In France we recently saw a teacher beheaded because in a class about free speech he showed his students (at least those who agreed they wouldn’t be offended) replicas of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
In 2015 two Islamist brothers forced their way into the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris and killed twelve people and wounded another eleven because the magazine had the audacity to portray cartoon caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
The West was outraged by this outrageous attack – well at least for a few weeks! But by and large we have resiled from confronting the issue and have largely taken action to appease the unreasonable demands of the Islamists.
So, whilst we regularly see cartoons that ridicule or parody other faiths, (particularly Christianity that seems to draw special critical attention from the “woke” brigade) we are sufficiently afraid of the barbaric response of the reactionary Islamists to avoid offending their exaggerated sensitivities concerning Islam.
You might think this is a rather dramatic, but probably exceptional example of how many in Western society are abrogating our rights to free speech.
But let us look at a little more anecdotal evidence.
Authors of fiction have for centuries entertained us by constructing entertaining and didactic stories which rely on their capacity to create fictional characters to carry their storyline, excite us with their adventures or enlighten us with their life experiences.
But in the strictures of today’s “wokeness”, politically correct activists have attempted to constrain authors from creating characters that are not of their own gender, race or sexual proclivities. Of course if such ridiculous restrictions had applied in previous times many of our most famous and well-loved pieces of literature would never have been created.
Even the much-read J K Rowling is now being attacked because she wrote a novel where the villain was a transvestite. This, it is claimed, is purported to vilify transgender people. (It is interesting that in the debates I have seen reported on this new travesty most of those seeking to censure Rowling haven’t even read the so-called “offending” book.)
Perhaps worst of all, those very institutions which are supposed to champion the contest of ideas and challenge our thinking – our universities – are shutting down objective debate and becoming captured by the ethos of “group think”.
A landmark case was that of Peter Ridd. Ridd was fired from James Cook University for alleging serious research errors by scientists studying the Great Barrier Reef. Ridd has consistently disagreed with his (former) JCU colleagues on the health of the Reef and particularly the impacts on it of climate change and the impacts of fertiliser and sediment in the run-off of coastal streams.
Similarly, just recently the Dean of Law at the University of Queensland, Patrick Parkinson, submitted a paper for publication to the University of Tasmania Law Review. The paper was rejected because Parkinson’s views on Tasmania’s transgender laws did not reflect those of the University of Tasmania.
So it seems universities, to their great discredit, instead of robustly engaging in the contest of ideas seem quick to discard contrary thinking and even attempt to silence those with whom they disagree. The so-called “cancel culture” has become prevalent in many universities where those who don’t toe the line on political correctness are forbidden to speak on campuses. Among those who have suffered such cancellation are speakers such as Bettina Arndt, Jordan Peterson, Bjorn Lomborg and many others.
When a political stance is taught at a University it is apt to become an orthodoxy that can’t be easily questioned. What’s more, when the stance is being championed by the academics, students are under great pressure to toe the ideological line in order to succeed in their studies.
A lovely young woman that I know commenced a teaching degree. She abandoned the course because she said she spent the first semester on diversity studies that had little application for her intended role as a primary school teacher. In some courses it would seem more important to indoctrinate students in postmodernist dogma than it is to impart vocational skills.
And of course much of the malaise in our thinking that has reduced our opportunities to exercise free speech is driven by the spurious notions of postmodernism. Postmodernism has weaved an irrational, insidious web that has engulfed many universities and particularly their Humanity Departments. Inevitably from there the virus has infected many large corporations in what used to be called their “personnel departments” (but now have more trendy names like People and Culture) as such organisations want to demonstrate their “wokeness”.)
So let’s take a brief look at some of the aspects of postmodernism and how its insidious impact on Western democracies is imperilling some of our basic freedoms.
The online Encyclopedia Britannica defines postmodernism as:
A late20th-century movement characterised by broad scepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political power.
The American political scientist and social psychologist, Walter Truett Anderson describes the four pillars of postmodernism as:
- The social construction of the concept of the self. Identity is essentially constructed by many cultural forces and is not given to a person by tradition.
- Relativism of moral discourse. Morality is not found but made. That is, morality is not based on cultural or religious traditions, nor is it the mandate of Heaven, but is constructed by dialogue and choice. This is relativism, not in the sense of being nonjudgmental, but in the sense of believing that all forms of morality are socially constructed worldviews.
- Deconstruction in art and culture. The focus is on endless playful improvisation and variations on themes and a mixing of “high” and “low” culture; and
- Globalization: People see borders of all kinds as social constructions that can be crossed and reconstructed and are inclined to take their tribal norms less seriously.
In their book Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay quote the thoughts on postmodernism of professor of psychology, Steinar Kvale. He writes postmodernism relies on:
Doubting that any human truth provides an objective representation of reality, focussing on language and the way societies use it to create their own local realities, and denying the universal.
