Updated: Jul 4
In 1644, long before he had justified the ways of God to man, John Milton justified disagreement:
‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat’.
Milton’s Areopagitica, written as a defence of free press, was the first trumpet call in the English tradition of free speech. No matter that he later began to censor publications for Oliver Cromwell. The words stand as a rebuke of meekness in debate, and the cowardice of avoiding that which might be offensive or provocative. The language, as expected from a man of Milton's calibre, articulates this point as poetically as prose permits. If you can't handle the dust and heat of real, frank argument then you should not be in the race. The metaphor of an athletic contest, and the 'immortal garland' to be won, is reminiscent of the world of Athenian antiquity that he evokes by the very title he uses, in which the furnace of democratic debate first raged. The main thrust of the pamphlet is on the basic usefulness of a liberal environment. Being learned is about reading ‘books of all sorts’. Progress of course is hindered ‘not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know, but by hindering and cropping out the discovery that might be yet further made’. These cases are reiterated in J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, in Thomas Paine’s introduction to the Age of Reason and many others. They have become staples in the Common Law tradition of the Western Hemisphere. There is no reason to adumbrate those fine works further here. My point pertains more to the detriment to character that is caused by shielding people from anything they might not be fully comfortable in hearing.
On a regular basis, I hear things that I dislike and find not only logically unsound but profoundly distasteful. On the very day the Queen died, for instance, there was a twitter thread dedicated to rejoicing at her passing. To cheer at one’s death is bad enough, but to justify it by ignorance is even worse. I saw people listing all the wars that had occurred since her coronation, as if to place her in the centre of their causes. It takes little brainpower to recognise that the Queen did not have any role to play in beginning the Libyan Civil War. She didn’t even have any hard power in her own country in which it was taboo for her to even state a political opinion. In fact, the only time she openly did was when she reprimanded Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to back economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Many tried to associate her reign with colonisation and slavery, when her reign oversaw the complete decolonisation of the British Empire, and in spite of the fact that she was born 93 years after slavery was abolished across the Empire. This sort of rubbish was irritating to read, and I'm hardly a blind royalist. Yet if at Oxford University, my Alma Mater, people were to start reiterating it and agreeing with it, I would not be able to weaponise the offence card to shut them up, for obvious reasons. Yet I would never want to.
Too many young people are entranced by the notion that they can simply disengage with anything they find distressing merely by recourse to this culture of overprotectiveness. In the Coddling of the American Mind, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call this trend ‘safeteyism’, in which certain ‘great untruths’ have risen to a sacral importance amongst the current generation. One of these great untruths is that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’, a play of course on the usual maxim ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. The latter truism asserts that hardship produces a mental resolve that is not only useful, but deeply necessary for personal development. What the former does is elevate infantilism to a moral virtue. It used to be considered rather babyish to go crying to a teacher about something that one disliked. Today it is considered as a marker of unbending principle, even if it is over such a statement as ‘I believe the most qualified person should get the job’, designated a micro-aggression by 10 University of California system schools in 2015. The clue is in the name ‘micro-aggression’. It’s not something to blow out of proportion or lose one’s mind over. As the stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, in his typically pithy manner, ‘if it's bearable, bear it and fret not’. Yet even this great phrase, which teaches self-responsibility and mental strength (no bad thing regardless of context) would come under fire from those who claim it advances a robotic kind of toxic masculinity or emotionlessness. In fact, the American Psychological Association earmarked stoicism and competitiveness as harmful traits three years ago. These are, it is no exaggeration to say, two of the most important qualities to foster success of any kind in a highly competitive and intense world. Emotional expressiveness in and of itself is no bad thing, and is essential for promoting mental wellbeing. Yet so is stoicism, and the ability to understand when to be tough, rational and disciplined.
Perhaps a key driver in the obsession with the most minor offences is our current lack of perspective. In his essay ‘On Being Modern Minded', Bertrand Russell claimed that his generation was ‘the most parochial since Homer’s’. In this he was bemoaning how his contemporaries never thought to use the past to inform the present. As he insists, this represents not a geographical but a chronological isolationism. Russell spoke of trends that are thoroughly at play in the infantilising climate now: ‘We imagine ourselves at the apex of intelligence, and cannot believe that the quaint clothes and cumbrous phrases of former times can have invested people and thoughts that are still worthy of attention’. There is today a worrying lack of care for the value of historical learning. In a recent survey it was found that roughly 35% of American schoolchildren thought that it was Denzel rather than George Washington who had won the American War of Independence. 20% of 18-year-olds believed that Winston Churchill was a fictional character. When I hear people say things like ‘educate yourself’ about the sins of the past and of today, I always wonder whether they themselves actually know anything about what they’re preaching, or rather masking their ignorance through the appearance of moral enlightenment. This translates to highly misguided opinions. Many today are guilty of what E. P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, whereby people cannot bring themselves to judge the past by the standards of their historical context. So obsessed with the progressive trends of the day, they consider anyone who would be found short of such standards to be of little to no value. For instance, only 1/5 of young people believe Churchill to have been an overall positive force in the world. Most would have read next to nothing about what he actually said or did save what they saw popularised as the latest fad on Twitter- the ‘universal lavatory wall’ as Niall Ferguson jokes. To have your views guided so much by infographics and social media trends, highlighting only the very worst of what people said, distorts one’s sense of history entirely. Indeed, to judge historical figures by the standards of one’s own time is to be so deeply unfair as to forget that those very things would have been considered perfectly normal for the time. This leads someone like Churchill to be judged not only by his worst moments, but to consider his worst moments as exceptional, and to neglect his accomplishments which actually were exceptional for his time period. Funnily enough, even the darlings of such prized things as the feminist movement, Mary Wollstonecraft for instance, would have held other views that would be considered appalling in today’s society. George Bernard Shaw, foregrounded by Hume, believed in eugenics- are they to be systematically eradicated? To lose track of our sense of history is to place ourselves on a pedestal that we simply have not earned.
