The illiberal left, libertarians and neoliberals have one thing in common; self interest.

Recently, I’ve been reading and watching about identity politics. Possibly too much at times, in a desperate attempt to grasp the ideology of Social Justice Warriors. This produced several side effects, namely a plethora of highlight videos on YouTube from the right of the political spectrum, often right (US) libertarians. On viewing a multitude of films from both the left and right, I noticed a common denominator, that of self-interest. This self-regard is largely underpinned by a variety of drivers; money, freedom, liberty, power, diversity and societal control. What traits of political and moral selfishness you display, all depends on where you pitch your political tent. It’s easy to critique these video clips from our own echo chambers and muse, what’s wrong with liberty? Or, I can’t see how diversity is such a bad thing. On the surface this may appear true, but on digging deeper, I felt there was much to uncover.

As a libertarian socialist, the failings of the right are more intuitive and obvious to me, so this is where we’ll start. Neoliberalism is a particular aspect of the right that has appeared in the mainstream political consciousness since about 1979, due to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and later Reagan in the US.  Although globally, an experiment utilising these values occurred a few years earlier in Chile, following a coup in 1973, led by Augusto Pinochet. Renowned academic David Harvey, surmises that neoliberalism is a political project perpetuated by the corporate capitalist class, initially designed to stop the power of labour in the late 60’s early 70’s. For this group the motivation has consistently revolved around money, control and power. While for most of us the impacts have been negatively felt across the globe. We have all witnessed this, with the demise of our health service, our collapsing education systems, countless wars and the destruction of our ecosystem.

Neoliberalism’s omnipresence  is now ingrained into our society. We are told that competition is a natural human response, while freedom is found in the buying and selling of commodities. We are hypnotised into believing inequality is virtuous and is, therefore, a reward for working so hard. The rich persuade themselves and others that their wealth is acquired by merit, conveniently forgetting the advantages of education, societal networks and family wealth. Neoliberalism is undoubtedly a self serving racket; smashing unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation. But on the other side of the great divide, the majority of us have more insecure jobs, poorer public services, higher rents and we pay more, often for a diminished product. All the while a very small group of rich parasites have made vast sums of money at the expense of us all.

Neoliberalism could be fairly classified as systemic self interest, but it is nearer to a virus, as it invades and devours the human spirit. Money for the rich is maximised through a sympathetic system, encouraging maximum profits and preserved for example, via limited tax payments.  This cash is utilised to change policies to obtain further power in an effort to wrestle more control, to acquire ever more riches. Lobbyists paid by banking, fossil fuel companies or tobacco firms bombard politicians to vote for bills in their favour, while the minions get to vote every few years, that often has little to no effect. Routinely politicians are easily persuaded to side with the corporate world. All across the western world they generally enjoy the same education and societal advantages as the corporate community. It could also be argued that many share the same personality traits too, such as sociopathy. In a study published in 2014, it concluded that CEO’s possessed more sociopaths per population than any other job.

It is theorised that many leading politicians also share these sociopathic traits, which include; a lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, manipulative behaviour and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions, among others. Apart from the obvious ones such as; Hitler, Stalin, Trump, Nixon, LBJ and say Churchill, we could also make very strong cases for both Clinton’s, Tony Blair, Trudeau, Dick Cheney, Obama, Henry Kissinger, George W Bush and Thatcher as sociopaths without too many problems. It is, therefore, not surprising that a marriage between the political and corporate elite is often an easy fit, due to their end goals, namely power and prestige. The neoliberal motivation is blatant and obvious yet often goes unchallenged, as it is all encompassing. It is ideological in a sense, but the game is about power and control of the upper echelons of society. They, however, are not the only section of the right who believe in self interest, but for quite differing reasons, this next bunch are called libertarians.