This illogical nonsense has seen the promotion by postmodernists of a range of dysfunctional theories including:
Postcolonial Theory which maintains that Western Civilisation has no redeeming features but was merely a tool for oppression of the populations of the European colonies.
Queer Theory which doesn’t recognise the biological differences of gender but maintains that gender is determined by socialisation and can be a matter of choice of the individual.
Critical Race Theory which holds that race is a social construct that was created to maintain white privilege and white supremacy.
And it has inspired other illogical and dysfunctional beliefs.
These irrational beliefs are often the underpinnings of a person’s sense of identity. And, as usual, once identity politics are brought into the picture, rational debate seems to fly out the door. Quite often those who so identify with these irrational belief systems avoid such debate by evoking the defence that any opinion with which they disagree is offensive and therefore shut down, discarded and removed from active consideration.
If free speech is to prevail we must ensure that the defence of “offense” be sidelined.
I would be the first to admit that reason alone will not solve all humanity’s problems, but without reason we are lost. Resorting to the dictums of postmodernism seems to me a lazy resort by those who have little capacity to reason.
Now I have started this essay with a reference to the atrocities committed by fundamentalist Islamists. As we have seen previously these terrorists are motivated by a sixth century ideology that relies on the literal interpretation of an Arabian tribal chieftain whose alleged words and philosophies were cobbled together in the century after his death.
In comparison with Islam, Christianity has been far more dynamic. It has no doubt caused atrocities and injustices of its own, but due to the Reformation and the constant challenging of its precepts it has been able to accommodate change and as a consequence is far more relevant to modern society than fundamentalist Islam.
And it would seem at first glance that twentieth century postmodernism is a far cry from fundamentalist Islam. Postmodernism holds that there is no objective truth and that words are devices for manipulating our minds to serve an unwanted orthodoxy.
Fundamentalist Islam, on the other hand, holds that the inalienable truth was delivered to us in the words of the Prophet and that these words must be believed in their literal translation.
But postmodernism and fundamentalist Islam have at least two common traits:
- They allow no recourse to reason, and
- They shut down debate that is inimical to their respective ideologies.
That is why they are both considerable threats to free speech.
Yet more than this, and perhaps even more fundamentally, Islamist beliefs and postmodernism thrive on differentiation. They emphasise difference and this, of course, is the underpinning of so-called “identity politics”.
The universal success of classic liberalism has been to assert the commonality of humankind. It emphasises that no matter your gender, race, ideology or nationality, it is fundamental to the human condition that we have far more in common with each other than we have differences.
Fundamentalist Islam proclaims you are either a believer or an infidel. Nothing else really matters. Belief in the Prophet is so important it must be compelled. Furthermore if a believer renounces their belief (apostasy) it is such a serious crime it should be punished by death.
Now whilst postmodernism doesn’t resort to such barbarism, it strongly discourages dissent. It also champions differentiation and to that end has created new categories to allow even greater differentiation. Queer Theory has thrived on this. Rejecting the part biology plays in gender assignment and asserting that humans are able to “choose” their individual sexual role in the world they have contrived to develop an astounding menu of such roles for people to choose from.
As Pluckrose and Lindsay write:
Queer Theory aims…..to modify or unmake concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality themselves and so tends to render itself baffling and irrelevant if not positively alienating to most members of the society it wishes to change. Queer activists reliant on queer theory tend to act with surprising entitlement and aggression – attitudes which most people find objectionable.
As I get older and material concerns dwindle, I want to grapple with the issues that matter. I want to engage rationally, emotionally and often intuitively in the issues of philosophy, religion and politics. Most of all I don’t want to be told what I can say or what I can think. I want to be able to have wide ranging conversations that traverse all belief systems. I want to challenge and be challenged by alternative belief systems. So it is inevitable that I should resile against all these stupid restrictions to free speech.
Can I implore you to enjoin with me and deplore and more importantly help to remove these abhorrent restrictions to our free speech?
When I have read self-help books in the past they often contain “to-do” lists. They are normally a turn off for me and I usually detest them. But forgive me, I am going to suggest a to-do list for you to counter the efforts of those who want to shut down our ability to speak freely (with a little tongue in cheek).
- Keep practicing your caricatures of the Prophet.
- Whenever you can, remind people that, despite its faults, Western Civilisation has made a huge contribution to the well-being of the people of this world.
- Don’t be brow beaten to accede to the nonsensical notion that biology has no effect on gender and sexual orientation.
- If you’re feeling creative, write a story where the principal character is of different gender, nationality, race or religion to you.
- Practice racial and gender tolerance but don’t be defensive if you unfortunately happen to be white or male.
- If you must have diversity training ensure it emphasises diversity of opinion.