Turning society into Room 101

‘In denial’, ‘phobic’, ‘hateful’… increasingly, certain kinds of speech are depicted as a sickness, and censorship is seen as the cure.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Censorship is entering into a dangerous new dawn. In the past, certain ideas and forms of speech were silenced on the (usually overblown) basis that they were immoral, corrupt, a threat to ‘national security’ or ‘public safety’. Today, thoughts and speech that fall foul of the mainstream are depicted as a mental defect, a pathology, a sort of virus that requires therapeutic intervention and corrective education. People are silenced because they are ‘in denial’ (of the Holocaust or climate change), or because they’re ‘phobic’ (whether Islamophobic or homophobic), or because they spread ‘hate speech’ (they’re consumed by irrational hatred). All of these new censorious categories – denial, phobia, hatefulness – speak to the pathologisation of certain ideas. Speech is increasingly depicted as a sickness, and censorship as the cure.

Those who question historical facts or contemporary consensuses are described as being ‘in denial’. This afternoon the European Union looks set to introduce a new law that will make Holocaust denial a crime punishable by a prison sentence. On one level, the term ‘Holocaust denial’ refers to the simple fact that certain scurrilous historians and skinhead gangs deny that the Nazis exterminated six million Jews. On another level, these individuals are said to be ‘in denial’ – that is, they have a mental disorder. In the past, many rightly recognised that Holocaust denial sprung from ideology; it was the deniers’ subscription to fascistic or anti-Semitic beliefs that led them to question the truth of the Holocaust. Today Holocaust denial is said to spring from psychology. One author writes of ‘the psychology of the deniers’, arguing that anyone who believes the Holocaust did not happen is ‘at base a troubled soul’ (1).

The psychologisation of certain ideas is even clearer in the discussion of ‘climate change denial’. Those who question the scientific consensus on global warming – or even the political consensus around environmentalism – are written off as ‘deniers’. And there are frequent shrill and intemperate demands that these deniers be denied public platforms. Apparently they are deluded and possibly hysterical. The Ecologist magazine has written about the ‘psychology of climate change denial’. It argues that the vast majority in society (excluding those ‘handfuls of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders’ – ie, the greens) have responded to warnings of global warming by sinking into ‘self-deception and mass denial’ (2). One online magazine, Climate Change Denial, is dedicated to analysing the public’s ‘weird and disturbed’ response to climate change (3).

When certain ideas are held to be the products of psychological disorder, then those who subscribe to them are easily sidelined. It is censorship as a form of sectioning. An individual is censured both for his own good (to cure his self-deception) and for the good of society (to protect others from falling into the pit of ‘mass denial’). This has a deadening effect on public debate. After all, what is the point of engaging with those who are ‘weird and disturbed’? Some environmentalist thinkers explicitly argue that there can be no debate with ‘climate change deniers’. The Ecologist claims that ‘denial cannot simply be countered with information…there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial.’ (4) Instead people must apparently be manipulated. In its report Warm Words, the British think-tank the IPPR argued that ‘the task of climate change agencies is not to persuade by rational argument but in effect to develop and nurture a new “common sense…. The “facts” need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.’ (5)

The labelling of those who question certain scientific claims or green policies as deniers, individuals suffering from self- or mass deception, removes the need for any meaningful debate about the politics of environmentalism. That might explain why the IPPR says climate change scepticism cannot be countered by ‘rational argument’ – because such scepticism is apparently not rational. Deniers, and the public in general, must be corrected, treated, re-educated. According to the IPPR, government officials and climate change agencies ‘need to work in a more shrewd and contemporary way, using subtle techniques of engagement’; the aim should be to ‘treat climate-friendly activity as a brand that can be sold’ as that is the only ‘route to mass behaviour changes’ (6). When critical arguments against environmentalism are emptied of their rational and political components, the result is the shutting down of debate and the manipulation of thought and behaviour.

