Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Political Correctness, Dissent and Double Standards

Last week, Trinity College, Dublin played host to a debate on free speech and the right to offend, which pitted Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee against libertarian journalist and editor of Spiked magazine, Brendan O'Neill. Bukhari got up and gave what was, by all accounts, a fairly gut-wrenching speech, in which he denounced western societies as racist and Islamophobic, trotted out a laundry list of complaints about everything from colonialism to "hate speech" and reached a crescendo in which he reportedly strongly implied that the staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine killed in the infamous shooting of January this year had gotten what was coming to them. By all accounts, he was listened to respectfully. Fair enough. Open mindedness is to be commended. Blind emotional outrage is not. 

But what happened next was hardly consistent with open mindedness. O'Neill rose to speak and defended traditional western ideas in relation to freedom of expression and condemned the knee-jerk tendency on college campuses to censor and control speech and literature for the purpose of shielding people from offence. Far from the polite and sympathetic hearing that Bukhari got, O'Neill was jeered and subjected to cries of "shame" for suggesting that banning popular music, magazines and campus speakers that members of the student body might find offensive was not a good idea. So let's review. A man who apologises for murder is given a respectful hearing. Meanwhile, a libertarian is abused for advocating freedom of expression. Welcome to the Twilight Zone, better known as Ireland 2015. 

In the brave new world of which our college campuses are such good examples, this sort of double standard has become par for the course. In a post I wrote after the passage of the Same Sex Marriage referendum, I warned of the danger that our society would come to be divided into a Brahmin caste which would enjoy a right not to be offended and an untouchable caste who would, increasingly, not even enjoy civil liberties such as free expression and who would be expected to tolerate daily slights and indignities from officialdom. It turns out that I was overly optimistic. By the time I was writing this admonition, the society of which I was warning already existed. 

In hindsight, the shift should have been obvious in Janaury 2014, when the entertainer Rory O'Neill (aka Panti Bliss) denounced certain named members of the media who were opposed to same sex marriage as "homophobes". The individuals in question were naturally less than pleased with this slur and sued - receiving €85,000 in settlement from RTE, which had broadcast O'Neill's comments. An LGBT movement that was rationally interested in liberalism and tolerance might have noted that 30 years ago, nobody would have bothered to sue someone for calling them a homophobe, because few would have regarded the term as terribly pejorative and even fewer as defamatory. Leading campaigners could have argued that the fact that a group of socially conservative commentators were moved to seek legal redress was proof of the movement's success in stigmatising prejudice. 

However, instead of a rational response, what ensued could only be described as a tantrum, with repeated condemnations of the plaintiffs for suing RTE and of RTE for settling the action rather than fighting it all the way to the Four Courts. If the denunciations had formed part of a more generalised move towards defamation reform and a more liberal attitude to the expression of opinion in the public sphere, the response might have been understandable. However, the commentariat's concern about defamation law lasted precisely as long as the "Pantigate" controversy did. Since 2014, Mary Lou McDonald, Ming Flanagan and Phil Hogan have all commenced defamation actions against media outlets. None of these figures received the same criticism as the Pantigate plaintiffs. It would thus seem that freedom of the press applies differently to different groups, with the rules of public discourse increasingly following Lenin's dictum of "Who? Whom?".    

For Lenin, politics was about nothing but the accumulation of power. The question of objective standards of conduct became irrelevant once one established who was acting against whom. As recent events in media and politics show, the same behaviour can be condemned or endorsed depending upon who is the subject and who is the object of the behaviour. Social conservatives, having once been powerful people are now untouchables, denied freedom of association, freedom of conscience and, increasingly, freedom of speech. Libertarians, having once been considered allies of the PC left, are now also untouchables, their usefulness having been exhausted and their challenging of speech codes and coercion of conscience now constituting an impediment to continued social engineering. Muslims, by contrast, are Brahmins - in spite of their views on gay rights and gender, which are conveniently ignored. Anti-austerity campaigners are also Brahmins - can anyone imagine what the response would have been to a mob of Fine Gael or Fianna Fail supporters barricading a left wing politician into her car or attacking utility workers installing meters?

The monster that officialdom has unleashed cannot simply be put back in its box and there is gathering evidence that it may indeed be biting the very people who released it. At the heart of political correctness is the reduction of all public policy down to simple emotional stimuli that obviate the need for rational thought. Instead of a world of nuance, it provides a world of binary simplicity. For many years, this has suited our political class, which has relied upon the public's intellectual disengagement and the willingness of a substantial minority of voters to indulge the wildest extremes of emotion, as a means of perpetuating a grubby special interest politics. After all, a public that thinks in terms of nothing more than "goodies" and "baddies" is more malleable than a public that engages with ideas and their consequences.

However, having softened young minds with "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" and substituted vacuous slogans like "social justice" and "privilege" for critical thought and analysis, the political establishment has given birth to an unthinking creed, which has sloganised its philosophy into statements like "No to Austerity" and "Right2Water".  With opposition forces whose young leaders have been educated in an environment of institutional vacuity, the political establishment, in an age of severe financial pressure, is fast losing control over the unreason that it has wilfully sponsored. Without the ability to demand rational sacrifice, the likes of Enda Kenny and Joan Burton are starting to find the intellectual atmosphere they helped create less and less congenial. For the dissenter, perhaps this very lack of congeniality represents the best hope that the political establishment can start to pull back.