The New Heresies

In today's You Can't Say That culture, it's those with reactionary views on race or religion who are censored. But fighting for free speech still matters.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

Just last week, David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, won praise for saying that he wants an open ‘grown-up’ debate about immigration and how to control it. Then a Conservative candidate suggested that Enoch Powell was right to warn in 1968 about the impact of mass immigration, and the party leadership (with the other main parties behind it) forced him to resign for his ‘unwise’ and ‘insensitive’ language.

In other words: ‘We want honesty and grown-up politics, but You Can’t Say That.’

Last month, Dr James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was supposed to give a talk at the Science Museum. Then he gave an interview to The Sunday Times, in which he suggested that there was a racial basis to intelligence, and the museum cancelled the event. Its statement claimed that the museum ‘does not shy away from debating controversial topics’, but insisted that Watson ‘has gone beyond the point of reasonable debate’.

In other words: ‘We welcome controversy and scientific debate, but You Can’t Say That.’

To some of us – even some of us who support open borders – the consensus within the political class that wants to close down debate on an issue like immigration is far more dangerous than the reactionary views of a wannabe Tory MP. As I have written elsewhere on the Nigel Hastilow controversy this week, ‘Enoch Powell was not right about immigration. But it is wrong to hound out a Conservative candidate for suggesting that he was.’ (See A grown-up debate? Not with childish censorship by Mick Hume.)

In a similar vein, some of us – including some of us who have campaigned against racism for years – find the fact that a leading liberal-minded scientific institution can seek to place a limit on ‘reasonable debate’ far more worrying than the crankish views of one 79-year-old scientist.

These are just two recent examples of the You Can’t Say That culture today, an increasing tendency to try to circumscribe debate sometimes by formal bans, more often by informal pressure. From immigration to global warming, the attitude from the mainstream appears to be not to question or criticise those with unconventional views, but simply to silence them.

I recently discussed these issues at the Battle of Ideas conference, in a session entitled ‘The new heresies’. The other panellists were Alexander Cockburn, the US-based left-wing commentator and editor of Counterpunch, and Arthur Versluis, author of The New Inquisitions: Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism. Some might think it a little far-fetched to talk of heresies and inquisitions; after all, there is no torture involved. It is important to be sober about these issues and to leave the shrillness to the hysterical witch-hunters. But the ‘heresy model’ may be useful in understanding how far things have changed.

A heretic is not a self-defined political label, akin to declaring yourself a socialist or a green. Instead, heresy is always defined in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy. The words themselves come from an early Christian leader who defined his own views as orthodox, from the Greek for ‘right belief’, and those of his opponents as heresy, from the Greek for ‘choice of belief’. The one thing that got you branded a heretic was a desire to choose your own beliefs and dissent from the authoritative dogma. In that sense, it seems fair to talk about new heresies today.

The fact that heresies are defined in this way means that what is deemed heretical changes historically as the orthodoxy alters. We all know that yesterday’s heresies can become today’s accepted truths, in everything from science to social attitudes. Now, however, we can see another process at work: yesterday’s orthodoxies are being redefined as today’s heresies.

This is obvious, for example, in relation to race, as illustrated above, where attitudes of racial superiority or inferiority that would once have been deemed the norm are now considered completely beyond the pale. Perhaps an even more powerful example is the way that religion itself, particularly Christianity, can now be treated as heretical in British society.

Thus where the church once laid down the law on what was sinful, Christian fundamentalists can now find themselves threatened with prosecution for expressing the opinion that homosexuality is a sin. And where religious authorities once persecuted scientists such as Galileo and fought to keep secular values out of universities, it is now reported that Christian colleges in Oxford have been threatened with the loss of their university status because the education they offer is not ‘inclusive’ enough – that is, they’re too Christian.

The flipside of this is that, as previously discussed on spiked, science now often assumes the status of orthodoxy. In one sense it is, of course, good news that science has overcome much of the old superstition and established its credentials as a foundation of a civilised modern society. However, things have now moved beyond that to the point where ‘The Science’ on an issue such as global warming can be used to try to declare the debate closed, and to describe critical views as heretical or even as the lies of ‘deniers’. You do not need to be a climatologist to see that this deference to The Science as an orthodox dogma has little in common with the scientific traditions of sceptical inquiry, testing and debate.

What particularly angers an old Marxist like me is the leading role played by the left and the liberal establishment in treating ideas as new heresies. As I suggested during the Battle of Ideas debate, some might think we need not worry too much about the silencing of reactionary views. Perhaps we should just say, after Woody Allen in Annie Hall, yes, I’m a bigot, but for the left?

No. I have no time for racial thinking or religion in any form. But we need to remember that freedom is indivisible, and that ‘free speech’ is not the same thing as ‘me speech’. The precious right to be offensive must involve the right of others to offend our beliefs, too. Free speech and open argument is the way to test and clarify ideas and to get closest to the truth. By contrast, turning ideas of which the mainstream disapproves into heresies means closing down debate and closing minds.

Let’s be clear why it is that the left and liberals often want to treat their opponents as heretics to be silenced. The You Can’t Say That culture is not a product of their strength and authority, as with the orthodoxies of the past. On the contrary, it reflects the extent to which they have suffered an acute loss of nerve. They do not trust their own arguments. And they do not trust us.

