We now live in a world where to be offended is considered a legitimate argument. Where people can be convicted for uttering an opinion which goes against the prevailing wisdom or questioning something that someone would prefer not to be questioned. I have railed in previous articles against the phenomenon of de-platforming people for no crime other than they may utter something which may cause upset to someone in the audience. We are losing exactly what it is that made Western Civilisation a bastion of free thought, innovation and philosophy. All great ideas began as blasphemies.
If you put out your ideas into the world, if you publicly proclaim support for a cause or an idea whether that be political, social, spiritual or anything else you are opening yourself up to critique and challenge. You cannot expect, as many people now seem to, to be able to pump out some of the most vapid and vile views into the world and have them go unchallenged. There is a fundamental difference between fact and opinion and they are not equal in terms of weight. My opinion is not worth as much as your fact and vice versa and you cannot have personal facts. ‘It is true to me’ is an irrelevance if you are reporting it as fact to the world.
This has been something that has been building for a long time now and it is seemingly coming from those on the left of the political spectrum. I consider myself to be left wing, far left wing in terms of social policies but I am also a free speech purist and supporter of individual liberty. In that regard my political position would be best classified as Left Libertarian. I believe in social medicine, I believe in representative democracy and I believe that government should be there to care for those most in need and strive to create an equality of opportunity and fairer distribution of wealth where possible; I have mentioned before that I do not think it fair that because of genetic factors such as intelligence or ability to perform tasks deemed desirable by the current society should determine the quality of life you have. Work ethic is something that can be learned, if you are lazy and leeching off others then of course you shouldn’t have the same quality of life as them, but if you are trying as hard as you can and performing at the maximum level of your genetically determined abilities then you should not suffer. Genetics is about luck and societal desires. That is an aside to the main point of this article but I felt it important to clarify that I am not coming at this from the point of view of a Right wing anti-Left commentator but as someone concerned about what is happening within my own ‘group’.
The Left has traditionally been on the side of the minority in any given situation. They have supported the downtrodden, the needy and those without a voice. The social reforms in the UK bear this out, it was Labour who brought in equal rights legislation for Homosexuality, equal pay legislation for women, race relations acts, the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State amongst many others. It is worth noting that the Representation of the People Act 1925 which gave women over 21 equal voting rights as men was brought in by a Conservative government but in the main such things have been the vestige of the Left. This is by and large a good thing but in modern times this urge to be on the side of the minority has led to many within the Left wing viewing people as homogenous groups rather than as individuals. They have taken on board ideas of identity politics with regard to minority groups and have deigned to speak for them all at once, as though the people within those groups are defined only by one characteristic, be that race, religion, sexuality. This in turn has led to the new wave of left wing activists who see their role to be that of custodians of morality, you know the kind, the keyboard warriors who seek out any statement that could be taken in any way on an emotional level and demand grovelling apologies from those who have dared to utter said opinion.
My issue with all of this is not that people’s feelings are irrelevant, far from it. Those trolls who will find people who for example, offer their thoughts and prayers to those affected by a natural disaster and who (I have seen this) then receive a tirade of anti-religious and often racist rhetoric. This is patently unacceptable and the hurt that that person will feel is justified, they were, in their own small way, trying to improve things in a way they felt best for those afflicted. That kind of abuse needs to be challenged and stopped.
However, then we move on to the people who, for example, quote Leviticus on Gay Pride posts in order to express their view that homosexuality is evil and immoral. The poster can make the argument that the open celebration of homosexuality is offensive to them due to their hard-line religious views, but offence has to be taken, not given. It is not an argument to suggest that because of something you believe others should change their behaviour, particularly when it is harming no-one else. For the purposes of this argument I will only point out here that people who engage in this sort of behaviour, regardless of religious background, are selectively reading their holy books and we should be thankful as a society that this is the only thing they seem to take seriously since many of the other incitements would, if acted upon, bring about further, more widespread and unspeakable pain in our society. The issue here for those who wish to leap to the defence of the ‘minority’ then comes about which side is the most marginalised? Instinctively online activists will jump to the aid of the gay community, quite rightly in my view, as those that have suffered such discrimination throughout history and currently, however, in the present day Western world, it could be argued that the fundamentalist Christians are the ones who are the most marginalised, mocked and voiceless. In this instance to stand up for the Christian fundamentalist’s right to speak has to be recognised as important, but implicit in that acceptance is the right of everyone else to pick apart their argument. You cannot just scream ‘bigot’ at someone, that does nothing positive, engage the argument, it may be uncomfortable, it may be unpleasant and it may diversify the discussion field but that is what you have to do to take on abhorrent views.
