You have to go back to Victorian England to find a match for the neurotic prudishness of contemporary culture. The BBC refuses to call Islamic State “Islamic State”, even though “Islamic State in the Levant” is its name. Instead of reporting neutrally, the broadcaster breaks its own rules against editorialising by pretending that religious terror has nothing to do with religion and calling it “so-called Islamic State”, to avoid offence.
The BBC is hardly alone. Everyone everywhere apologises to everyone else. Everyone demands the banning of everyone else. Societies where citizens bite their tongues and retract honestly-meant statements are neither particularly free nor particularly happy. And I don’t think our one will last.
However insulting the trigger warnings, the bans, the no-platforms, the demands for censorship are, their insistence suggests that a self-defeating variant of liberalism is approaching a terminal nervous breakdown.
You can argue about whether to call our culture post-modern, multicultural or politically correct. But its fatal contradictions ought to be beyond dispute. It was driven by the notion that a “rainbow coalition” of groups marginalised by straight white men deserved to be championed: women, gays, ethnic minorities. The alert among you will have noticed the first problem. There is no mention of class. An unemployed ex-miner coughing his guts up in a South Yorkshire council flat may be white, male and straight, but he is not more privileged than a female CEO, let alone a kleptomaniac politician in a post-colonial African state. Yet both the capitalist and the dictator can pose as victims and enjoy a global narrative that casts the sick old man as an oppressor.
Enormous consequences have flowed from the failure to think about economics. Across the developed world, Donald Trump and the European far-right parties are gratefully seizing on the lie that the white working class is by definition oppressive, and are busily detaching it from the Left.
A further difficulty is everywhere evident but hardly ever discussed. There is a distinction between believing in the value of anti-racism, say, or women’s rights, and defending a marginalised group regardless of what those who purport to speak for it say or do. Bertrand Russell’s “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed” floors you if you cannot grasp it.
What if the oppressed are not virtuous? What if a favoured group is the victim of racism one moment but sexist and homophobic the next? What if the rainbow coalition isn’t a coalition at all, but a collection of people of wildly different interests? What happens, in other words, when the colours of the rainbow clash?
The refusal to stick to principle and be against racism whoever the racist is, or be in favour of women’s rights regardless of whether the woman is white, brown or black, accounts for the hysteria on today’s middle-class Left. Feminists are banned as “whorephobes” or “transphobes”. Liberal Asians are derided as “house Muslims” and “native informants”. Jews are baited as “Zios”. Gay men are told they no longer suffer from the right kind of oppression.
Who’s in, who’s out? Who’s up, who’s down? Left-wing politics has become like office politics with everyone scrambling to maintain or improve their places in the hierarchy. To me the need to stick with values rather than arbitrary identities is so obvious I am surprised I have had to argue the point. It has, however, taken a hellishly long time to convince others. But maybe minds are changing now.
Channel 4’s What British Muslims Really Think could not have been made five years ago. It was properly scrupulous, going to great lengths to explain how its polls were not like the cowboy surveys the newspapers print, but conducted with expensive face-to-face interviews to minimise error. It was presented by Trevor Phillips, a former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission — a man it is hard to accuse of racism. It did not treat Muslims as a homogenous block, but emphasised, to coin a phrase, their “diversity”.
Yet it was still profoundly alarming. There is a large block of around a million British citizens with a profoundly illiberal interpretation of Islam which treats basic human rights with scorn. You can tick them off the checklist. About one in three British Muslims think it acceptable to have more than one wife. A little more, 39 per cent, think that wives should always obey their husbands — compared with just 5 per cent of the rest of the population. As for gay rights, only one in five Muslims thinks that homosexuality should be legal compared to four in five members of the wider public. As for racism, 35 per cent of British Muslims think Jews have too much power compared to 9 per cent non-Muslims.
Respect for freedom of speech was hard to find: 87 per cent say that there should be no right to make fun of the Prophet. And 4 per cent favoured outright violence.
There is no evidence that bigoted attitudes are dying out. In Britain, as in the rest of the world, the young are as likely to be bigots as the old. The more segregated the lives of British Muslims, the more likely they were to support violence.
This programme would not have been broadcast until recently because of fears of encouraging white racism. It is not an entirely disreputable way to think, even though it contradicts the journalistic duty to tell it like it is. I have good Muslim friends who are thoroughly secular but fear that any discussion of religious fanaticism will just encourage their white enemies.
Against them Channel 4 gave us Elham Manea, a Swiss Yemeni academic who put the case against turning a blind eye better than I ever could. She did not think it politically correct to tolerate cultures where husbands could tell wives, “If you don’t behave in a way that suits me, I will simply get another woman. If you get sick, I will get another woman. If you can’t have children, I’ll get another woman.” Or to allow sharia courts which have a “Taliban” interpretation of Islam to impose their verdicts on British citizens.
It is a sign of how corrupt our culture has become that it thinks it “liberal” to tolerate the oppression that shocks Manea and to denounce her and men and women like her as “Islamophobes”. The day will come when that corruption will sink it. Let us hope it is soon.