Libertarianism is an ideology that is mainly peculiar to the United States, but not wholly. According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, here are the key concepts:

  1. Individualism
  2. Individual rights
  3. Spontaneous order
  4. Rule of Law
  5. Limited government
  6. Free Markets
  7. The virtue of production
  8. Natural harmony of interest
  9. Peace

The motto that can be seen regularly associated with Libertarians is ‘don’t tread on me’. This is known as ‘Gadsden’ flag and goes back to 1775. The flag was adopted by the Tea Party movement in 2009. Libertarians claim the meaning is pacifistic by nature, suggesting they won’t bite unless stepped on, meaning of course their rights. The institution that is generally thought of as invasive and the most likely to infringe on these rights is the government. In fact in the minds of many libertarians, government can only threaten freedom. This lines up with one of the main beliefs of libertarians, which is the idea that ‘small government’ works best. Conceivably this could mean practically any government entity, dependent on who you talk to, could be privatised and that a pay as you go system for services required would ensue. From a social perspective, libertarians and libertarian socialists often find some common ground, such as; the legalisation of drugs, prostitution and a purely defensive military unless attacked.

libertarian bs

Ideas between the factions rapidly diverge when discussing the libertarian view of economics and how this relates to people. This ideology believes that the dubiously named ‘free market’ is guided and at times corrected by the ‘invisible hand‘. This is based on an idea from Adam Smith, implying that if we leave the markets alone, the correct outcome will be achieved, as if by magic. If that isn’t weird enough libertarians apply this theory to humans, stating that if we are left alone to satisfy our own needs, society will ultimately fall in to place. This is number 3 on the previous list and is called ‘spontaneous order‘. The idea is almost childlike in its naiveté, if an individual is driven by self interest as promoted by this ideology, these actions may come into conflict with what is good for society. As much as this is vehemently denied by libertarians, what is proposed is no more than a ‘dog eat dog’ philosophy with a few loose ethics wrapped around it, to offer a veneer of respectability.

It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to realise that in a free market system, the disparity between rich and poor would grow dramatically. Further to this the power imbalance between the haves and have nots would widen ever more. With no substantial government to intervene, the poorer end of society would live short brutal lives. On the other side of the tracks the rich in contrast would have the power to make the rules up to suit themselves, even more so than now. The oft mentioned libertarian ‘pin up’ girl is Ayn Rand, who preached a ruthless individualistic narrative, implied that the importance of personal rights and profit grossly outweigh the collective good. These ideas do not account for any interaction we may have as human beings, or the fact that as a species we tend to co-operate with each other. A problem to consider is, if one person is meeting their personal needs, it may have a direct affect on somebody else’s liberties and freedom. This is just basic causality, as none of us live in silo’s, we all have to interact at some point. Rarely do you hear a libertarian addressing this conundrum. I’ve always considered the libertarian ideology as politics of an 8 year old. I still conclude that as an ideology it just doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny and appears to be at odds with human nature.

To highlight libertarians self-serving and anti evidence mentality I will use two examples; the first one will be their aversion to tax and secondly their attachment to guns. A regularly used mantra heard from libertarians is “tax is theft”. Firstly, there is a fundamental problem with this statement, if we have no taxes, then we have no government and even libertarians belief in some ruling body, albeit a skeletal version. However, it’s worth noting that no modern society has ever survived without a government and this ruling body of course would need funding. Primarily because government’s are required to provide goods and services, therefore, tax is necessary to pay for this. The libertarian problem with taxes is entirely ideological, they disapprove purely because taxes are not voluntary and that a certain amount of coercion is required from the government. Libertarians believe nothing should be forced, so using this logic the government is wrong to collect taxes. Libertarians advocate for a voluntary exchange, where people are free to make their own choices with their lives. This is impractical, naïve and utopic by nature. A pay as you go system for services is a ridiculous notion. The general idea of being ‘free’ to do what you want without any civic responsibilities, has all the hallmarks of a teenager who hasn’t discovered the word accountability. We’ll finish with libertarianism on the weird American notion of the ‘right to bear arms’.

