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Feminist old guard: “Women Against Pornography” march on  Times Square, New York, in 1979 (image: Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

For years a few of us have warned that modern “liberals” would live to regret abandoning the principle that you should only censor speech when it incited violence. We would enjoy our vindication if the unravelling of progressive assumptions was not so extraordinarily menacing.

Political correctness is eating itself. It is abandoning its children, and declaring them illegitimate. It is shouting down activists who once subscribed to its doctrines and turning its guns on its own. Women are suffering the most, as they always do. “Radical feminist” is now an insult on many campuses. Fall into that pariah category, and your opponents will ban you if they can and scream you down if they cannot.

It is tempting to say “serves you right” or “I told you so” to the feminists on the receiving end of the new intolerance. But you will not understand how Western societies have become so tongue-tied and hypocritical unless you understand the human desires behind the feminists’ original urge to suppress, which now lie behind their enemies’ desire to suppress them.

A generation ago, a faction within Western feminism campaigned to ban pornography. They believed it caused harm by inciting men to rape, but couldn’t prove it. Despite decades of research, no one has been able to show that pornography brutalises otherwise peaceful men. So they added the argument that sexual fantasy should be banned because it spread harmful stereotypes that polluted society. Unfortunately, for them, they could not substantiate that claim beyond reasonable doubt either.

“You have no identity, no personality, you are a collection of appealing body parts,” the American law professor Catharine MacKinnon told her followers in the 1980s. Pornography ensured women were assessed only by their looks. It “strips women of credibility, from our accounts of sexual assault to our everyday reality of sexual subordination. We are reduced and devalidated and silenced.”

For all its faults, America has the First Amendment, which protects free speech and freedom of the press. The US Supreme Court duly struck down an ordinance MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted for Indianapolis City Council in 1984 which would have allowed women who could say they were harmed by pornography to sue. It might have killed the law but it did not kill the movement. The impulse behind the original demands drives campaigns against sexist advertising and naked women in tabloids to this day.

Even if you think, as I do, that a wing of feminism degenerated into a puritanism not too far away from the God-given puritanism of the Christian Right, you should accept that debates about free speech are unavoidably ferocious because the urge to suppress is not some feminist peculiarity but a near universal desire.

When he drafted his “harm principle”, which placed liberal limits on speech, John Stuart Mill considered the case of corn merchants. They were the bankers of the mid-19th century, hated and feared by the poor. Radical agitators denounced them for hoarding grain and forcing the masses to choose between inflated prices and starvation. Conservatives feared riot and revolution, and wanted to protect the social order by silencing the agitators. Mill said they could censor only if radicals were inciting a mob to commit a crime: to burn down a corn merchant’s house, or attack him in the street. Incitements aside, radical journalists should be free to write and say what they wanted. Their opponents could test their ideas, and mock, expose and refute them. They could use all the weapons a free society offered to change the public’s mind, but they could not use the law to asphyxiate debate, because in the silence that followed a dreadful conformism would set in.

To a woman struggling to be treated equally and taken seriously, Mill’s permissiveness must appear next to useless. All around her, society allows images of women as lumps of meat whose sole purpose is to be enjoyed by men. They thwart her hopes and challenge her sense of who she is and what she may become. But according to Mill, she cannot stop them unless she can prove that pornography and sexualised films and advertising are inciting harm. Why should she accept a bar raised so high she can never jump it? Why should she spend years arguing for men to change, when state power could give her what she wanted in a moment?

The same applies to a black man confronted with the everyday racism of parts of the Right, or a Jew confronted with the everyday racism of Islamists and parts of the Left, or a gay man worried about homophobia or a Muslim frightened of Islamophobia. They don’t want to be told they can ban speech only if a speaker urges his audience to attack a mosque or a gay bar or a synagogue. They feel the hurt of prejudice right now, and have no time to argue.

I will go further and say that, regardless of colour or creed, most people who have suffered from insults have wanted their abuser silenced, even if what he said was true—especially if what he said was true.

