Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence by @Jacobinism

Posted: November 22, 2014 in Feminism, Freedom of Speech

Jamie Palmer ( @jacobinism ) has written very eloquently about the ‘authoritarianism’ and censorious approach of many on the ‘left’. The examples he gives of attacks on freedom of speech from so-called ‘progressives’ include, surprise surprise, a few from feminist campaigners. Because as I have banged on about before, it’s hard to find any version of feminism that doesn’t exercise or endorse some kind of censorship. Here’s an extract from Jamie’s piece:

 

‘We are now reaping the harvest of liberalism’s agonising slow death on the Left. Consider the following recent examples:

  1. According to a report in The Guardian, the political director of Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan, has just publicly recommended the introduction of what amounts to a de factoblasphemy law in order to combat what he calls ‘Islamophobia’. The press, he announced, has been “singularly unable or unwilling to change the discourse, the tone or the approach” of its coverage. Casually eliding matters of race, ethnicity, and belief, he continued: “We’re not going to get change unless there is some sanction, there is some penalty. This is not just about Muslims; it is about all minorities.” Similarly, on an American talkshow, a visibly distressed Ben Affleck responded to Sam Harris’s criticisms of Islam by denouncing them as “gross and racist”.
  2. Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists responsible for the awe-inspiring Rosetta satellite mission, found himself vilified by incandescent feminists when he appeared on television wearing a bowling shirt adorned with images of scantily-clad young women. It later transpired that the shirt had been hand-made for him as a birthday gift by a female friend and, as a rather touching token of appreciation, he had worn it on his big day. But an article for Verge decided that it was a symptom of the misogyny allegedly endemic within the scientific community, and reported Dr. Taylor’s televised appearance beneath the headline “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing”.

    The most risible offering in this embarrassing row came from (supposedly) sex-positive feminist Greta Christina, who spent the first paragraph of her post on the subject itemising her own involvement in the production of pornography. This, she appeared to think, placed her in the unique position of being able to explain that “freedom for me does not mean freedom for thee” as she policed the clothing of another adult: “[D]oing an interview about your team’s big science achievement while wearing a shirt with scantily-clad pinup girls does not say, “Sex is awesome!” It says, “Women are for sex.”

    Christina seemed oblivious to those who would seize on this argument to call for the suppression of her own work, as well as all other kinds of pornography and erotica she defends in her writing. Nor was she moved by arguments that men, like women, should be judged on what they say and do, not on how they choose to dress themselves. Nonetheless, clearly shaken by the uproar, Dr. Taylor ended up offering a tearful and humiliating public apology to his critics. It will be an individual of uncommonly thick skin who dares to transgress in this way in the future.

  3. Last Wednesday, the Independent ran an article by an Oxford University student named Niamh McIntyre, in which she crowed defiantly about the success of her campaign to cancel a debate between two male speakers, organised by a pro-life group to debate abortion. She explained herself thus: “The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups”.

    Doubling down on her behalf, Tim Squirrell – the President of the Cambridge Union, no less! – took to twitter to declare that “shouting ‘free speech’ doesn’t help anyone without a more nuanced conception of its impacts + aspects”. He went on: “People have the right to feel…[s]afe from the expression of ideas which have historically been used to oppress them in very real ways.”

  4. Late last year, in response to long-disputed and empirically dubious claims of an omnipresent culture of rape besieging women on university campuses, activists campaigned to have Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines banned from their Student Unions. When UCL joined upwards of 20 other Unions in banning the song from its premises, its Women’s Officer Beth Sutton said: “UCLU have just passed motion to not play Blurred Lines in union spaces & events. Solidarity with all survivors!”

    [The same panic over ‘rape culture’ and anger over low prosecution rates for sex crimes has also led to unapologetic attacks from the Left, similarly advanced in the name of “solidarity with survivors”, on the presumption of innocence, the rule of law, and due process. An analysis of this disturbing facet of the effort to delegitimise liberalism lies beyond the scope of this post.]

  5. A few months ago, the New Statesman columnist Sarah Ditum wrote a rather good articleprotesting the illiberal use of ‘no-platforming’ to silence unpopular views held by those “deemed disagreeable”. However, her arguments were offered mainly in support of Julie Bindel, a radical feminist labelled ‘transphobic’ and ‘whorephobic’ for her views on trans rights and sex work. Ditum is, from what I can tell, largely sympathetic to Bindel’s positions on these issues, which made her defence of Bindel’s right to speak a relatively straightforward affair, causing her no significant ideological discomfort.

    But when it came to the no-platforming of a repellent male chauvinist and self-styled pick-up guru named Julien Blanc, Ditum’s principled defence of free expression evaporated, and she wrote a new blog post explaining that this was a very different matter. “There is no free speech defence for Julian Blanc” she concluded. (In response to the outcry, Blanc has since been denied a visa to enter the UK.)

  6. This is not to mention the recent fracas over the Exhibit B installation, deemed unacceptable by anti-racist campaigners (which I covered in an essay here), or the hounding of feminist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for her opposition to the veil and the demonisation of ‘white feminists’ (which I covered in an essay here). The latter post, incidentally, led The Feminist Wire todescribe what I wrote as “racist and anti-Black specifically”, and an attempt “to maintain white supremacy”.
This handful of examples barely scratches the surface of the problem. Not one of the writers or campaigners above was detained by the need to establish a causal link between the expression of ideas they dislike and consequent harm. Censors never are, despite the fact that, in an open society, the burden of proof ought to rest with those who would restrict individual freedom. Instead, those inclined to defend free expression were variously tarred with the brush of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, or rape apologism (depending on what was at issue).

