On the preemptive cancellation of “problematic” books on campus
I am, however, a little self-conscious about portraying the monstrous nature of what is taking place in the terms I have just employed. It may appear too hyperbolic, over-dramatic to make such a comparison in the context of Britain which is still very much in appearance a liberal democracy with open contestation of the major issues affecting most people.
Climate change and what to do about it is perhaps the one exception to that broad generalisation with the BBC openly saying it will not give airtime to those who challenge the group-think consensus. Oh, and Covid vaccines is another. The proposed Online Safety Bill could potentially criminalise people who on this and other issues spread ‘false information’. Obviously, if you express transgender-sceptical views you might well end up being visited by the police, prosecuted or/and placed on a Non Crime Hate Incident database.
However, the atmospherics are not exactly that of a crazed totalitarian state with the equivalent of Maoist youth high on having imbibed The Little Red Book or hordes of fascist street fighters stomping about terrorising us daily. Rather, there is, to employ Marc Sidwell’s term, a ‘silent revolution’ taking place. Because it is postmodernist in nature, it does not employ a grand narrative to justify the escalating encroachments of our right to exchange ideas and opinions.
Here there is a direct parallel with the analysis in Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Fascism, he argued, should not have been understood as the result of a sudden political Big Bang event but rather as the culmination of the way in which the German economy was subjected to ever increasing state regulation from the late nineteenth century onwards and through the Weimar years.
The creation of a totalitarian society was never the stated intention of the centrist politicians carrying out their micro interventions over decades. They were not conscious of how their dirigiste legacy might be used by heavy authoritarians in years to come. Nadine Dorries, like all the other Tory politicians planning to vote for greater online ‘safety’ engage in their own form of double-think whereby they simultaneously believe themselves to support free speech as a principle.
Returning to the sinister blacklist of books to be erased from the curricula of our universities, the academic Culture-Control Left (CCL) elite are using facile rather than overtly ideological justifications for carrying out their current literary purge which, naturally, includes Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and even dear old Agatha Christie. Are cultural kommissars really worried the little darlings attending university will suffer life-threatening emotional trauma if exposed to works such as Death on the Nile?
The banal way in which the erasure of whole chunks of our cultural heritage is being conducted is perhaps why so few people appear to be aware of the gravity of what is taking place. Boiling frog syndrome. Another tactic employed by the CCL is to simply deny that what is happening is happening; to use one of their favourite terms, ‘gaslighting’, as borrowed from the playwright Patrick Hamilton.
Apparently, raising concerns about free speech is a plot by the far-right. A block of new left representatives on the University & College Union, supportive of the current general secretary, claimed in their joint election statement that there are “attempts to engineer and amplify ‘controversies’ and that will sow confusion and insecurity on campuses. Talks defended in the name of ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’, by neo-fascists and transphobes will suit that agenda.”
The free speech coalition now needs to take a risk and start characterising this silent revolution as a phenomenon that really has totalitarian implications. The CCL, speech-prohibitionist movement should be depicted as a series of concentric circles that at its inner core consists of hardline authoritarians. These are groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, together with the militant trans-activists that wish to suppress all debate and, in some cases, carry out physical attacks on those who disagree with them.
Our task is to clear the conceptual fog that surrounds what is taking place, the threat to our basic civil liberties and once-liberal culture. This involves not only putting the case for free speech in clear liberal foundational terms, but also in how we articulate the essence of the ideology that is transforming our society without serious opposition. To know your enemy and communicate that is the starting point.
This article was first published on 1828.