I need to start this week by defining a few terms coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel “1984”. “Newspeak” is language introduced by the totalitarian government in the novel which is, in Orwell’s words, “…designed to limit the range of thought.” It is a prescribed lexicon designed to eliminate ambiguity and nuance in language and thus cognition. The second term which warrants explaining is “Thought Police”, a secret police force in the novel whose only job is to discover and punish people who express personal or political thoughts unapproved by the government.
I mention these two Orwellian concepts because they seem to have been gaining traction in Western cultures for some time now. This increase is not designed to consolidate the power of a totalitarian regime, but rather to further the agenda of an increasingly intolerant progressive faction of society. Those who consider themselves “woke”, which is to say aware of social injustice and ready to stand up against it, have become increasingly willing to shut down meetings where people are discussing ideas they find distasteful or insulting, and to shut up anyone who does not agree with them or uses words of which they don’t approve.
University campuses have historically been hotbeds of free speech and breeding grounds for radical ideas. For several years now woke college students have been suppressing, and sometimes even eliminating, these functions. There have been many instances of students trying to disrupt campus events where controversial ideas are likely to be voiced. Unfortunately a number of these attempts have succeeded.
Heather MacDonald is a Fellow of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative American think tank, and she holds many opinions which are highly distasteful to the left. She has suggested that welfare and food stamps should be eliminated, that American police need to be more militarized, and she has loudly criticized Black Lives Matter. Last year Ms. MacDonald was invited to speak at Holy Cross, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts. The politically correct element of the student body was having none of it. Protestors took up every seat in the auditorium and chanted the entire time Ms. MacDonald spoke. They simply refused to listen to anything she had to say because they had already that decided they didn’t agree with her, and therefore her arguments couldn’t possibly have merit.
I find a lot of Ms. MacDonald’s ideas objectionable and contrary to my way of thinking, but I would never consider denying her the right to voice them. Individuals in a free society may say whatever they wish (that is what makes it free) and if you don’t agree then you may choose not to listen or to question or rebut their ideas in a civil manner. What you don’t – or at least shouldn’t – do is deny them the right to speak in the first place by drowning them out.
Bill Maher, the host of the political talk show “Real Time” on HBO, was asked to give the commencement speech at U.C. Berkeley in 2014. Maher has for some time maintained that Islam (at least as it is currently practiced) is a largely intolerant, misogynistic and often violent religion. He bolsters this position with examples of Islamic terrorist activities like the attempted assassination in 2012 of the then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, and the 2015 killing of 11 journalists and 6 others at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. He also sites the 9/11 attacks and the coordinated bombings in the London transit system in 2005, as well as the accepted practice of honour killings and the oppression of girls and women throughout the Muslim world.
Left-wing Berkeley students didn’t take the time to look at the meat of Maher’s argument, but rather immediately claimed that he was clearly an Islamophobe. In short order 4,000 of them had signed a petition to keep him from speaking. The school’s administration specifically wanted Maher because 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the birth of the U.S. free speech movement which, as it turns out, began at Berkeley. Maher is known for having people of all political and religious stripes on his program and therefore seemed a particularly apt choice. The irony in trying to deny Maher a platform because of his opinions at a ceremony celebrating free speech seems to have been lost on the protesting students. In time Maher was allowed to speak and gave a graduation address that dealt solely with the graduates. Imagine that.
Not only have students suppressed free speech on campuses, they have also held administrators hostage and forced the firing or resignation of numerous professors with whom they do not agree. One of the most famous examples of this occurred at Evergreen College in Washington State. For decades the college observed a “Day of Absence” wherein minority students and faculty would voluntarily stay home in order to highlight their contributions to the college. The college flipped the day around in 2017, inviting people of colour to come to the school while white participants were directed to attend an off-campus discussion of race-related issues. A resident professor of biology, Bret Weinstein, objected to the change. He sent an open e-mail saying,
“There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles….and a group encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”
A contingent of about 200 students took extreme exception to Weinstein’s argument, calling him and the college racist. They verbally harassed and bullied him during one of his lectures, becoming so aggressive that Weinstein had to be physically protected by campus police as he was led from the room. Weinstein began holding classes outdoors to avoid further disruption, but the militant confrontations continued until Weinstein decided he’d had enough and resigned. These same protesting students occupied the office of the college president, George Bridges, effectively taking him hostage. There is video of them storming in and the first thing one of them says to Bridges is, “F**k you, George. We don’t want to hear a God-damned thing you have to say!”. There is the whole problem in a nutshell.
Politically correct tyranny exists in the world outside college campuses as well. In 2017 a researcher named Maya Forstater lost her job for saying that people cannot change their biological sex. A human’s sex is determined at a chromosomal level, whereas gender deals with personal, societal and cultural perceptions of sexuality. If humans could change their biological sex, then trans-men and woman wouldn’t have to take hormones for the rest of their lives to maintain the outward characteristics of the sex they have transitioned into. Ms. Forstater’s statement is empirically true, but the thought police labelled her transphobic and therefore she was fired. It is a sad day when a biological fact can be overruled by progressive newspeak.
J.K. Rowling soon got in the mix by supporting Ms. Forstater, tweeting,
“Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
Rowling took a fair bit of heat for this stance, with people suggesting she was transphobic. Just last week another tweet from Rowling reignited and redoubled the outcry. A piece on the website Devex, a media platform for the global development community, used the phrase, “…people who menstruate”. Rowling posted a rather cheeky response to this, saying,
“I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Remembering the backlash she’d received for suggesting that biological sex was a reality, she continued,
“I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”
Oh, but according to the ever-righteous left it most certainly is. Countless people immediately piled on Rowling, calling her stance “disgusting” and again labelling her transphobic. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson were amongst those who immediately jumped into the fray, scantly acknowledging that they owed their entire careers to this women before effectively throwing her under the bus. Publicly taking umbrage on behalf of another to further one’s own public standing is called “virtue signalling”, and I think that is exactly what both these young actors were doing here (unwittingly or otherwise).
I interpret Rowling’s statement as meaning this – not all women menstruate (trans-women, menopausal women, women who’ve had hysterectomies, etc.), but only biological women do. Myself, my sisters and most of my friends haven’t menstruated in years, but we are still women. The only reason we had a period at all is because we were born female, with an XX chromosome. Why isn’t it therefore okay to use the term “women” when talking about menstruation since only “women” do? How is that exclusionary?
The politically correct climate of the times makes me nervous. Comedians are being censured for making “inappropriate” jokes and using “unacceptable” language. Wearing a costume on Hallowe’en which originated in another country is deemed “cultural appropriation”. Free speech is constantly and increasingly under threat. Most alarmingly, the left which traditionally championed free speech is now leading the charge to police people’s thoughts and words. A functioning democracy hinges on the existence of an impartial press and the absolute right of individuals to say anything they want. Both sides of the political spectrum are responsible for allowing news media to become so incredibly biased, but I lay the loss of free speech squarely at politically correct liberals’ feet. Once anyone who values democracy is awakened to how dramatically these foundational precepts are currently being eroded, it becomes their responsibility to stand up. That means it is my civic duty, and yours, to try and stem this corrosive tide by calling it out whenever and wherever we see it.