“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” – George Orwell, 1984.
A Labour MP is reproved for urging his leader to “call off the dogs”, because he is thereby comparing party activists to animals. A police force urges people to report remarks that they find offensive, even if these are not criminal. A Conservative MP is assailed by colleagues because he compares the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan to a suicide vest. Why the cultural shift? Whatever happened to free speech? How come the blanket of snowflakes seems not so much knee as neck-high?
ConservativeHome suspects that there are three main reasons. First, diversity. A uniform society is less stimulating to live in than our diverse one. But it has shared assumptions, values, habits – some good, some bad. When these break down, the state steps in. Hence the long procession of legislation stretching back in modern times to the Race Relations Act and, arguably, the Sex Discrimination Act. On balance, we think life today is better than life yesterday, but there are downsides. For example, the main gainers from some aspects of diversity are richer people. Many poorer ones believe that they have lost out from mass immigration – one of the drivers of the EU referendum result. Neighbourliness becomes more difficult when people don’t speak the same language, not only literally but metaphorically: the imaginative gulf between trans activists and older feminists is a vivid recent example. And then there is the paradox that a minority of the gainers from diversity want to destroy it: consider the radical Islamist who wants Muslim-majority areas to live under pre-modern law.
We cite the Sex Discrimination Act above, but to do so is in one sense misleading. Women are not a minority: they are roughly half the population. This leads us to our second reason, which we advance with a touch of hesitation. It is a commonplace of social science that men approach life in a more competitive and less collaborative way than women. And the rise of women in business, law, politics, the media, unions, sport, theatre and so on over the last 50 years is unmissable, whatever discrimination may persist. Does that have a knock-on effect on the type of language that is publicly acceptable? Are women less comfortable with aggressive, chest-thumping and bombastic rhetoric than men? We suspect so, and see this cultural shift as a soft constraint on public discourse. This is not altogether a bad thing. No restraint whatsoever has its downsides, as we will see.
Third, there is the rise of the new technology and social media. In a way, Twitter, for example, is a vehicle for the revenge of the dispossessed – especially men. The sheer speed of the medium, and the consequent reflex of users that they can say whatever they like without legal comeback, boosted by the anonymity of some accounts, means that people tweet in a way they wouldn’t usually speak (in public, anyway). Racism, threats of violence, abuse, anti-semitism, sexism: all are alive and flourishing on social media. Politicians of all parties feel the consequences – some of the language hurled at left-wing MPs is shocking – but those on the right clearly get the brunt of it. Conservative women are a special target for self-righteous left-wing men. There is a powerful undercurrent of sexism, or at least misogyny, in the abuse hurled at Nadine Dorries or Esther McVey. (The front-bench career of a right-wing politician would not have survived suggesting that a left-wing one should be lynched, as John McDonnell’s has survived his nod at such treatment for McVey.) No wonder some Tory women – such as Victoria Atkins, the Home Office Minister – have come off Twitter altogether.
The unruliness and viciousness of social media feeds further calls for crackdowns on what can and can’t be said publicly: there is a kind of feedback loop. In these circumstances, politics, in its broadest sense, kicks in. One can argue back and forth whether a prominent politician, such as Boris Johnson, should use suicide vests as a metaphor. But that it is not why a big slice of his critics go after him. They like neither him nor his pro-Leave view, and want to constrain his political room for manoeuvre. Chuka Umanna was on firmer ground than Johnson, because he was using a commonplace – “call off the dogs”, doubtless without thinking too much about it. Again, however, real outrage at what he said will have been less common than not. After all, many left-wing Corbyn backers have called their opponents far worse things on social media than dogs. No, the aim is to shut Umanna up – and warn other opponents of the Labour leadership that their cards are marked.
The forces of proportion and reason are not powerless. Every time a police force, such as South Yorkshire’s, urges the reporting of non-criminal remarks, the local Police Commissioner (where is he, by the way, in this case?) and the Home Secretary should be on their backs. What resources have been expended on the campaign? How much police time has been spent recording remarks that may be unpleasant but are not illegal? What local crimes have therefore been unpursued that local people feel genuinely enraged about?
But the main challenge to our culture can’t be met by laws, by the naming and shaming of errant police forces, or by government action. Both neo-nazis and the far left potentially gain from the feedback loop – the vitriol on social media, or carefully-confected outrage at the words of a politician, which in turn lead to further formal or informal restrictions on free expression. But the neo-nazis are a fringe force in Britain, and without a significant presence in electoral politics. The far left, by contrast, are taking over a mainstream political party.
Their aim is not to debate their opponents, such as Umanna. Rather, it is, in the short-term, to delegitimise them and, in the longer, to delegitimise their ideas. As so often, Orwell got to the heart of the matter. What you can’t express you can scarcely think: words vanish, to be replaced by impulses at the edge of apprehension: “Shape without form, shade without colour, / paralysed force, gesture without motion”.
Frank Field – a real champion of the poor, a lifetime anti-Tory, but none the less the target for the hard left haters – is associated with “thinking the unthinkable”. We mean no disrespect to him by pointing out that one can’t think the unthinkable: if something is unthinkable, then it can’t be thought, after all.
But one can unthink the thinkable. It happens, over time, in communist and fascist tyrannies. Concepts die out: mildness, humility, mercy, temperance, magnanimity. Or, worse, they are twisted out of shape: so loyalty, for example, so easily categorised simply as a virtue, becomes a vice, as loyalty to race or class or the Dear Leader is moulded into an absolute. Nor is the West immune. When “values” trump virtues, after all, how can a liberal democrat persuade a suicide bomber that his own worldview is better?