It is also to be extraordinarily conceited. I’ve always liked to apply the word solipsistic to religious zealots who think that God made the universe exclusively for them, and everything revolves around them. I can understand why the helio-centrism of Copernicus and Galileo was such an affront to the Catholic Church and why the latter was so persecuted. It is less known that Giordano Bruno in 1600 was killed for the heresy of investigating the idea that there were other sentient beings in the cosmos. It strikes to the very core of the godly arrogance. Solipsism is precisely the right term to associate with the dogmatism of contemporary movements, that believe themselves so righteous as to slander and outright cancel past figures who are not alive to defend themselves. If this outlook is to be summarised, it is that the most modern zeitgeist is presumed to be automatically the most virtuous. By extension then, the future will discover cancellable flaws in the very martyrs of the present. I’m not sure they ever really consider that. Be that as it may, this combination of haughtiness and ignorance leads to the mirroring of past atrocities motivated by the same psyche. The French Revolutionary Terror persecuted thousands for any opinions that could be associated with monarchism, the Ancien Régime, traditionalism or indeed anything that resonated of the previous status quo. Led by the original virtue signaller of Maximilien Robespierre, and his notion of public ‘vertu’, the Committee of Public Safety instituted Revolutionary Tribunals which lead to the arrests of 300,000 people at least. 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial. The worst of it, the Great Terror beginning with the Law of Prairial (June 10th 1794) saw 1400 killed in a bit over a month. It was the duty of every French citizen to denounce anyone who was merely suspected of holding views that weren’t entirely in accordance with the government’s public ethic. To separate itself from the supposed depravity of the past, the government made an entirely new calendar. The Chinese Cultural Revolution witnessed the same kind of barbarity- books burned, ancient relics desecrated. It's a tale as old as time.
Today's incarnation is cancel culture, which merits a very brief mention. Russell appears to have been imagining this very thing when he pondered the idea of considering political opinion before offering someone a platform: ‘it is the modern form of persecution, and it is as likely to become quite as efficient as the Inquisition ever was’. Yet it is has not become so. Cancellation does not actually serve to eradicate the viewpoint in question. It merely makes the cancelled loathe those who wish to silence them, thus reinforcing their conviction that they are right. Any decent person wants bigotry of all kinds expunged. Yet the only method that has ever actually worked is dialogue, the suppression of which just hinders progress. Between 1836 and 1844, in a horrific insult to its own First Amendment, the US Congress imposed the Gag Rule, which banned any discussion on the abolition of slavery, a topic considered too unpalatable to address. As this shows, open argument is the only long term antidote to immorality.
Going back to the issue of sensitivity, both these trends make people believe that their problems are of unrivalled significance. If for example, as nowadays happens, students call for the banning of certain literature (sometimes works as innocuous as The Canterbury Tales or The Great Gatsby), or indeed the removal of a certain professor, it must happen without question for fear of offending or, which is perhaps my least favourite word now in circulation, gaslighting. Instead of engaging or debating something with whom they disagree, the culture of safeteyism maintains that is must merely be expunged altogether, regardless of whether upon examination it is right or not. Haidt and Lugianoff call this ‘vindictive protectiveness’, and it creates much more anxiety in the targeted audience than supposedly experienced by the persecutors. A particularly startling case was St Hilda College, Oxford's Professor of History Selina Todd. In 2020, Professor Todd was dropped from attending the Oxford International Women's Festival after pressure from trans activists forced the event organisers' hands. Claims that she was transphobic were completely misrepresentative of a woman who denied any ill will and supported the rights of trans women to identify as such, merely stating that in certain circumstances 'we do need provision that differentiates on the basis of sex'. She cited quite reasonably the case of prostate cancer, a risk for those born male, and the need to have the right people for screening. For merely this, she was not only deplatformed but had to have personal guards at lectures for fear of physical assault. All this in an institution designed for free thought.
