In 2015, have cojones: say no to self-censorship
People gagged themselves too willingly in 2014 – let's make next year different.
If there was an award for Most Brazen Exercise of Double Standards, Britain’s chattering class would win it every year. These are people who take to the streets to yell and scream if Israel so much as sneezes in the direction of Gaza, yet who will then head off for a fabulous lunch with some former Labour minister whose government destroyed Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia when it was in power. These are people who stand outside the embassies of foreign nations to protest against the undermining of press freedom in said nations, yet who cheered and even conspired with a British lord’s war on the UK tabloids and his proposal for state-backed regulation of the press. And now, to top it all, these folk have ended 2014 slamming North Korea for using online intimidation to crush culture — having themselves spent much of 2014 using online intimidation to crush culture! Apologies for quoting from the rabble’s press, but you couldn’t make it up.
Sony’s scratching of the cinema release of its North Korea-mocking movie The Interview, in response to online threats and hollers of ‘That’s offensive!’ from a group calling itself Guardians of Peace, has caused much head-shaking in right-thinking circles. It isn’t hard to see why. For a film company to dump a film just because a foreign dictator, or at least his fanboys on the internet, finds it offensive is an act of self-censorship that sets a dangerous precedent. It gives a green light to other offence-takers — who are legion in this super-sensitive young millennium — similarly to strive for the extinguishing of words or images they find foul. It’s not yet known if Guardians of Peace is a front for Kim Jong-un or just a bunch of troublemaking hackers, but whoever it is, it has successfully elicited a craven act of self-gagging from one of the largest film corporations. And as everyone from President Obama to the Guardian to every tweeter with a conscience has pointed out, this is very bad.
All of which would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that Sony’s capitulation is far from the first act of self-censorship this year, and also for the fact that many of those condemning Sony’s cave-in said next to nothing about the numerous other cave-ins of 2014. This has been the year of self-gagging, a year in which dumping content in response to cries of ‘You can’t say that!’ from angry cliques has been all the rage. And those currently taking an oh-so-brave stand against North Korea’s (alleged) winning of self-censorship through ‘online intimidation’ either said nothing about such self-gagging or actually helped facilitate it. They paved the way for Sony’s self-censorship, which has not occurred in a vacuum but rather in a new intolerant climate in which the feelings of the offended are increasingly elevated over the freedoms of artists, writers and entertainers.
So where was the angry-with-North-Korea brigade when a UK mob of virtual prudes used ‘online intimidation’ to force ITV2 to cancel Dapper Laughs’ TV show on the basis that it was sexist? There’s barely a cigarette paper’s difference between what the Guardians of Peace did to The Interview and what these self-styled guardians of womankind did to Dapper: both utilised the uglier, shriller aspects of online activism to try to destroy a cultural product that repelled them. Yet Sony’s ditching of a comedy on the basis that some North Koreans would find it offensive is railed against, while ITV2’s pulling of a TV show that some feminists hated is notched up as a strike for progress and equality.
Not only did the Sony-bashers fail to take a stand against ITV2’s caving-in to the online offencerati — they were a part of that online offencerati. The Guardian editorialised angrily against Sony’s climbdown, arguing that ‘cancelling the release of a film because of online intimidation’ undermines free speech. Yet Guardian writers were central to whipping up the ‘online intimidation’ that led to ITV2 ditching Dapper, and far from penning leaders criticising ITV2’s self-censorship, the Guardian celebrated it with the words: ‘Dapper Laughs is not laughing anymore after ITV turn-off.’ Currently, Guardian writers are responding like hormonal schoolgirls to George Clooney’s condemnation of Sony for failing to stand up to online bullies, having themselves played the role of online bullies in relation to ITV2. You almost have to admire people who have so completely jettisoned the emotion of shame that they can slam North Korea for allegedly doing what they themselves definitely do, and not even turn the palest pink with embarrassment.
