The brass neck of Owen Jones
The 21st-century witchfinder general is trying to rebrand himself as a free-speech warrior.
‘We hold the flame of genuine free speech.’ So said Owen Jones – part-time Guardian columnist, full-time witchfinder general – at an event streamed online last night by the University and College Union (UCU). He called on the left to start a new campaign for ‘actual free speech’.
Jones’s claim to be an indefatigable champion of free expression has understandably raised a few eyebrows. After all, most of us have lost count of the times he has dismissed ‘cancel culture’ as a pernicious right-wing myth (Jones claims that the ‘cancelled’ are just upset at being criticised, despite the long and ever-expanding list of people who have lost their livelihoods for expressing their views). We’ve also lost count of the times he’s denounced those who defend ‘free speech’ – always written in scare quotes – as apologists for every -ism and -phobia under the Sun.
Indeed, this is the same Owen Jones who has fashioned himself as the 21st century’s answer to Mary Whitehouse, constantly declaring himself appalled at what is ‘allowed to be broadcast’ these days or who can appear in the press. His personal blacklist is long enough to span the political spectrum, from gender-critical feminists to lockdown-sceptical scientists.
Jones is forever reminding us that those who have offended him should face ‘consequences’ for their words. Sometimes, when trying to secure a scalp, he will often take their words out of context, wildly exaggerate them or deliberately misconstrue them. For instance, in 2020 he – quite madly – accused Spectator columnist Rod Liddle of being unable to resist ‘raping children’, on the basis of what was very obviously a joke Liddle had made eight years earlier. Jones was furious that Liddle and the Spectator had faced ‘no consequences’ for this.
In case it wasn’t clear what these ‘consequences’ might entail, Jones spelled this out in 2020, when he demanded that Oxford University fire one of its administrators ‘by the end of the day’ over a dodgy tweet about Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar.
As if this industrial-strength brass neck were not impressive enough, at the UCU event, Jones even tried to crowbar in his usual anti-free-speech talking points at the very same time as posing on the side of free speech. He could not resist belittling the ‘moral panic… about so-called cancel culture’. Nor could he help himself from dismissing most appeals to free speech as being about ‘the right of powerful people to say bigoted, prejudiced or worse things of minorities that are marginalised’.
The way Jones squares this circle is by claiming he is defending ‘actual free speech’ – or ‘actual, genuine free speech’. This is not free speech as you or I would understand it – as the right of people to express themselves as they see fit. Because that might include ‘right-wing’ things that OJ doesn’t like. Instead, he is talking about the freedom to say things he personally agrees with or at least doesn’t find offensive. Me speech, not free speech, in other words.
Alongside Jones at the UCU event, also banging the drum for ‘actual free speech’, was Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal – the Cynthia Bucket of post-colonial studies. Gopal is perhaps best known for launching an extraordinary tirade after a college porter referred to her as ‘Madam’ instead of ‘Dr Gopal’. His failure to know his place was apparently so offensive that she felt the need to raise it with managers ‘verbally and in writing’. She also expressed horror at not receiving a full apology for this alleged act of ‘aggression’ from a subordinate. Yet there she was last night, claiming to be on the side of ‘most ordinary people’ who ‘don’t like the idea that people can be fired for speaking their minds’ – a phenomenon that sounds suspiciously like the cancel culture that Jones has assured us does not exist.
Who do these free-speech phoneys think they are kidding?
Picture by: YouTube.
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