Meanwhile, other viewpoints are chastised and censured on the grounds that they express a ‘phobia’. In particular, certain views of Islam or homosexuality are now widely referred to as ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘homophobia’. The British authorities seem singularly obsessed with combating Islamophobic ideas and speech. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 – a deeply censorious law which created an offence of ‘stirring up’ hatred against someone on the basis of their religion – was brought in largely on the back of concern about outbreaks of Islamophobia. Last year the EU passed a resolution titled ‘Homophobia in Europe’ which encouraged member states to curtail homophobia, including homophobic speech.

The redefinition of certain ideas as ‘phobic’ writes them off as irrational, even disordered. The EU resolution on homophobia describes it as ‘an irrational fear of and aversion to homosexuality and of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’ (7). And as Jane Adolphe, an associate professor of law at Ave Maria School of Law in Michigan (and an active Christian), has pointed out, phobia is a psychiatric term – and ‘thus only a doctor could determine if a set of behaviours amounted to the condition of “homophobia”.’ Increasingly it is not only spiteful or inciting speech about Islam or homosexuality that is described in this psychiatric fashion. Moral judgements and political views are also frequently labelled ‘Islamophobic’ or ‘homophobic’. In Britain, Muslim community groups label criticisms of certain Islamic practices, such as women wearing the niqab, as Islamophobic. Religious figures’ moral opposition to gay marriage is described as ‘homophobic’. Now, whatever you may think of the priests’ stance, Jane Adolphe has a point when she asks: ‘Is it phobia if you want to discuss outlawing homosexual marriages…? To suggest so is an infringement on the right to free expression.’ (8)

In the past there were ‘isms’ – racism, sexism – which many recognised as being the products of ideologies that ought to be challenged through rigorous public debate. Now there are phobias – homophobia, Islamophobia, Jewphobia (a new name for anti-Semitism), and Christophobia (a hatred of Christianity, apparently). Or there’s just ‘hatred’: restrictions on ‘hate speech’ are justified on the grounds that it is also blind and irrational. Where the era of isms recognised that people took a decision, however wrong, to be suspicious of black people or to oppose immigration or women in the workplace, the era of phobias treats prejudice and certain moral views as disorders. And thus where you might have had debate, even protests and conflict, in the era of isms, today there are only demands for censorship or re-education to cure people of their irrational way of thinking. (Ironically, homosexuality was once considered to be a mental disorder in need of correction; today, many gay activists and their supporters in government have taken on board very similar language to describe those who are critical or suspicious of homosexuality.)

The pathologisation of what are seen as unacceptable ideas emerges from today’s moral uncertainty. At a time when few can agree on what is right or wrong, when those old ideas about protecting the ‘national good’ or ‘public decency’ no longer enjoy widespread support, speech and thought tend to be curtailed at a psychological level. Individuals are no longer chastised for transgressing moral boundaries and punished with censorship for doing so; they are described as having irrational or disturbed thought patterns, and offered therapy. This opens up the possibility of new and more insidious forms of censure. Recently in America an actor who called one of his colleagues a ‘faggot’ was ordered by his TV network to ‘enter a rehab programme to examine why he would say such hateful words’. In Britain, reality-TV has-been Jade Goody was sent to anger management classes after she clashed with Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother (9). We can expect more of this sort of thing the more that ideas are relabelled defects.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure Winston Smith of his anti-party thinking. ‘You are mentally deranged. You suffer from a defective memory’, O’Brien says. ‘Fortunately it is curable…. Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane!’ It seems that some are keen to turn contemporary society into a big, open Room 101, where dodgy ideas or critical thinking are also cured. Hands up if you would rather remain ‘sick’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) Adrift on denial, National Review, 13 December 2006

(2) The psychology of denial, The Ecologist, September 2001

(3) See Climate Change Denial

(4) The psychology of denial, The Ecologist, September 2001

(5) See Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) See Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Christians slam ‘homophobia’ resolution, WorldNetDaily, 1 February 2006

(8) Christians slam ‘homophobia’ resolution, WorldNetDaily, 1 February 2006

(9) A modern-day witch-hunt, Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 2 February 2007

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Topics Politics


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