The 2nd amendment is something libertarians doggedly cling to. They will challenge anyone, along with the National Rifle Association (NRA) who attempts to tighten gun regulations. Their reasoning proposes that people have a right to arm themselves to make themselves safer, but this just isn’t supported by evidence. The data suggests that people who carry firearms are more likely to be shot, furthermore, it increases the risks of death for those around them. Libertarians also posit that gun restrictions wouldn’t work, this is contrary to much of the evidence, a good example being Australia. Over two decades ago Australia banned rapid fire guns, this was implemented just months after the mass shooting in Port Arthur by Martin Bryant. Bryant killed 35 people and wounded another 23 in Tasmania with 2 semi-automatic weapons. The effect of Australia’s crackdown on guns has been nothing short of incredible. In 18 years leading to 1996, the nation witnessed 13 fatal mass shootings (4 or more killings at one time) with 104 fatalities. Since 1996, however, there has been one fatal mass shooting in Australia, which took place in May 2018. What’s also important to note is that within the first 7 years of this legislation, firearm homicide rates dropped by 42%, and firearm suicide rates by 57%. Maybe these types of measures could have prevented the shooting at Sandy Hook, where 27 children and adults were murdered in 2012. Or the massacre by Dylann Roof in Charleston, S.C, where 9 people were killed in a church, June 2015. Even more recently, 59 people may not have been shot dead in Las Vegas in October 2017, with the tightening of regulations.

We are informed of these types of incidents in the news so often it almost seems commonplace, but this is something we should never get accustomed to. Here lies a good example concerning the problems with libertarianism, the very place where ideology clashes with reality. It would appear that libertarians are happy to forgo the lives of fellow citizens in order to keep the guns that they don’t really need. I would also strongly suggest that the victims of this type of crime have had their rights, freedom and civil liberties trampled upon much more so than libertarian gun advocates. These issues seem to be conveniently forgotten, as apparently the personal rights of a libertarian are more important than anything else despite the outcome, thus proving this ideology is not compatible with a functioning society. It’s also important to mention that the political right’s attachment to guns is not just a libertarian phenomenon. This strange love affair is also witnessed within the ranks of the authoritarian, religious right too.

Gun nuts
Former Republican Sen. Greg Brophy and his gun loving family.

With the right dealt with, next we’ll tackle the left, or more specifically Social Justice Warriors or more politely, adherents of identity politics. I generally like to call this group the illiberal left or identarians. Although, I would strongly suggest that they have no place on the left, as their self interest is the antithesis of what the left is all about. To recap, we’ve covered how the neoliberals are motivated by money and power, how the libertarians are driven by blind ideology, so the question is, what drives the SJW’s. I suggest that the SJW’s have more in common regarding outcomes as the neoliberals, which is power and control. While their motivation, is more ideologically driven similarly to libertarians. Identarians view the world based on a perceived power struggle between oppressed groups and systemic power. Often a supporter of identity politics will ensure they are a part of an oppressed group such as; women, people of colour, LGTB’s, disabled people and other marginalised groups. Many of these groups can be witnessed fighting among themselves regarding the legitimacy of their oppression, or even challenged individually if someone is perceived to have infringed upon the ever changing rules. Its believers claim they are a movement of diversity, but this status is only reserved for certain groups who pass the oppression test. Everybody else outside of the zone of marginalisation, is rendered mute and have no voice regardless of academic prowess or any expertise one may possess.

This ideology borrows heavily from postmodernism, valuing “lived experience” over empirical evidence. Therefore, the quality of information takes a back seat to the perception and feelings of the receiver, while all logic or reason is disregarded. Vast numbers of identarians are only oppressed by association and have not encountered any direct oppression. They will claim that oppression is systemic, so by purely belonging to a perceived ‘out group’ it allows them access to victimhood. Whether an individual has been on the receiving end of any kind of abuse is considered irrelevant and the enquirer is promptly accused of victim blaming. In fact the definition of oppression has become so broad and the bar set so low, that almost anybody could meet the criteria (unless of course you’re white and male). Identity politics possesses a myopic view of the world, one based on genitalia and skin pigmentation. Class rarely gets a mention as many identarians are economically privileged and middle class. It is through this distorted lens that Munroe Bergdorf, a trans-woman and part-time model stated, “a white homeless man can still be privileged”. You see it’s about equality, but only a certain type of equality, and it promotes diversity, but not alas diversity of thought.