The American legal philosopher Joel Feinberg attacked Mill by saying that we feel offence like a wound. You only have to think about the hurt from slights that have stayed with you longer than the pain from a broken bone to see the truth in his argument. Societies and individuals feel disgust, revulsion, shock, shame and embarrassment when they hear views that don’t physically harm them, Feinberg said in the 1980s. They can and should replace Mill’s “harm principle” with his “offence principle”—that the law can stop speech that causes serious offence.

Feinberg’s mild authoritarianism buttressed the illiberal version of liberalism that flourishes to this day. It supports the laws against “hate speech” which may not be so hateful it provokes its audience to violence, but is still grossly offensive. It provides the philosophical justification for the incessant Twitter storms and media fits about “gaffes”, “misspeaks”, or to use a modern phrase that reeks of the Victorian drawing-room, “inappropriate language”.

Go into the modern university and you won’t hear much about Mill or Milton or the millions around the world who have had to learn the hard way why freedom of speech matters. Instead, you will be fed philosophers far less rigorous than Feinberg. The New Zealander Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor from the American university system, which churns out authoritarian philosophers the way Ford churns out cars, suggests speech that attacks the dignity of others should be banned. Stanley Fish of New York dispenses with any pretence that we should respect universal human rights, and descends into power-worship and thuggery. “The only way to fight hate speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy,” he says. “And what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out.” Take a breath and think about his assumptions. This is the tyrannical language of an illiberal intelligentsia so lost in complacency it thinks it no longer needs the rights it once championed.We don’t care if we are being consistent, it says. We have the power to censor now and we will use it.

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive?

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

In Britain the state is showing that real power does not and has never been in the hands of over-confident intellectuals. It is telling academics to report on campus Islamists, even when they are not engaged in violence. “Thank you very much,” the politicians seem to be saying to the illiberal philosophers, the organisers of blacklists, and the intellectuals who dismissed free speech as an illusion. “If you say you can ban speakers even though they are not provoking violence, we can demand that you spy on Islamist students, even though they are not violent either.”

All of a sudden and with a blackly comic haste, British academics are scrambling to rediscover the virtue of freedom of speech, a liberty they spent a generation denigrating. All of a sudden. And much too late.

No, no, no, the liberals protest. We never wanted to spy and censor on behalf of the powerful, but on behalf of the powerless. But again how are they to judge the loss of dignity that can justify criminal penalties? Perhaps the vehemence of the offence taken is the decisive factor. Maybe if the offended can prove that they are shocked beyond measure, they would provide legitimate grounds to censor. If so, we must give in to Islamists, who feel the hurt of blasphemy so keenly they will murder anyone they deem to have blasphemed. Many have given in and bowed to a blasphemy code enforced at gunpoint. If they were being consistent, they would have to back down if Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Scientologists, Satanists and atheists followed suit and started murdering the authors of unpleasant depictions of their beliefs. If conservatives could prove that the discussion of left-wing ideas incited pain, or left-wingers could say the same about right-wing ideas, they would presumably have to take the logical step of deciding that political argument was offensive too.

Identity politics and the demands for freedom from offence it breeds create a Hobbesian world where everyone can demand the censorship of everyone else. There is no better proof of this than the fate of the politically correct themselves.

Strip away the appearance of a solid ideology, and you see the contradications. The tendency of the modern liberal-left to excuse radical Islam is supported by the politically correct belief that liberals should support a religion of the disadvantaged. In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian. Their political correctness has turned their principles inside out, and led them to abandon their beliefs in female and homosexual equality.

But the difficulties in pretending there are no conflicts between groups are as nothing compared to the pretence that there are no conflicts within them. Michael Ezra, a friend who is researching the growth of the illiberal intelligentsia, says that he is constantly reminded of Trotsky’s warning about the Bolshevik party’s claim that it represented the working class. A rapid descent follows, Trotsky said: “The organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.” Or in the case of feminist identity politics the people with the loudest voices substitute themselves for an entire gender.

Until the 1990s, the loudest voices in feminism belonged to those who wanted to ban pornography and prostitution, and believed that a biological gulf separated men and women. Today they are being shouted down by rival feminists who believe that to deny sex workers the right to work is to display “whorephobic” prejudice, and to set limits to womanhood is to display “transphobic” bigotry
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Before they will allow a feminist a hearing, she must answer a question that was barely asked 30 years ago: how do you define a woman? If she gets that wrong, she’s finished.

