Defeat begets defeat for Britain’s cloth-eared Left

The censorious culture of the liberal Left is hostile to freedom of expression. The fate of the trans-rights movement evinces this pointless politics

Nick Cohen

The central political fact of our time is the defeat of the Left. Whether they are radical leftists or centre-leftists, liberal internationalists or neo-Stalinists, what binds them together is their experience of failure. In Britain, the United States, and virtually every country in what we used to call the West, to be on the Left is to be a loser.

When you lose, you should not change everything. If British opponents of conservatism were to embrace Boris Johnson’s Brexit, they would be surrendering rather than adapting. Rather than give up entirely, you show you are serious about expanding your movement’s appeal by performing a mental triage. You ask, what essential policies must I keep at all costs because to lose them would be to lose my political identity? What do I want to hang on to but am prepared to sacrifice if necessary? And what must I ditch for causing me needless harm? You make a utilitarian calculation, in other words, and ask of everything you once believed: “Is it worth it?”

In Britain, I see nothing of the kind happening, even though the liberal Left has lost four elections and one referendum. There are no hard questions. No one is taking out the rubbish. Culture matters more than individual policies. Indeed, the silence can be in part explained by the culture of the liberal Left, or at least of its dominant voices, which inoculates it against self-criticism at the same time as it repels potential supporters. To generalise, and you cannot write clearly without generalisation, leftish culture is hugely hostile to freedom of expression and freedom of thought. It is censorious and inquisitorial, and assumes the worst of everyone who opposes it. People who live within the leftish culture are both vicious and frightened. They attack with mobbish relish, and accuse all who contradict them of being motivated by personal wickedness and prejudice.  The apparently self-confident aggression is matched by the fear that the denunciations they throw at others will be thrown at them. Self-criticism is hard in a culture where accusations of treason and selling out follow deviations from orthodox thinking.

A games designer, who caused grim hilarity among my disillusioned leftish circles, inadvertently encapsulated all that was wrong in a couple of tweets. “If (cis) men are finally going to be washing their hands properly,” she said of the coronavirus, “we’re going to have to introduce them to hand cream and try and convince them it’s okay to use it.” It was a lame but hardly novel observation that men are slobs. Notice, however, how carefully she makes it clear that she is only abusing cis men not trans men. (And if you don’t know what “cis men” means you damn yourself as a transphobe and probable racist.) But hold on. The terrible thought occurred to her that she might be open to criticism for white supremacy. She quickly added: “You know what this should definitely have read ‘white’ cis men, imma not about to whitesplain moisturising to black and brown folks.”

Imagine living with that neurotic combination of arrogance and dread. Imagine even wanting to live with it. What free woman or man would ever willingly sign up for a life in this abject culture?

The Left’s tactics in the culture wars are a remarkably self-defeating species of self-abuse that succeeds only in pleasuring its enemies. Its supporters know this, but cannot admit it plainly.

‘In Britain, the United States, and virtually every country in what we used to call the West, to be on the Left is to be a loser’

The ugliest  political neologism is “weaponise”.  Originally a military term, it now means a criticism you have no convincing answer to. The conservative thinker Jordan Peterson condemned his opponents for seeking to “weaponise compassion” by using concern for others as an excuse to pursue egalitarian politics.  What he did not say, of course, is that the willingness of conservatives to ignore the suffering of others was one of the main reasons their opponents detested them. Of the identical complaints from the Left about the weaponisation of freedom of speech by the Right, let one, from Victor Ray, an American sociology professor, stand for them all. “It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate,” he wrote in Inside Higher Education. “The Right has weaponised free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.”

Look at how battlefield imagery traps you. Criticism becomes a lethal weapon in the hands of an enemy who “threatens violence”—a spectre that is still raised even though the classical liberal justification for free speech prohibits incitement to violence. The naivety of complaints of “weaponising” is as striking as their ugliness. It is as if the sight of political opponents looking for weaknesses and exploiting them was shocking. As if it were somehow an underhand tactic to highlight an opponent’s mistakes. By default, so that the casual listener would not notice, the liberal Left admits the mistake, but instead of seeking to rectify it, blames the “bad faith” of the Right for revealing its faults.

It would do better to ask why the Right has done its own cost-benefit analysis and concluded that opposition to freedom of speech is a weakness worth attacking. The question answers itself—or at least it would if it were ever asked.