When taken together, these individual cases – niggling and petty in and of themselves – speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the midst of this reckless and dangerous onslaught against liberal values and the belief in the axiomatic nobility of the oppressed, there should be no room for sympathy with the Middle East’s only functioning liberal democracy. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] campaign, ostensibly mounted in support of Palestinian nationalism, but actually aimed at the disestablishment of the only Jewish State, has been slowly gathering mainstream support and legitimacy in the West.

Reprehensibly, the BDS movement seeks not simply the boycott of Israeli goods (which would be bad enough); it also explicitly attacks academic freedom. In the foreword to a recently released collection of essays entitled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, the American political theorist Paul Berman argues that BDS activists are only able to make such arguments because they have convinced themselves of a misperception: they see what they are doing as “modern and progressive” when in fact it is “retrograde and disgraceful”.

The same must be said of the examples itemised above. Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as “right wing”, these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right’s most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of ‘safe spaces’; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.

Gazing with mounting dismay at the escalating authoritarianism on the left of the political spectrum where my own political sympathies lie, I have been repeatedly reminded of a post published by the late Marxist theorist Norman Geras five months before his death. With a minimum of preamble, Geras quoted Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the LSE, as follows:

I think the biggest shift that has taken place in my thinking over the past 30 years is that I’m a lot less tolerant of relativist ideas, and multiculturalist ideas than I used to be. And that’s something that when you say it, it induces shock and horror sometimes. 25 years ago, I was writing material that, if it wasn’t poststructuralist, was at least ‘fellow traveling’ with the poststructuralists, arguing essentially anti-foundationalist ideas, arguing that the Western liberal tradition was just one tradition among other traditions, and so on. In a way, I think I was in bad faith over a lot of that. I believed that liberalism would always be there, and so one can afford to attack it. The events of the last 20 years have shown that that’s really not the case, that a lot of the traditional liberal values of freedom and tolerance are seriously under attack and need to be defended. So I’ve become a defender of the Enlightenment project in a way that I wasn’t maybe 30 years ago – that’s a big shift.

Unfortunately, there appears to be scant appetite for Professor Brown’s critical self-examination on the postmodern Left. Instead it clings to its metaphysical conspiracism, and disdains empiricism and a meritocracy of ideas derived from free and open debate in favour of the imposition of speech codes designed to stigmatise, shame, and silence.

In the name of a righteously-espoused ‘inclusivity’, such people have submitted to the worst kind of authoritarian elitism, and forgotten an elementary truism of Enlightenment thought. As the revolutionary 18th century pamphleteer and Dead White Male Thomas Paine observed in the short dedication with which he opened The Age of Reason:

You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.’

Read the whole of Jacobinism’s excellent post here

Comments
  1. Stuart says:

    Superb post, and sadly nailed.

  2. Jonathan says:

    “He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

    I like that quote very much.

  3. janK says:

    Jamie Palmer of Jacobin addresses the intolerance of ideas on the post modern left in order to turn his avowed ethic of free thinking on its head. From the principle that one should not censor ideas but criticize them or else it’s violence, he shifts to calling criticism of those ideas censorship (calling out, even falsely, all those -isms and -chies), to taking that censorious tactic for his own use and associating BDS, a protest movement by a small group against a nation state, with repressive censorship: “The same must be said of the examples itemised above. Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as “right wing”, these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right’s most regressive autocratic tendencies.”

    What a hypocrite. Is this Jacobin another reactionary progressive outfit, playing to gullible hipsters?

    Chris Brown, LSE professor and no doubt girlfriend beater, does likewise. Quoted making a false confession (under duress?) of a radical past when he spent time thinking and publishing critiques of western liberalism and now sees the error of his ways. A real free thinking western liberal would never think freely and make a liberal critique of western free thinking liberalism! Post modernism is the problem, it’s too free for its own freedom !

    • innegative says:

      “Post modernism is the problem, it’s too free for its own freedom !”

      This is about right.

      But let’s not entertain the idea that these new radicals are any kind of answer to this problem. A revolution of the condition of being ‘too free to be free’. They ain’t . They’re just pretty impotent symptoms making matters worse rather than better. Still, wouldn’t be without ’em, bless.

  4. innegative says:

    This was a nice piece of writing, but I’d like to take issue with the idea that poststructuralism is by definition anti-liberal. To my mind, it’s fundamentally liberal insofar as it allows for the endless production of discourse and culture. It’s of itself an artefact of capitalism insofar as it is hyper-productive😉

    The problem has always lain with a gross misinterpretation of poststructuralism – the idiotic idea that culture can be engineered. For every single dominant form/culture, there is an abreaction to that form/culture. So to impose one form as dominant in the ways these imbeciles do only intensifies the abreaction of those they exclude. Julian Blanc is an extreme counter-form of extreme feminism, etc.

    So in dogmatically imposing ‘culture’, you also produce ‘counter-culture’ – what else is modern racism except for the abreaction to a purely functional and plasticizing ‘political correctness’?

    Poststructuralism, at its best, does not aim to engineer culture. Rather, it accounts for the culture with a view to mitigating one’s own cultural conceit and allowing the possibility that other cultures, ideas etc have a foundational edifice which may be incomprehensible to those outside of it. Our new radicals are just the opposite of this.

    Poststructuralism is more Taoist than it is Stalinist.

    • Elly Tams says:

      oh yes i should have probably included a note about my quibbles over jacobinism’s dissing of ‘french cultural theory’ and cultural studies (Though i understand how they have influenced some of the politically correct excesses of the ‘liberal arts’ in universities and beyond. But i think that’s through ‘bastardisation’ of poststructuralism not loyal adherence to it)

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