This stuff does no help to the students. A constant narration that problems should be evaded rather than confronted, that the contentions of political life have to be ignored rather than examined, is not conducive to enhancing either one’s maturity of character or mental capabilities. Even more disturbingly, in this climate people are taught not how to think but what to think. I remember during Fresher’s week at Corpus Christi Oxford being pandered to by some JCR members in a lecture entitled ‘how to live in a community’. Not only was this relentlessly patronising but uncompromisingly prescriptive. These were rules that, they said, could be debated after but not during (and yet the speakers left immediately after). This was in reality the catechism of Corpus Christi, warning against heresy such as saying one is ‘colour-blind’ and thus blind to the racial injustices all around. I wondered whether this was such a bad thing on examination- surely you can be colour-blind yourself and still be aware that others aren’t? Surely if racists couldn’t recognise differences in skin colour, then racism would not exist at all? Isn’t colour-blindness precisely what Martin Luther King wanted when he hoped for a world in which one is judged ‘not by the colour of one’s skin but by the content of one’s character’? The discussion was worth having but there was no chance to have it. This was what you had to think or you couldn’t live in a community. You realise that all these things are prescribed when you actually come to debate someone about them. Whenever you make a reasonable argument, provide statistical or historical support or anything of the kind, you are greeted with a look of shock, disbelief that you are challenging the prescribed view and, worryingly, that you might be onto something. In some cases, there is almost this frantic search through the handbook of replies- your opponent desperately thinks ‘oh no, I’ve forgotten what I was told to say in response to that’ and then either says something like ‘I’m not having this debate with you’ or ‘trust me; you’re wrong’. Sometimes they exhibit what I like to call ‘Error 404 syndrome’ and leave in a huff. Of course, the conversation can be and often is deeply civilised, and it would be deeply hypocritical of me to generalise or demonise. The point is that it always should be, as a conversation over the causes of WWI would be. That goes for both sides.
I can understand why the controversial topics under the banner of identity politics encourage emotional attachment. Of course, this makes particular sense if you are associated with one such group. Yet to varying degrees, all matters of politics and culture are by their very nature deeply personal. Opinionated people hold their viewpoints with a principled conviction that is not easily shaken off. Yet just as political divides over tax rates, foreign policy or health care shouldn’t and mustn’t risk fallout, neither should more obviously sensitive topics. Part of maturity is to respect another’s right to have their own opinion, even if you don’t respect that opinion itself (which one needn’t do). I read an article last year, posted on Remembrance Day no less, arguing that the poppy symbolised Western imperial ambitions and thus should not be worn as a mark of deference to those who gave their lives in WW1. Instead of representing the innocent young men who marched to war on the orders of their government (or ‘sleepwalked’, as Christopher Clark imagined), it embodies an ideology championed from the time of late 19th century governments that now in the 21st century we know to be objectionable. I assume a vast majority disagreed with the sentiment, as they should have. There must have also been people whose past relatives had taken part in the war and perhaps perished in it. In other words, your grandad died supporting racism and hatred. That creates a sense of effrontery as great as any felt by an offended party in a debate on 'woke' issues. Yet none asked for the article’s removal: and rightly so. Controversial things have to be universally heard and permitted, without double standards. Arguments based on emotion and ad hominem attacks are never persuasive. It is much better to undermine a position you dislike with reason, rather than with rancour. It also means one stays level headed enough to hear what someone is actually saying, rather than what instinctively you think someone is saying. This is just one hypothetical example. If someone says that they don’t identify as a feminist you might immediately designate them a misogynist. Yet only 4% of men and 9% of women today identify as such, since the current movement is arguably more focused on achieving equity with men rather than equality (two very different things). Indeed 86% of men and 74% of women said they supported equality of the sexes. These issues are complex, and people have to be allowed to express themselves honestly and fully without the risk of being pre-emptively vilified. A final example that you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover: when Aidan Byrne at LSE reviewed Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, a book that goes against the grain of consensus, one line was included that was later redacted- ‘easy for a rich white man to say’. Thomas Sowell is black.
Socrates employed a method of inquiry which actively tried to make people reach the realisation that they were wrong (a state called ‘aporia’, literally 'bewilderment') from which they could begin to find the right answer. It was meant to be an uncomfortable experience. This dialectic is an essential part of life that is slowly being suppressed. I am not saying that there aren’t genuine problems in the world. The whole point is that difficulties are ubiquitous and bad people exist. Nor should anyone choose language that is offensive if they do not need to, and I can't really think of any scenarios in which it is necessary. No reasonable person objects to the purported ideals of the progressive movement- it is the extreme and counter-productive manners in which they are sought that is objectionable. Shouting, silencing and smearing does not incur benefits but merely stokes division. On the path to collective betterment people need to be able to think freely without the fear of ostracism should they offend someone. Nobody can please everyone and still express themselves honestly. A classic anecdote exemplifies this. When Samuel Johnson finished his lexicography, some women visited him in Fleet Street to commend him for excluding all indecent words from it, after which he congratulated them back for having had the zeal to look for them. There will be someone to be offended by everything- one cannot make offence one's master. If modern society is to prosper, people have to accept the fact that problems need to be confronted. Regardless, debate and argument over heated topics can occur without personal enmity, and must if it is to produce the personal enrichment it can. As Christopher Hitchens advised, ‘seek out argument and disputation for their own sake. The grave will supply plenty of time for rest’.