Smash_Patriarchy_Detroit_Feminist_2014_Protest

SJW’s use the manipulation of language and the setting of moral boundaries in order to control society. Identarians do not possess the money and ability to influence the ruling elite through lobbying as neoliberals do. Therefore, they have to be creative in the way they exert their control. What they have constructed, is a victim narrative, whereby the ‘minorities’ are the victims and the ‘majority’ are the oppressors. This is used to attract help from the authorities and to obtain greater influence in the public sphere. The outcomes of this can be seen by the rise of ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses, or by making ‘wolf whistling‘ a criminal offence in Nottinghamshire, for example. Identarians are exceptionally puritanical, regulating who is and isn’t allowed to speak on campus, often no-platforming anyone who may be considered ‘problematic’. Opinions are blurted out freely from these groups and conflated with facts in this cesspool of ‘ideas’, while unwelcome, incoming words, are considered violence. All this is a desperate attempt to control the narrative and the terms of acceptable dialogue.

Often labels such as; racist, misogynist, fascist and transphobic are yelled to silence dissenters at the first sign of any challenging speech. We are regaled with stories about the gender wage gap, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and white privilege to maintain the story of oppression. This is not about changing the world for the betterment of society, this is pseudo-politics of the narcissist, designed to benefit and empower the individual. Identity politics is not just confined to academia either, pro-Israel lobbies regularly use anti-Semitism as a weapon to stifle debate or indeed discredit anybody who may be deemed ‘problematic’. The term has been manipulated over the years and is now so malleable that it can be deployed on anybody, regardless of the individual’s moral and academic integrity. So my summary of identarians is this; they are a collection of self-obsessed, self-involved, narcissists, who for them the personal really is the political and nothing else matters. Their goal is to attain social control and re-build society in their image.

All three of these ideologies are bathed in self interest, but for contrasting reasons. Neoliberals manipulate society from the top down, appealing to politician’s self interest via lobbyists. The idea is to control what the government does or does not interfere with for the benefit of their corporations and bank balance, the Koch brothers are a prime example (although they possess libertarian traits). Any collateral damage to people or the environment is inconsequential as long as their best interests are served. Libertarians on the other hand, are driven predominantly by ideology, such as, stating the markets should be allowed to regulate themselves and government should play a minor role in our affairs. There is, however, a conflict between how libertarian’s see the market and the real world, plus there is no evidence to support their view. Libertarian ‘theory’ also infers that corporation’s have no more power than the individual, for example banker to customer. Given the 2008 crash this notion becomes increasingly difficult to believe. Another suggestion is, we are ‘free to choose’, but what we choose is largely dependent upon what resources we were born with or have at our disposal. If corporations were allowed unbridled freedom, the planet and inhabitants would be destroyed by the people with the most power. It’s also telling that there is no country on the planet that is run in a libertarian fashion.

Finally, the illiberal left or SJW’s, this group cannot achieve top down control, therefore, the goal is to control what is acceptable in society. The objective is to strangle and hijack society through the regulation of speech, how we behave or even what we think. This is imposed through a particular worldview, where individuals are coerced into fighting structural enemies such as the mystical patriarchy. Whilst all human interaction is only acceptable through this narrow viewpoint. One such example of control, is terming the previously mentioned ‘wolf whistling‘ as a hate crime. This suggests that 3rd wave feminists instinctively know what is good for women and that they are somehow unable to defend themselves. Clearly some men need to grow up regarding their behaviour, but it is arrogant for SJW’s to suggest that they speak for all women. Identity politics is a set of puritanical beliefs enforced upon society purely for the good of their group.

As suggested earlier people are motivated in a variety ways and self-interest is a common factor observed right across the political spectrum. It is noticeable that the neoliberals control government, industry, the military and the global arena. This could be considered the most important type of power and in many ways it is. But there is another system to control and that is one of society. Here, identarians using postmodernism as their guide, are now starting to control and re-configure societal norms. Our behaviour, language, feelings and thoughts are now being scrutinised and punished through a specific ideological prism, often outside of the law. It’s a society where rules will not governed by logic, reason or science, but emotion, ‘lived experience‘ and subjectivity. The neoliberal ruling elite are relatively happy for radical societal change to occur as this keeps the proletariat divided, confused and aggressive towards each other. While any societal change from the illiberal left will have little or no affect on them. Unfortunately, for many of us, we are being affected or more precisely infected by this twisted world view. Identarians are desperate to dismantle society, while constructing a dystopian, puritanical, 1984 type thought prison in its place. This all started in academic institutions, but without doubt it’s coming to a home or workplace near you. Soon!!!

