We Conservatives are quite used to being targeted by the vocal minority of people on the modern left who seek to silence us by accusing us falsely of some heresy or another. The masked thugs whom Jacob Rees-Mogg confronted were all-too typical, refusing to produce facts or to debate with any coherent argument, and preferring instead to declare him ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’, and therefore demand that he not be allowed to speak.
It’s outrageous, and wholly harmful to the practice of a free and democratic society, but for some such censorious tactics have become not just a habitual norm but an ideological imperative. At its heart it is a fusion of laziness and cowardice – those who pursue it are attempting to gain a short-cut to automatic victory by simply cutting out the right of others to take part in public life, without any risk that their ideas will be challenged or found wanting by robust opposition.
All that said, it’s something many of us on the right have become accustomed to. This is simply the latest in a long tradition of trying to deny our validity on trumped-up ideological grounds. Admittedly it’s more absurd and more pompous than many of its predecessors, but we know it for what it is and we mostly have fairly thick skins already.
It must be rather more of a shock to those on the left who find themselves targeted in this way. I wrote recently of the way that Germaine Greer of all people has found herself on the ‘wrong’ side of the latest development of identity politics, namely the self-identification of trans people. To see Greer facing protests by feminists who want her silenced is quite remarkable.
Over at Prospect magazine, there’s a must-read piece by Peter Tatchell, who is the latest target of this trend towards censorship via threat. As a lifelong champion of free speech, as well as of LGBT rights, he appears to have brought on an episode of brain-freeze on the part of Fran Cowling, the NUS’s LGBT+ officer when they were both asked to speak at Canterbury Christ Church University:
To my surprise, I was informed by the university that Cowling refused to share the stage with me, because she claimed that I was racist and transphobic. She offered no evidence of either. But her allies later claimed that I was anti-trans because I had been one of many signatories to a letter in the Observer the previous year, expressing concern that freedom of expression was being inhibited on some campuses by no-platform policies and intimidation. The letter was a defence of free speech—not an endorsement of transphobes, who I have opposed for decades.
Cowling never graced Tatchell even with an explanation of this attempt to get him dropped from the event (the magic of thought-crime is that an offender has no right to an explanation, never mind an appeal). He was left trying to deduce the shadows of Cowling’s opinions in the messages from her supporters; it appeared that by the very act of supporting free speech, Tatchell was now deemed to be hostile to trans people, and by criticising Mugabe he was supposedly racist.
It didn’t end there. By daring to ask her, privately, then publicly when she failed to respond, what he was supposed to have done wrong, he became guilty of a further, worse offence. He was deploying his “privilege” to engage in “harassment” of a “vulnerable” union official. No right to speak, no explanation of why, no right to object. Shut up and obey, unquestioningly.
In the end, the event went ahead with Tatchell, but without Cowling. That’s to his credit and her shame. But the intent of claims like this – testing and dismissing speakers by the value of whether they offend activists who are professional offence-takers – is quite clear, to silence anyone deemed non-compliant through a combination of intimidation and sophistry.
It can be successfully resisted by means of a thick skin, and Tatchell’s is thicker than most, but it inevitably will have a chilling effect on those who are less bold or in a position to be more easily threatened with professional consequences. If the NUS and others want to make us choose between free speech and their interpretation of political correctness, then we will have to make that choice: it won’t, and can’t, be the outcome they wish for.