Where were the Sony-bashers when the London Barbican pulled its racism-exploring Exhibit B in response to a measly 200 protesters who turned up at the opening night to holler and wave placards? Index on Censorship is currently railing against Sony, yet its first response to the Barbican’s pressure-won self-gagging was to publish a piece lambasting the Barbican’s ‘mindset’ in failing to consider ‘the possibility of a hostile response [to the exhibition]’. The Barbican must do more ‘engagement and dialogue’ with possibly affected constituencies before hosting controversial art, it said. By the same token, maybe Sony should have asked for North Korea’s permission to make The Interview, and maybe Salman Rushdie should have run The Satanic Verses by the ayatollahs before publication, and perhaps the Sex Pistols should have sent advance copies of God Save the Queen to the queen for her majestic approval. The insistence that all artists and institutions should consider ‘the possibility of a hostile response’ is to institutionalise self-censorship, to make an article of faith of pre-emptive self-gagging just in case someone takes offence.
Where were Sony’s critics when Christ Church College at Oxford dumped an all-male debate on abortion at the behest of 300 Facebook feminists who threatened to turn up with ‘instruments’ to disrupt it? The college agreed with the angry agitators that to allow two men (one of whom was me) to discuss abortion would potentially threaten the ‘mental safety’ of students, especially female ones, and that, as one of the censorious students said, ‘the idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups’. That is strikingly similar to what the Guardians of Peace have said: that The Interview had to be strongarmed out of cinemas because it was a case of awesomely powerful America using free speech to attack poor, little, marginalised North Korea. So it isn’t only tinpot tyrants that demand censorship and big corporations that comply — Oxford students also clamour, complete with ‘instruments’, for censorship, and Oxford colleges comply. Self-censorship is now such an established Western institution that one of the highest seats of learning in the West practices it.
There are loads of other examples of pressured self-censorship this year, many of them lobbied for by the very same folk now saying ‘WTF’ to Sony. During the Edinburgh Fringe, a theatre dumped an Israeli-funded play in response to a letter-writing campaign by luvvies and daily protests by Israel-bashers. Down Under, the hilariously misnamed Festival of Dangerous Ideas ditched an Islamist speaker who was judged to be just that bit too dangerous by the right-on inhabitants of Twitter. The Economist officially withdrew a controversial book review in response to a ‘Twitter riot’ (that is how one of The Economists’s critics actually referred to the censorious uprising). Colleges in America disinvited controversial speakers in response to students kicking up a fuss, and outrageously Brandeis University cancelled an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a gaggle of students and tweeters branded her ‘anti-Muslim’. And on it goes.
Where were Obama, David Cameron, George Clooney, the Guardian and the other newly self-styled handwringers over apologetic self-censorship when all of this was happening? They were either keeping schtum, or they were actually in the fray, in the mob, demanding the silencing of offensive material. Which means their slating of Sony rings very hollow, for Sony has only done what it has become absolutely the fashion to do: gag oneself, shut oneself up, censor one’s words and thoughts on the grounds that someone somewhere might be offended.
Self-censorship is the worst form of censorship, for it encourages people to internalise illiberalism. It plants a secret censor in every boardroom and newsroom and gallery and even in people’s minds — an invisible tut-tutter constantly warning us ‘don’t say that’ and ‘don’t show that’ because, in the words of Index on Censorship, there’s ‘the possibility of a hostile response’. It nurtures risk-aversion, even moral cowardice, and it discourages people from taking great leaps of the mind or pushing culture in a new and provocative direction. It stultifies the soul. It hampers the human spirit itself. And worst of all, it inflames the intolerant: the more people self-censor, the more the censorious will demand it, whether it’s Oxford students, Guardian feminists, or foreign tyrants. If Guardians of Peace really is North Korea, then that shows that the West has become so allergic to liberty that even that tyrannical hermit state is taking lessons from us, borrowing from our book of using online intimidation to make offensive speakers apologise and retract.
In 2015, we need more courage, more cojones. We need to stick by what we say and produce, and cultivate a climate in which people feel they can be daring again without having to second-guess ‘the possibility of a hostile response’ or cave in to the offended. We need to rediscover the celebration of courage that was the foundation stone of the Enlightenment. As Kant said: ‘Have the courage to use your own reason… walk firmly.’
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked.
Let’s cancel cancel culture
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