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In defence of free speech, before it’s too late.

In a world of polarised politics and widely differing moral opinions, free speech is taking a battering and yet it is essential for democracy. On a daily basis you can witness on social media, people shutting down debate with words such as misogynist and racist, as soon as discourse veers from their comfort zone. Both sides left and right claim that their political opposites are constantly abusing free speech. ‘Black Life Matters’ supporters upset the right, but no more than how Milo Yiannopoulos continuously offends the left.

So, where do we start when discussing this thorny subject of free speech and free expression? We could start as far back as Socrates, but I guess the Magna Carta is as good a place as any. This was a ‘charter of liberties’ signed in Runneymede, England in 1215, reluctantly by King John (more accurately he used his royal seal). King John succumbed to this document primarily to stave off a rebellion from the country’s powerful barons, following a spate of unsuccessful foreign policies and heavy tax demands.

The Magna Carta was effectively the first written constitution in European history, but it primarily only benefitted the elites at the time. Two further acts; the ‘Petition of Right‘ (1628) referring to clause 39 of the Magna Carta, which states; “no free man shall be…imprisoned or dispossessed, except by the lawful judgement of his peers” and clause 40, the ‘Habeas Corpus Act‘ (1679), “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay rights or justice” had huge implications on future legal systems in both UK and the US. As far as other legal documents go the ‘Bill of Rights‘ (UK, 1689), the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man‘ (France, 1789) and the ‘First Amendment of the US bill of rights‘ (US, 1791), were all influenced by the Magna Carta. These were all attempts to secure freedom of speech and expression under the umbrella of human rights.

In a speech given at the University of Toronto in 2006, Christopher Hitchens debating in favour of freedom of speech, paraphrased three great thinkers to summarise the concept. John Milton, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine collectively suggesting that; “it’s not the right of the speaker to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something”. 

Economist, philosopher and socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg surmised that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of a person’s view who thinks differently”. Noam Chomsky, renowned linguistic Professor and distinguished Libertarian Socialist declared; “Goebbels was in favour of free speech he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of free speech, then you are in favour of free speech precisely for views you despise”.

So why is free speech so precious? Freedom of expression for which free speech is a part of, is a fundamental human right. Our ability to express an opinion and to speak freely is essential for any society to move forward. It is imperative that in a free society we have an open exchange of ideas and that these opinions are tested and challenged. The most effective way to defeat bad ideas is by the promotion of good ones, utilising ethics and reason, rather than bans and censorship. The other important element, is the ability to listen and to hear other people’s perspectives. The only way we can test our assumptions and ideas is through discourse with people offering a differing view. Furthermore, the weight of public opinion should not be used to decide what may or may not be heard.

Many ideas in the past have been ridiculed initially, only to be proved correct; Galileo Galilei championed heliocentrism while Darwin promoted the theory of evolution. John Stuart Mill wrote in ‘On Liberty‘; “If all of mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. 

The philosopher Karl Popper talked about testing your ideas through “conjecture and refutation“. An individual offers a notion about the nature of reality and this is then tested against reality. This process allows the world to falsify the mistaken ones. The “conjecture” part of this process is the use of free speech. These opinions are offered not knowing if they are correct. It is only by witnessing which ideas withstand being refuted do we attain knowledge.

So given the perceived importance, why is freedom of speech being attacked and eroded? Well contrary to popular belief this isn’t purely a SJW endeavour, the right also use free speech as a political football. Although to be fair to the illiberal left, they do seem to have got the suppression of speech part down to an art form and that’s not a compliment. Free speech on both sides appears to be defined as speech they agree with. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt portrayed perceptions of free speech in the graphic seen below.

free hate speech

Recently the left have used an array of puritanical actions such as; disinviting speakers, censoring artwork and disciplining wrongdoers of arbitrarily constructed cultural appropriation rules. This behaviour has been justified by suggesting it’s done to make other speakers feel safe. I would propose that by other they mean speakers they agree with. As mentioned, the right play games too; there was an incident when a student secretly filmed Professor Olga Perez Stable Cox referring to Donald Trump in class as a white supremacist. This video was propelled across the internet where she received death threats.