Censors look awful. They look like they cannot handle argument. They look narrow-minded. They look menacing and over-mighty because they demand power over the minds of others. Ask yourself would you respect a movement or individual who said: “If you disagree with me, I will shame and ridicule you until you recant. And if you persist, I will try to force your employer to fire you or the police to arrest you”. Would you join that movement or vote for its candidate at election time?

The fate of the trans-rights movement provides a practical illustration of the self-defeating politics of self-abuse. In 2018, even a Conservative government was willing to propose a Gender Recognition Act that made it easier for men to identify as women and vice versa. The existing procedures were time-consuming and expensive. Reforming the law seemed a modest remedy. Feminists raised doubts. The abuse the trans-rights movement directed at them sabotaged a cause whose victory seemed guaranteed. Trans-rights activists have banned women from speaking out, and closed their meetings. Liberal newspapers have come under sinister pressure to silence dissident writers. The Labour Party has considered the outlawing of “trans-exclusionist hate groups”. Death and rape threats abound. Trans-rights activists stopped questions that were reasonable, or at least sounded reasonable to the majority of people. To raise them was to be “transphobic”. To ask what was to stop a male sexual predator declaring he was a woman and gaining access to women’s prisons and changing rooms, was to mark yourself as an irredeemable bigot, unworthy of a public platform. To wonder why doctors were allowing teenagers with learning difficulties to receive irreversible medical interventions for psychological conditions was not to display a knowledge of the grim history of eugenics, sterilisations and lobotomies—irreversible medical interventions that were also advocated, incidentally, by doctors who claimed they were acting from enlightened motives—but to display your irrational hatreds.

The effect was frightening but also futile. The trans debate is about tiny numbers of people. It ought to be possible to answer difficult questions and reach accommodations. Faced with boycotts and threats rather than answers, the Westminster government has backed away from reform. Nicola Sturgeon’s more progressive Scottish administration is looking nervous about changing the law and millions of women think that the Left wants to send rapists into their safe spaces.

For what? For the witch-hunter’s pleasure in burning a victim? For the priggish self-righteousness that comes from never compromising or admitting compromise may ever be necessary? I am not saying that the Left is worse than the Right—the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal are as much an intellectually closed space as any sociology department. But if you keep losing, if you are powerless, the faults that keep you from power matter more. At a bare minimum, the censorious Left ought to remember it is not in power and that the dominant Right can take its arguments against free thought and use them as a weapon of its own.

It ought to ponder too that, throughout history, demands for free expression have been made by the powerless and been resisted by the powerful. Only in our times do we see the powerless forge the fetters that might bind them.

The liberal Left can be so hostile to freedom of speech because in large areas of Balkanised modern societies it is in power, or feels as if it is. If you work in the arts, universities, charities or the public sector, the illusions of a bubble mentality flourish. Most people agree with you—or pretend to agree with you for the sake of their career or desire for a quiet life—and those who do not can be shamed or punished until they bend their miserable heads and shuffle into line. The cynical saying that “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small” reflects the truth that the power to ban is the only power they have. Censorship is a symptom of a defeat of a political movement that can no longer aspire to govern countries but seeks only to govern itself. The littleness of the ambition is as good a reason as any to object to it. You insist I say “person of colour” instead of “black,” do you. And I must learn to say “LGBTQIA+” instead of “lesbian and gay”. OK, if it makes you happy, but do you really think any of this makes a difference? Have you not yet learned that you do not change the world by changing language with orders from above?  Irony, sarcasm and hyperbole will always undermine your diktats and turn your meanings against you, while potential supporters will resent your attempts to boss them about and move to your opponents’ side.

Two dismal consequences flow from the liberal Left’s authoritarian turn. The first is that without dictatorial state power at its disposal no political movement can close down debate.  Platform bans and speech codes work only in small worlds. At best, the BBC and the arts will be silenced. Even then, debates do not stop, they just move elsewhere. If the liberal Left will not talk about, for instance, radical Islam, then the Right will and will set the terms of engagement.

More seriously, if you do not argue with your opponents you do not learn how to beat them. The campaign against Brexit was so disastrous for Britain because its supporters failed to grasp the appeal of nationalism. Brexit was such a self-evidently stupid idea they saw no need to combat the anti-European Right as it grew in power. They did not sit on stages with the nationalists, learn their weak points, and judge from the murmurs of the audience which pro-European arguments worked and which did not. Not until it was too late.

How much later are opponents of conservatism prepared to leave it? One more election loss, two, three? Or can no defeat hammer the notion into their bubble heads that they must change.   

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