Freedom of speech and its enemies

Gareth Cliff says ours is an age of safe-spaces, micro-aggressions and disinviting university speakers

Speech by Gareth Cliff on receipt of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s inaugural “honey badger” annual freedom of speech award, Johannesburg, 28 November 2016

It used to be that free expression was supported by liberals and threatened by the right. Conservatives censored the news, religious leaders banned science and issued fatwas, and fascists burned books.

Today the enemy of free expression is on the left. Safe spaces, micro-aggressions, uninviting university speakers and comedians, taking offence, political correctness – these are all the province of leftists.

In many ways the left won the cultural war – racists, homophobes and sexists have justifiably found their place in the basket of deplorables, to quote Hillary Clinton. But since those victories, many leftists and statists have found themselves somewhat deflated, so they’ve made up a bunch of things so there are windmills to tilt at.

Non-issues like white privilege, the patriarchy, Islamophobia, rape culture and transphobia come up regularly in lefty conversation, but make no sense to anyone outside the echo-chamber that made them.

In order to conflate one or more non-issues with the real societal problems they encounter, they liberally (and I’m not being figurative) label people they disagree with as racists, misogynists, homophobes or bigots.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails. Ultimately, each time these terms are deployed, they lose a little more of their power, and the real racists, homophobes and sexists find themselves included in an ever-widening circle with some perfectly sensible people – which has the effect of normalizing them.

While leftists are having nonsense arguments like “Can a black person be racist?” or “Is Hillary’s loss proof there’s still a glass ceiling and that we’re controlled by the patriarchy?”, right-wingers are stealing respectability from smart people the left have thrown out.

It’s bad for both sides, but especially for the centre. Classical liberals have moved on the spectrum to a point somewhere right of the centre, which would horrify Rousseau, Voltaire and Jefferson.

In America, if you’re right of centre, you watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, follow Mike Cernovich and Breitbart and vote Republican. If you’re left of centre, you watch MSNBC, listen to Al Sharpton, follow the Huffington Post and Lena Dunham and vote Democrat. Point of view has reduced people to caricatures of themselves and removed any nuance or space for mavericks.

The right only listens to the right and the left only listens to the left. Confirmation bias has calcified people into non-overlapping magisteria. That’s why nobody predicted Brexit, Trump or the inevitable rise of anti-EU and anti-UN sentiment. The mainstream media, obsessed with target marketing and winning audiences has lost the lion’s share of its credibility. 

Over the course of twenty years in radio, television and public conversation in South Africa, I’ve come to realize people really don’t understand free speech at all. In fact that’s where my book starts.

Please buy the book on your way out because then I’ll be nice to you.  Free expression is the most important right – it’s where all the others come from. It may not be polite, but whether anyone here likes it or not, you actually don’t have any right not to be offended. Your feelings are not important or relevant in any way.

If I call you names, as I have been called in the last few days on Twitter – horrible things that I most certainly am not, you have to suck it up, like I do. There are no safe spaces in the 21st Century – and words are not violence, and calling things what they are isn’t “problematic” just because I’m using the wrong gender pronoun.

Spoilt, middle-class millennials who are jealous that their parents had to fight actual battles to right social wrongs and realize they have nothing meaningful to fight for are desperate to be outraged. In fact they compete with each other for virtue points by showing how much more outraged they are than you are. And what happens? Nothing.

Despite every social justice warrior in the world tweeting and facebooking up a storm, Joseph Kony is still running the Lord’s Resistance Army; Donald Trump still won the US election; Caitlyn Jenner is still the least interesting Kardashian and you still have to pay to study at University. Slacktivism and manufactured outrage have brought you to this banal terminus.

You don’t know what the victory conditions are, so everyone gets a participation certificate and nobody ever wins. Because winning is a micro-aggression against the losers.

If you really care about gender studies, talk about women in Saudi Arabia, even if it forces you to face-off your desire to show respect for multiculturalism and religious tolerance with the reality of the brutal oppression women face in most Muslim countries.

If you really want to fight racism, address the way the ANC treats poor black people in rural areas and acknowledge the sneering ‘clever blacks’ statements the President makes about middle-class suburban black families.

There are real white racists, and they’ll be only too happy to tell you what they think. Fight them. Taking down an old South-Coast estate agent for her incoherent ramblings about black people messing up her beach is a hollow victory. Pulling down statues of Cecil John Rhodes is just huffing and puffing when we vote for a government that keeps people landless, dependent and illiterate.

I don’t like the totalitarians, and they’re on the left and the right. The people who want to decide for you what you should and shouldn’t hear – what you should be protected from. I’ll decide that thank you. Look around this room tonight. Can anyone here honestly say they’d be happy to appoint anyone else to be their censor – to manage the material they read, see and hear.

I doubt you’d want to abdicate something so precious. The points of view you hear that challenge your ideas, those are the ones you need to hear most. Blocking someone on Twitter, silencing your moral enemies – that’s no way for an adult who knows they’re right to behave.

Nobody reads more than 140 characters before they decide their opinion anymore. Pick up a history book. Not everyone you disagree with is Hitler. It sometimes seems that the default reaction from anyone on the left to anything they don’t like is that the opponent is a Nazi.

From the right it’s all socialism. Neither is objectively true, even if you’re retarded (which is apparently politically incorrect too).  You only really know you’re free when you can say what you think and do what you say. Anything else means you’re a slave to some master.