The group responsible for this, the Orange Coast County Republicans stated that removing commentary like ‘hers’ was necessary to ensure the college’s commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusivity”. If this narrative sounds eerily familiar, it will be because it is the same language often used by the illiberal left. Studies in the US suggest that Republican students are just as likely to agree with the restriction of campus speech that is offensive or upsetting to certain groups, as the Democrats. Which brings us full circle to Haidt’s representation above. As an aside, however, it is twice as likely for Republican’s to support book bans.

Countless speakers who have differing ideas to illiberal left orthodoxy have been regularly disinvited from an array of places in the English speaking world, such as; Ben Shapiro, Germaine Greer, Kate Smurthwaite, Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon, Christina Hoff Sommers, Dave Rubin and Nigel Farage. Browsing the database for disinvited speakers on FIRE’s website (Foundation of Individual Rights in Education), I thought it would be interesting to work out which side of the political fence censors speakers the most.

I was unsurprised to find that since the beginning of 2017 the left had disapproved of speakers leading to what the UK call no-platforming on 19 occasions, while the right spat their dummy out just 5 times. The main issues for the left were race, gender and sexual orientation. While on the right, it was primarily sexual orientation and Chelsea Manning for criminal misconduct. It would make sense at this point to investigate why this is happening particularly on campus and what are the implications.

It would appear that over the last few years there has been a campaign to sanitise college campuses in an endeavour to make them clean from words, ideas and subjects that may offend or cause discomfort. This has altered the way professors teach, and the content is often shrouded in trigger warnings. Plus any one of us could be easily accused of a microaggression, such as using phrases that appear to be innocuous like, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”. All this sounds distinctly Orwellian, but Jonathan Haidt a moral psychologist, suggests this is primarily about emotional wellbeing and the protection of students from emotional harm.

It is a move to turn a college campus into a ‘safe space’ and they will punish anyone who stands in their way. The problem, he suggests is, it ill equips students for the real world, which often requires intellectual engagement with people one may well disagree with. It is also thought that this culture of censorship and the punishment of speakers could lead students to thinking patterns that could conceivably be described in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) terms as pathological. Thinking styles including; black and white thinking, catastrophising, fortune telling, overgeneralising and mental filtering. Haidt claims that all this further contributes to anxiety and depression. So where did these ideas come from, how did this illiberal attitude to free speech evolve and where is it going?

cotton wool kid

Haidt calls this punitive lack of tolerance “vindictive protectiveness”, he states that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers had more of a free range childhood, spending a greater time looking after themselves. This style of parenting became less popular in the 80’s and 90’s, as parents became more fearful. In turn, this gave rise to the ‘helicopter parent‘ or the ‘cotton wool mum’, who started to micromanage their kids during every waking moment. This was despite evidence proving that incidences of abduction, robbery, assault and homicide remained relatively stable throughout the English speaking world.

What has changed over this time is an increase in varying media outlets and the attention that is drawn to such cases. It is thought that this cultivates the feeling that there is more crime than is actually occurring. Contrary to this, unsupervised play which previous generations experienced while growing up declined from the early 90’s. This type of play allowed kids to explore the world, while making their own friends and at times enemies. They learnt how to get in and out of trouble, to test their limits and negotiate with other kids, all without being overlooked by their parents. These valuable times, that most of us just refer to as being a kid, provided a vital training ground for survival in the real world.

A study by University College London found that children who had more unsupervised time were more sociable and more active. It is believed that the decline in unsupervised play has been matched by a decrease in empathy and a rise in narcissism. This is considered hardly surprising in an environment where children have little chance to play socially. It is argued that schools cannot replace this time, as this environment is more authoritarian and non democratic, meaning that it is not conducive to learning skills such as co-operation. On top of this, these kids are also growing up in an age of increased political polarisation.

Think of what happened recently in the US election or Brexit. This isn’t helped by social media, which doesn’t often provide the conduit for robust debate. Interactions on this medium usually consist of allies providing an echo chamber or an enemy to yell at or a dissenter to discredit. Civil discourse on these platforms are a rare thing to behold. With all this in mind it isn’t surprising that when young adults arrive on campus they seem to require more protection, while being hostile to people with ideological and philosophical differences.