The old feminists did not accept that men who have undergone sex reassignment treatment were women. Their point wasn’t just theoretical. They asked whether a transwoman should deal with women who have been raped, or be allowed into women’s prisons or changing-rooms. What if she had just had hormone replacement therapy and not full sex reassignment surgery? What, to put it bluntly, if she still had a penis?

As with pornography, the hurt caused was real. Feminists were questioning transwomen’s identities and hopes. The pain was hardly insufferable, however. It is not as if there is an organised feminist campaign against transsexual women. In a sign of an age when identity politics has gone haywire, censorship is not provoked by a comprehensive attack but by an offending passage in an article or book written years ago.

One of the banned, Julie Bindel, has done more to help rape victims than any British activist I know. Her work counts for nothing. Every time she tries to speak on any subject, trans campaigners and their supporters try to stop her. For years, they had her on a National Union of Students blacklist. All because she wrote a piece in 2004 that disparaged a transsexual who had gone to the courts to demand the right to counsel raped women, even though she had recently been a man herself.

Neither Bindel nor anyone else I know on the British Left excuses attacks on transsexuals. No matter. Feminists are now denounced as the equivalent of racist bigots: the Ku Klux Klan in sensible shoes.

A writer in the left-wing New Statesman described the frenzy thus:

    A US women’s college recently announced it would be discontinuing its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues: it’s exclusionary to talk about vaginas when some women do not have one. Last year a trans activist on Twitter denounced feminist campaigns against FGM as “cissexist”. Discussions of menstruation, pregnancy and abortion rights are all regularly interrupted by the same complaint.


The journalist did not dare publish under her own name. She hid behind a pseudonym to spare her from having to spend the next decade dodging demands that she be “no-platformed”.

Proponents of banning feminists justify their censorship with a notion that so infantilises adults it should be laughed to scorn. In America and Britain, universities say they must keep students “safe” from ideas that might upset them. The University of Bristol says every student should be free “from intimidation or judgment . . . free from having one’s culture and beliefs questioned”. Index on Censorship cites the example of Bolton University, which says that there are subjects so unsafe they cannot be discussed: animal experimentation, the sexual abuse of children and paedophilia, and, inevitably, any topic “where the subject matter might be considered to be of a blasphemous nature”.

Mary Whitehouse and the American moral majority wanted to stop broadcasters from “pumping filth into our homes”. Today’s student leaders are their successors. The president of the Cambridge Union simpers that a university is a “home” where students should feel comfortable and safe. It has never occurred to him that universities are not, or should not be, anything like a home. Higher education is meant to take students away from the prejudices and certainties of their childhood home, and challenge the ideas they learned from their parents. If students cannot handle the challenge without crying that they feel unsafe, they should not be at university in the first place. If universities refuse to challenge them, I wonder about their usefulness too.

We have gone from the principle that only speech that incites crime can be banned to the principle that speech that incites gross offence can be banned to the principle that speech that provokes discomfort can be banned. This is not so much a slippery slope as a precipitous drop.

Many want to take the plunge. A few weeks ago, 130 intellectuals wrote to the Observer to make the classic case for freedom of speech. They said that feminists critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists were being banned because the prevailing consensus was that the mere “presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety. You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic.”

Who could possibly object to that, I thought.

Just about everyone, it turned out. Hundreds of other intellectuals replied in the next issue of the Observer. They made the counterfeit claim that being “no-platformed” by student groups was not an attack on free speech. They went on to confuse support for free speech with support for the speaker—the tactic of every grand dictator and little Hitler in history—and implied that standing up for open debate meant the letter’s signatories were indeed “transphobes” and “whorephobes”. Extreme though their reaction was, it was nothing when set against the reaction of online activists.

The indomitable gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is a hard man to frighten. He has fought homophobic vigilantes and Robert Mugabe’s security guards. But even Tatchell was unnerved by the 4,000 abusive Twitter messages he received for putting his name to the Observer letter. His abusers denounced him as a “homo”, “foreigner”, “misogynist”, “paedophile” and “nutter”. One correspondent informed him that “I would like to tweet about your murder you fucking parasite.” So much for the safety of those who seek to challenge “safe spaces”.