In this example the offence was taken by someone based on their religious beliefs to something that they need not have viewed, therein lies the issue with the current trend. In the same manner as the de-platforming of speakers, the activists of today seem to think that because they find something offensive or distasteful that all others should be prevented from experiencing it. They seek out posts by people they know they disagree with, whose views they know are entirely different and opposing to their own and try to be offended in order to virtue signal to the rest of the faceless crowd. Instead of taking on arguments that they find they attempt to silence all views that go against the prevailing opinion within their circle, not only that, but they selectively ignore other issues and label them as prejudicial.
Take the state of Israel. At present there is a row exploding within the Labour Party with regard to Anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a disgusting thing, as are all forms of racism, and the party itself needs to weed out all involved and expel them from the party. That being said there have been attempts to conflate criticism of the state of Israel with notions of anti-Semitism. The Israelis are illegally occupying and building upon land that rightfully belongs to the people of Palestine. I am not here referring to the initial establishment of the state of Israel which is now established as legitimate in the eyes of the United Nations but just to the occupations and settlements in the West Bank. To criticise the actions of the state of Israel is no different than criticising the Russians for their annexing of the Crimea and yet the two are not viewed the same as Israel is a Jewish majority state and Jewish people are a minority across the world and one of the most powerful lobbies in the West but particularly in the United States. Criticism of the actions of Israel is not anti-Semitic if it focusses on legitimate criticism about the actions of a state rather than as a group of people. This has been wilfully conflated all over the world to the point where it is now seen as one and the same. This is the issue that Jeremy Corbyn is facing at the moment. Within the Labour Party there are people who hold anti-Semitic views that is true, but the recent farce whereby he was photoshopped into a car with Adolf Hitler is ludicrous. Corbyn himself is no anti-Semite but he has been critical of Israel, these two things are not the same. Note how this trend does not apply to other nations however, as previously mentioned criticism of Russia is never a problem apparently, criticism of the Saudi Arabian policy in Yemen is not labelled as anti-Islamic and criticism of North Korea is not labelled as racist against Asians. The ideas have not been conflated in the same way and nor should they be. Unfortunately, I can see the same thing happening to other groups if the current trend of Left wing apologetics and identity politics continues.
I am still disgusted by the completely inappropriate response to the Charlie Hebdo incident where people blamed the cartoonists for penning a satire, a bad satire, but satire nonetheless. As Sam Harris stated ‘People have been murdered over cartoons, end of moral analysis’. This continued on from the Danish cartoon incident where the images that people were protesting and burning down embassies in the name of were not even the images that were published. Thankfully in that case the leader of Denmark refused to issue a national apology for the cartoons. Both of these incidents show the logical end of this kind of offence taking. We have a free press, we have freedom of speech and of thought, if you don’t like something that is said, challenge it properly, if you resort to violence that does not prove your point, in fact, quite the opposite, it proves you’ve immediately hit the bottom, the last resort where words won’t work. You have lost the argument.
Offence is not an argument. That is the core here. To have freedom of speech there will necessarily be times when people are offended by what you have to say. This has been true throughout all of human history; the Vatican found Galileo’s views offensive, the British Establishment found Emmeline Pankhurst’s views offensive, the list goes on and on. Without open and frank discussion of all topics we cannot hope to move forward as a society and as a civilisation. You cannot expect to have your views aired in public and remain unchallenged. This trend is dangerous. There are many speakers and writers with whom I fundamentally disagree and yet I still like to listen to them, read what they have to say, otherwise, how can I be truly sure that what I believe is correct? When activists jump in and cry foul over statements they dislike how can then be sure that when history looks back on this time that they will be on the correct side of it? I have read books by Andrew Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos and others, I have seen the tweets of Paul Joseph Watson and others who rally to his cause. I have done this to be challenged, I have done this to see the other side and to understand why their opinions seemingly diverge so far from my own. If I were of fragile disposition I am sure that many of the things I have read and seen would have ‘offended’ me, however, instead of that I have found it to be interesting and informative. I do not agree with the politics of these people but in reading what they have to say I can form a properly rounded view of the world and understand where the ‘other side’ is coming from. That is the point of having free speech. That is what it means to be a grown up both individually and as a society. Stop crying foul because your feelings got hurt by someone challenging your publicly stated views, listen to the criticism, do some research, interrogate the facts on offer, present a counter argument and engage properly in the debate. You cannot run and hide from these things because the more you try to suppress the views and opinions of others because of a childish and pathetic emotional response you do nothing but cause those voices to get louder, more aggressive and more determined. In silencing those whose views you personally find offensive you do nothing but give a perverse credibility to their views and create echo chambers where these things (on both sides might I add) grow and become more dangerous.
Engage the argument properly and present facts, not opinions, there is no shame in admitting that you are in the wrong and changing your view in light of new evidence. Where the shame lies is in shutting down discussion because you feel that you or a group over which you have taken a patronisingly paternal interest in may be offended.
It’s time to grow up and take in all sides.