Relatively recently phrases such as, “words are violence”, “invalidating my existence” or “my truth” particularly on college campuses have entered our vernacular. These comments are what is collectively called ‘concept creep‘ and are generally used to shut down debate. To expand on this, here are a couple of real examples of concept creep; a mother leaves her son in the car while she pops into a store and is charged with contributing to his delinquency, or a statue of a man in his underpants causes emotional trauma.

The question we should be asking is, how the hell did we get here and who is reinforcing these concepts? Professor of psychology Nick Haslam argues that terms like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorders and addiction have all expanded their meanings (horizontal creep). Additionally the threshold of behaviour qualifying for one of these terms has been steadily lowered (vertical creep).

It is declared that these changes reflect an increased sensitivity to harm. Lisa Feldman Barrett a psychologist from Northeastern University has endeavoured to defend the words=violence equation. Her hypothesis proposes, if words can cause stress (which they can), and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm (and it can), then it seems that certain types of speech can be a form of violence”. This suggests, ‘A’ causes ‘B’, ‘B’ causes ‘C’, and therefore ‘A’ causes ‘C’. With this in mind, insert the phrase “gossiping about a rival” and try again, yes it can cause stress, but that doesn’t turn it into violence.

George-Orwell-Quotes-3

An English Professor at New York University, Ulrich Baer, justifies shutting down speech of speakers some students might not like, by saying, “When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good”. One could argue that rejecting an idea that has been proposed would be more than sufficient to maintain an individual’s humanity. So how are words violence?

Violence is a physical act, if someone punches me in the face, I can feel a physical force. That’s not the same as being berated by a combination of words, no matter how forceful. It is suggested that much of this has roots in 1960’s postmodernist philosophy that was studied extensively in the 80’s and 90’s. In our case we can refer to Lyotard’s idea of mini-narratives over meta-narratives. Which in short, argues that personal experiences are more important than empirical evidence.

Using a similar phrase from a previous paragraph, which we hear in debates, “who is anyone to deny my truth and what I feel”. Alarm bells should be ringing at “my truth”, it’s either truth or opinion, there is no such thing as “my truth”, that is as erroneous as “alternative facts”. But according to some academics and their students, there appears no such thing as one truth. It is posited that this is no more than a construct of the Euro-west and is a myth.

Postmodernist ideas are in stark contrast to science and the Enlightenment, that they despise and of which I am rather fond of. The Enlightenment period stressed the value of; reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought, as opposed to dogma, blind faith and superstition. Worryingly it seems, particularly in academia to be regressing away from logic, reason and science.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that students, with minimal life experience, who have been overprotected at home, exposed to questionable ideas such as postmodernism, while engaging in self-indulgent, narcissistic identity politics would be so afraid of free speech and open debate. It would be foolish, however, to think an attack on free speech exists purely within academic institutions. We have seen more and more laws in varying countries clamping down on so called ‘hate speech’. Hate speech is a difficult one to pin down, mainly because, who sets the parameters of what ‘hate speech’ actually is? In the US freedom of expression is protected by the 1st Amendment and this largely includes hate speech.

There are times when hate speech falls into a current 1st Amendment exception, such as; a particular racist may speak to incite imminent violence on a particular group or may be interpreted as immediate threat to do harm. But generally it works quite well, however, some countries have specific hate speech laws. Let’s take the UK as an example. So what is defined as a hate crime? Well, according to the Crown Prosecution Service a hate crime can be; “verbal abuse, intimidation, harassment, threats, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property”.

They go on to say, “any offense that is perceived by the victim, or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person of disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; or a person who is transgender or is perceived to be transgender”. There seems to be a lot of perceptions here and a distinct lack of facts, which indicates a hate crime could be pretty much anything, both real or imagined.

