading ‘Charlie and the abuse factory’ was a little boy. Others bore banners with the fantastically awful words spoken by the Pope last month: ‘Insult my mum and I will punch you (Pope Francis).’ A large banner hung beneath the stage from which speakers addressed the crowd carried the barely concealed threat: ‘Be careful with Muhammad.’
Meanwhile a group of tribal leaders presented a petition to Number 10 Downing Street which they said had been signed by 100,000 UK Muslims criticising publications which ‘sow the seeds of hatred’…. Among the speakers was one Shaykh Tauqir Ishaw, a spokesman for the organisers who said:
‘Perpetual mistakes by extremists, either by cold-blooded killers or uncivilised expressionists, cannot be the way forward for a civilised society. The peace-loving majority of people must become vociferous in promoting global civility and responsible debate. At this time of heightened tension and emotion, it is crucial that both sides show restraint to prevent further incidents of this nature occurring.’
“Restraint.” “Responsibilities.” “But.”
Of course much though these fanatics may like to pretend otherwise there are no ‘two sides’ of the same coin going on here. The ‘expressionists’ and the ‘terrorists’ are not ‘as bad as each other’. The only two things which are in fact conjoined are the people who use guns and bombs to terrorise people for exercising their rights as free Europeans and the very large number of people from the ‘moderate majority’ who back up such violence (even while, like yesterday’s speakers, claiming to deplore it) with warnings that non-Muslims should be ‘careful’ when addressing their religion.
The Daily Mail has the details:
A baptist church was at the centre of a police probe after a sign which suggested non-Christians would ‘burn in hell’ was investigated as a ‘hate incident’. The offending sign at Attleborough Baptist Church in Norfolk, pictured burning flames below words which read: ‘If you think there is no God you better be right!!’.
Now the church has been forced to remove the sign after a passer-by complained to police that it could ‘not be further’ from the Christian phrase, love thy neighbour. Robert Gladwin, 20, said: ‘It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature. ‘The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.’
Mr Gladwin said he was ‘astounded’ when he spotted the poster by chance as he was walking home. He said: ‘I was just astounded really. We live in the 21st century and they have put that message – that non-Christians will burn in hell – up to try and scare people into joining their mentality.’
The strongly-worded sign – which was put up next to a notice board which promises that visitors ‘can always be sure of a very warm welcome’ – was taken down by Pastor John Rose, 69, after police launched an investigation into the complaint.
Mr Rose said he ‘regretted’ how the poster could have been interpreted. He said: ‘Attleborough Baptist Church offers a variety of ways in which people are able to engage with the Christian message…Jesus encourages us to love God and to love our neighbour and we therefore regret that the poster has been seen as inciting hatred.
The Eastern Daily Press has more:
A spokesperson for the police said: “Norfolk Constabulary received a report regarding a poster outside a church in Attleborough which was deemed offensive by the complainant.
“National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.”
This is, of course, a ludicrous story, not least the presumption on the part of Gladwin that his understanding of Christianity is superior to that of the pastor. It might be, it might not be (Christianity takes many different forms).
But it is also a sinister story. It is sinister that Gladwin’s response to seeing this poster was to turn to the police. It is sinister that the police chose to investigate the matter on the basis of one complaint (it would have also been sinister had they chosen to investigate after receiving five thousand complaints). It is sinister that this decision was based on (unspecified) “national guidelines”. “Obeying orders”, it seems is no longer enough. It is sinister that there are “national guidelines”. It is sinister that the police then labeled the posting of this entirely unobjectionable poster as a “hate incident”. And it is sinister that the pastor has “agreed” to take down the poster.
A friend who is a Roman Catholic priest once told me that there are more references to Hell in the gospels than to Heaven. If that’s so, let’s hope that Jesus doesn’t show up in Norfolk any time soon. Because if He does, the moment that He starts talking about, oh, the “furnace of fire” or, say, “the fire [that ] is not quenched,” He will probably have to start looking for a very good lawyer.
For some relief from this nasty tale…
As, on 9/11, an Egyptian mob storm the US Embassy on 9/11 in Cairo “offended” by a film about Islam made in America, America’s diplomats cringe and kowtow, and jettison the principle of free speech in favor of religious privilege:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Back at the time of the Danish cartoon saga, an article published in the embattled Jyllands-Posten included this phrase : “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.” The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
No there is not.
But don’t tell the US Embassy in Cairo.
What a disgrace,
At ScienceBlogs I defend free speech as an American cultural peculiarity which should be defended, not a human universal right (it simply isn’t empirically):
… Though seriously, I’m expressing a very cultural biased viewpoint here, an American one, and I’m of conscious of this. I really don’t see a point in castigating Canadians for being Canadians, they’re not China or Syria, but neither are they the United States. Even the British have insane libel laws which stifle speech operationally, though there’s a chance that the law might be tightened up. We alone should be the City upon a Hill where the blasphemers and peddlers of bigotry can take refuge, because we’re already the last best and only hope.