Another Round of Jazz Hands for Nick Cohen

As the friend who directed me to the "jazz hands" story said in his email, laughing at student politicians is too easy. It's like shooting bloated, elderly fish in a pint-sized barrel. 

What "jazz hands" story, you ask? Here it is in a nutshell-sized tweet. 

Okay, yes – it's hilarious. It's 'PC gone mad' gone mad. 

What's more, the broader context is worth a giggle as well.

The conference remits include support for:

  • A universal, taxpayer funded income for everyone, roughly equating to £1,500 (or NZD$3,000) per month; and
  • The complete abolition of prisons

As well as admonition for:

  • Gay white men who channel their "inner black women". 

Yes, apparently gay white men are "the dominant demographic within the LGBT community" and it is therefore insulting and offensive for them to adopt mannerisms or language of people further up (or down?) the oppression matrix.  Now, I am not going to quibble about the first assertion – although it did occur to me that whoever thinks gay white men are dominant within the LGBT community must never have seen gay white men and gay white women in the same room – but this insistence on building pyramids of victimhood, with all the attendant finger pointing and identity shaming, seems self-defeating and absurd. 

It's easy – yes, and fun – to mock these extreme examples of PC silliness, but these are the fruits of a deadly tree.  

In yet another brilliant essay in defence of free speech, Nick Cohen attacks the "the tyrannical language of an illiberal intelligentsia so lost in complacency it thinks it no longer needs the rights it once championed". Writing in Standpoint Magazine, Cohen reminds us this culture of dissent crushing and oppressive righteousness is by no means limited to student politicians on an ideological bender. 

Go into the modern university and you won’t hear much about Mill or Milton or the millions around the world who have had to learn the hard way why freedom of speech matters. Instead, you will be fed philosophers far less rigorous than [American legal philosopher Joel] Feinberg. The New Zealander Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor from the American university system, which churns out authoritarian philosophers the way Ford churns out cars, suggests speech that attacks the dignity of others should be banned. Stanley Fish of New York dispenses with any pretence that we should respect universal human rights, and descends into power-worship and thuggery. “The only way to fight hate speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy,” he says. “And what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out.”

As with everything Cohen writes, every word in this essay is worth reading. In particular, I was struck by the clarity with which he defined the problem at the heart of regulating speech – and it's an argument I've never seen successfully rebutted:

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive? 

As we go about scrubbing the world clean of offensive speech, who gets to decide what stays or goes? The National Union of Students? The mufti, priest or rabbi down the street? State-appointed censors? You? Me? As Cohen points out, when it comes to protecting the right to unpopular or controversial speech, majority sentiment is an atrocious guide: 

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

Maybe what's acceptable speech or not should be determined by how offended the offended party feels:

Perhaps the vehemence of the offence taken is the decisive factor. Maybe if the offended can prove that they are shocked beyond measure, they would provide legitimate grounds to censor. If so, we must give in to Islamists, who feel the hurt of blasphemy so keenly they will murder anyone they deem to have blasphemed. 

As usual, Cohen is unsparing about the failure of many within the liberal-left to tackle Islamism:

In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, genocidal and totalitarian. Their political correctness has turned their principles inside out, and led them to abandon their beliefs in female and homosexual equality.

 For his troubles, Cohen will endure the typical battery of personal attacks from the usual suspects, but his clear-eyed, common-sensical, authentically liberal, worldview will remain unchallenged on the substance.