One problem with this is, the CPS draws parallels between online abuse and actions taking place in person. This is another example of ‘concept creep’ and fails to acknowledge the differences between an angry tweet and someone shouting at you in the street, or physical abuse. Alison Saunders (Director of Public Prosecutions, CPS) talks about countering extreme views. The problem is, who decides what constitutes as an extreme view. Obviously according to the CPS it appears it’s the ‘receiver’ of said abuse. Furthermore, the offense only has to be perceived by the victim, or somebody else for that matter, with no actual evidence required.

This suggests a pretty low threshold for pinning the tag of hate crime onto someone because they have conflicting views. Most sane minded people would agree that hatred of people because of skin colour or genitalia is abhorrent. But policing hatred often ends up in censorship and the problem doesn’t actually go away. In contrast, there are hundreds of examples of civilians defending victims of abuse in public and shaming racists. Tackling hatred in the public domain is a better way of dealing with despicable ideas, but this can only occur in a society where free and open debate is allowed.

Sadly, I only foresee the strangulation of free speech increasing. This trend chiefly started in academia and has now seeped into the workplace and everyday interactions. Not only this, but in several colleges the illiberal left have been involved in episodes of violence. One such incident took place at Middlebury College Vermont 2017, when students were intent on closing down a lecture given by conservative speaker Charles Murray.

When Murray approached the podium he was shouted down by protesters reciting a pre-prepared script who then proceeded to turn their backs. They chanted until the event was moved to a private venue, but this too was disrupted. The physical incident that irrupted caused the injury of a liberal speaker who was there in opposition to Charles Murray, but was bravely shielding him from the attack.

What’s important to recognise is, in a piece published in the New York Times, the authors tested Charles Murray’s alleged offensive content by sending the material anonymously to 70 university professors to rate it. The scale was from 1 to 9, 1 being liberal, 9 conservative, while 5 denoting middle of the road. From the 57 academics who replied, the mean score was 5.05, indicating the material from Murray was ‘middle of the road’. Two other similar studies were performed, neither suggesting that what Charles Murray was proposing was either offensive or hugely conservative. The article also concluded that some of these protesters had never even read any of his work.

In the same year people were punched and beaten by masked protesters from the illiberal left during a Milo Yiannopoulos speech at UC Berkley. Astoundingly these actions were supported in certain quarters. An Op Ed written after the event by one of the students stated “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue, with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act”.

This implies that these student felt justified punching people and pepper spraying them, even if all the speakers did was voice some words (albeit challenging words). This is where the “words are violence” phrase becomes dangerous, because it is utilised to justify countering words with a violent action and then passing it off as self-defence. Unsurprisingly this violence from the illiberal left, led to counter violence and this cycle will surely continue. Below is some video footage from the Middlebury debacle.

The group who seem the keenest on stifling free speech are what is termed iGen (short for internet generation). These are students born after 1994 according to social psychologist Jean Twenge. Twenge found that iGen had higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicide. Although Twenge offers that much of this is due to smart phones, social media and changing social interactions.

Jonathan Haidt contends that some of this may well be a lack of resilience, suggesting that students are now arriving at college with a distinct inability to cope with; offensive ideas, insensitive professors, and maybe rude racist and sexist peers. Previous generations often learned to deal with such challenges, without having to reconstruct society to accommodate their world view. These obstacles prepared individuals for success and the rigors of life outside the gates of academia.

A poll in the US of 3000 students confirmed that they generally agreed with the idea of free speech and allowing a variety of viewpoints. This is, until these other ideas start to infringe on their values, then they are more likely to support policies to limit speech. Putting it bluntly, they don’t support free speech at all. Also in the same poll 37% thought it was OK to shout down opposing speakers, while 10% stated it was acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking. In an effort to understand which people are against free speech, a further poll was published by the New York Times. When asked what they thought was more important ‘free speech’ or ‘inclusion and diversity’, the results were 53% to 46% in favour of ‘inclusion and diversity’.

Additionally men and women were asked who was in favour of ‘freedom of speech,’ 61% of men said yes compared to just 36% of women. Given that 60% of the student population are now women, all this doesn’t bode well for the fate of free speech on campus. It must be stressed that ‘freedom of speech’ is the ultimate radical idea. It is the notion that individuals should try to settle their differences through debate and discussion, using evidence and persuasion rather than coercive power. At this current moment free speech is in mortal danger, just when it is needed more than ever.