A shortened version of this article appeared on Backbench
At universities in the States and the UK, those with opinions deemed offensive are banned from speaking, in the name of providing ‘safe spaces’. Language related to trauma has been appropriated by campaigners to police what topics cannot be raised. Instead of university being a place to explore taboos and debate in complete openness, speakers must avoid controversy. In an environment which is supposed to prepare for the real world, a world full of people with reactionary and offensive opinions, students are not taught to deal with attitudes they disagree with: instead they can shut them out.
The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack represented another backlash against free speech: many implicitly blamed the magazine for bringing the attack upon itself, by publishing cartoons which some found offensive. Instead of championing the right to cause offence, or even using the same standards they would apply to Christianity or an ideology like nationalism, some liberals followed the reasoning of the extremists: that Muslims need to be protected from blasphemous images. In his book “The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost his Innocence” Andrew Anthony describes certain reactions to the 9/11 attacks. There was “the alternative analysis” for the event; the ‘it’s terrible, but…’ analysis in which the first three words are simply “the decorative part of the equation” before a condemnation of the USA. Fourteen years on, the reaction to the Paris attacks adopted a similar approach, with Western intervention in the Middle East/Islamophobia/Israel/the cartoons at fault.
Mike Hume describes these issues and more in new book Trigger Warning. Hume highlights the absurdity, even based on its own aim to protect oppressed minorities, of much of the outrage based on offensiveness. The controversy over Benedict Cumberbatch using the politically-incorrect word ‘coloured’ in an interview overshadowed the thoughtful point he was making about opportunities for non-whites in cinema. Brett Bailey’s “Exhibition B” aimed to shine a light on colonial and contemporary racism through featuring a ‘human zoo’ with actors. Yet it was cancelled in London after protesters claimed it was deeply offensive and perpetuating the stereotypes it purported to deconstruct. Such a work was bound to provoke strong emotions: as Bailey wrote in the Guardian “I work in difficult and contested territory that is fraught with deep pain, anger and hatred. There are no clear paths through this territory, and it is littered with landmines.” However, it is hard to see how censoring art like this is conducive to public debate about racism.
Hume makes a clear case for all-encompassing freedom of speech, not shying away from the extremes: he defends holocaust denial, the ultimate test of the principle. He does not fall into the trap of defending one form of free speech and not the other: he is critical of anti-terrorism laws in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack as well as criticism of the cartoons. In fact, pretty much everyone is to blame: from major political parties to the general public. The consequences of this fear of causing offence are perilous: society does not progress if discussions about important topics are avoided, on issues from climate change to religion to transgender rights. For liberals who are tempted to prevent those with unacceptable views from airing them, the danger is that this causes their own arguments against racism or sexism or whatever else to become unfamiliar and stale for lack of practice. You cannot win a debate by preventing your opponent from speaking.
Yet however timeless its ideals, this book is unlikely to go down in posterity. One reason for this is the fixation on minor news stories from the past few years. Sometimes the book feels like an end-of-year newsreel, such is the overload of recent events. The fact there is so much to focus on perhaps validates his argument that free speech is under attack; and highlights the nature of 24-hour journalism and social media, where manufactured outrage appears as abruptly as fog in the mountains and disappears even more quickly. However, this means that a reader of the book in ten or even five years’ time is unlikely to recall many of the stories.
Also, sometimes Hume overreaches and rages against ‘PC gone mad’ more generally. He may be right when he speaks of a new liberal conformism replacing a conservative one: when the perceived threats to society are no longer swearwords and nudity but sexism and racism. But if the new conventions mean people shout back when someone says something ghastly, is it that bad a thing? Of course the likes of Katie Hopkins and Jeremy Clarkson should have the right to be offensive; everyone has the right to listen to them; and the media has the right to employ them. But liberals also have the right to exercise their freedom of speech to protest and argue. Dapper Laughs may have the right to display a disgusting attitude towards women, but this does not mean others don’t have the right to protest about him being on national television.
The chapter on football reminisces about the days before the middle-classes took it over. He complains about the clamp-down on racist, homophobic, sexist and other offensive language in the stands and from players and managers. His argument is that putting stricter rules in place is ruining the nature of football, when “the giving and getting of abuse is an integral part of what makes watching [it] entertainment.” Yet media storms when Chelsea fans shout racist chants to a black man at a Paris tube station, or when top players give each other racist abuse on the pitch, hardly amount to an oppressive micromanagement of the game.
The book could also be shorter. Correct and well-made arguments lose their sheen after being repeated over and over across the 300 pages. More exploration of why this trend has emerged would be interesting (it is touched upon but lost among the repetition of arguments and countless stories along the lines of a famous person being attacked for saying something stupid).
There seem to me to be various things at play, and here are a few disjointed and unfinished ideas. The left’s admirable desire to defend minority and oppressed groups has overridden the protection of free speech when it is seen to threaten these groups. At the same time, there is a conflation of three processes which should be seen as linked but separate: thought, speech, and action. Firstly, many campaigners think that codifying and policing language is the key to changing thought. Secondly, language is seen as tantamount to physical harm: the separation between harmful actions and words has become blurred, as many see the effects of them as the same. The phenomenon of ‘taking offence’ is so personal it is seen as unquestionable and unquantifiable by others, making it hard to argue against.
Fighting these ideas and defending free speech is essential for progressives, yet the flaws in the book unfortunately mean it does not quite match up to the gravity and breadth of the topic it professes to tackle.