Electoral calculation ought to stop left-wingers allowing conservatives to own the inspiring idea of freedom of speech. If they could only see how they appear to others, they would understand that the people they are trying to convert tend to suspect those who would tell them what to say and how to say it. Many who should be open to radical arguments will turn away because they associate the Left with the silencing of contrary views and the imposition of orthodoxy. Above all, left-wingers need to grasp that speech codes and blacklists do not produce social change but a hypocritical observance of conventional pieties.

If they doubt it, they should look at how the willingness of governments and corporations to make the minor concession of following PC language rules in no way stops them from slashing public services or exploiting workers. They should see what is wrong with a country where you can get away with any amount of cruelty as long as you don’t use “inappropriate” language. If they examine history, they would realise the dangers they face. The first wave of political correctness came in the early 1990s, when the American Left was on its knees after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and triumph of capitalism. So risible was its condition, its chosen candidate for the US presidency was Bill Clinton, a shifty politician of no fixed conviction who had been pretty much bought by Wall Street. With no possibility of changing the world, campus radicals retreated into themselves and decided to change the university instead.

Now they are in retreat again. Despite the Crash, the Occupy movement has fizzled out, and the American Left’s apparent candidate is Hillary Clinton, a shifty politician of no fixed conviction, who has been pretty much bought by Wall Street. And with today’s retreat come all the 1990s’ problems of speaking in private PC codes, which are as alien to ordinary voters as Nancy Mitford’s U and Non-U English. With the retreat comes the pathetic insistence on reforming language rather than reforming society, and the old seductive delusion that you can censor your way to a better tomorrow.

The rest of the population should worry about the future too. The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities which teach that free debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a free one.

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Anonymous
March 26th, 2015
10:03 PM
I guess I'll side with the radical feminists if my other choice is having to subscribe to the view that pornography isn't a cancer on society.

Duke
March 26th, 2015
10:03 PM
Mr. Cohen, an excellent article with streaks of wonderful prose. One minor point, I was not entirely clear whether certain of your references to 'feminists' meant the traditional equal-rights types or the present-day censors who wield 'inappropriate language' accusations as a cudgel. But per your first paragraph, I am enjoying my vindication as the radical left eats itself because I see the illiberal censors exerting diminished influence in the future rather than running society as you warn.

Anonymous
March 26th, 2015
10:03 PM
Wow, what an epic fail that 1970s anti-pornography activism has been

JohnnyL
March 26th, 2015
9:03 PM
You have a mistake with your opening paragraphs. It isn't that radical feminists are being shouted down on campuses but rather they have been left behind by feminists that are even more radical. These new radicals now are in control of most women's studies departments.

Sean Bandnerere
March 26th, 2015
6:03 PM
Most of those in Europe today that are actively pushing censorship and a curtailing of free speech are on the left.

Anonymous
March 26th, 2015
4:03 PM
Thank you for this important article

Dean Walsh
March 26th, 2015
3:03 PM
Such corruption in people's hearts, such hatred for truth and beauty. Its interesting that you start with feminists' attitudes towards pornography in the introduction since this was, as far as I can tell, nothing but the demonization of male sexuality - such hatred of men that the idea of a man finding a women sexually attractive is viewed as inherently abusive. This kind of thing is the ultimate end point of that - facism disguised as anti-facism, hatred of everyone apart from those who fit into a pre-approved box which someone can tick. It makes me worry that genuine facism is the only cure capable of getting rid of this disease. A few days ago I was in an office building and there was a big poster saying how they are offering career support courses to help 'BAME' employee progress within the organisation (this was a department of HMRC if you're interested). I imagined what it would be like to be a white worker at that office, knowing that my colleges were getting special treatment from the bosses to help them get promotions, and that I wouldn't be eligable for it just because I had the wrong colour skin. I bet the same employees then have to sit through sanctimonious, patronizing, and offensive 'diversity training'. It is the same thing - the worst racism this country has ever seen masquerading as anti-racism, the worst sexism we have ever seen masquerading as gender equality, religious intolerence and extremism posing as relgious freedom. Its almost bad enough to make me religious myself, because: Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again, but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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