The fact that those preaching today’s orthodoxies do not trust their own arguments becomes evident when one looks at what they are up against. To talk of heresies and inquisitions today might give these issues a rather grand, historic image. In reality, however, even relatively feeble opponents can now be damned by the insecure supporters of orthodoxy. The few critics of ‘The Science’ of global warming are generally not Galileo-type geniuses. The reality TV clowns who are made public examples of for daring to use words deemed racist or homophobic represent no movement in society. Yet they have to be stamped upon by the policemen of the You Can’t Say That culture.

Why? Above all, it is because the left and the liberal establishment do not trust us. UK government minister David Lammy, considered a rising black star of New Labour, gave the game away when he said that Dr Watson’s views on race and intelligence should be suppressed because ‘they will only succeed in providing oxygen for the BNP’. At first this seemed a strange thing to say; was the minister suggesting there was a British National Party cell operating in the Science Museum? But no, what he meant was that if the public got to hear of a respectable scientist giving a talk about race and intelligence, it could press our (genetically programmed?) racist button and start a pogrom. By the same token, the insecure authorities and their supporters want to declare the debate on global warming closed because they fear that if people were allowed to hear any deviation from the orthodoxy we might be even less willing to do as we are told and change our behaviour.

The problem here is not just government ministers and the state. We are not dealing with jackboot censorship – as indicated by our freedom to publish spiked, and the frequent appearances of spiked’s non-conformist writers elsewhere. It is more often a sort of informal inquisition, where a mood of You Can’t Say That emerges from below. Indeed, the self-righteous political activists and crusaders – particularly, it seems, the younger ones – are often the most militant wing of the new orthodoxies. Thus it is green activists who have called for ‘climate change denial’ to be made a crime, while black activists demanded that Watson be sacked for expressing his Jurassic opinion on race and intelligence.

The spinelessness of the liberal intelligentsia ensures that, once such a wave of opinion has started to rise, they allow themselves to be swept away. Just a few days before the Battle of Ideas, an event called the Festival of Ideas was held in Bristol (I wonder where they got that idea from?) and James Watson was due to speak. When the Science Museum cancelled his talk, a spokesman for the vice-chancellor of Bristol University (who was chairing, but not organising the festival) said that they still wanted Watson to come to Bristol because the university respected ‘the right of people to express their views. But we would also expect there to be some robust questioning of Dr Watson on his ideas’. That seemed the right response. Within a couple of days, however, as the pitch of the protests rose, the organisers of the Bristol event had caved in and cancelled the talk. Andrew Kelly of the Festival of Ideas announced that, ‘While we are a festival that encourages debate, it is clear that James Watson’s opinions were unacceptably provocative’. In other words, ‘We want debate, but You Can’t Say That’. Nothing had happened in between times; Watson had said nothing more other than to apologise ‘unreservedly’ for causing offence. But the notion that he was a heretic had simply become accepted, so he had to go.

We can see these trends in context, as the latest form of the free speech debate. And the British left has long had a terrible record on that issue. Twenty-five years ago, when I was at university, the left championed a policy of ‘No platform’ for fascists – a label which they often extended to include Thatcherite Tories. Now that attitude has advanced from the student union to the centre of public life.

Some of us always opposed those policies and stood up for free speech. Not because we believed in rights for racists and reactionaries – but because we believed in the right of the public to listen and judge for themselves, to make our own ‘choice of belief’, whether considered heretical or not. When I was the editor of Living Marxism magazine, a sort-of forerunner of spiked, our slogan was ‘Question Everything – Ban Nothing’. That was considered somewhat heretical then, and is more so now. All the more reason to stand up for the principle, to help keep free speech and free thinking alive.

One new problem today is that so few people in the UK are prepared to stand up for free speech unconditionally, even in the world of academia and education. As Professor Frank Furedi pointed out in the heresies debate at the Battle of Ideas, the same academics who will protest loudest about the exclusion of a pro-Palestinian speaker are often the first ones to sign up to a boycott of Israeli academics, seemingly without ever noticing the contradiction in their stance.

What we need instead is to inculcate an attitude of genuine tolerance. That ought to mean broadmindedness, and allowing the expression of opinions that you despise. Today, however, those demanding ‘tolerance’ often seem to mean the opposite: an unwillingness to tolerate any view that impinges on the orthodoxy. Thus, in the name of tolerance, we are told that nobody can express ‘intolerant’ views of, say, Islam or homosexuality. As I have argued before on spiked, ours is an age of ‘intolerant tolerance’.

Genuine tolerance does not mean allowing views you despise to go unchallenged. It ought to involve fierce debate and a ruthless hammering of reactionary opinions of every stripe. It ought to mean, as Voltaire wrote in his Essay on Tolerance, ‘Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so, too’. In place of a closed culture of heresies and You Can’t Say That, we need an open-minded attitude of You Can Say That – so long as I can then say that you are talking out of your backside.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi challenged secular inquisitions that stigmatise free thinking. Brendan O’Neill argued that, with the war on ‘Mate Speech’, no area of life is safe from the censors. Josie Appleton said we should stop hiding behind cries of ‘offence!’ and stand up for our beliefs. Maria Grasso thought the idea of apologising for ‘hidden prejudice’ is ridiculous. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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