Some people are missing the point. The victims of the Charlie Hebdo assault in Paris are not the Muslims satirised by the magazine, or Muslims facing the possibility of backlash. The victims are the 10 journalists murdered for drawing cartoons. Their murder deserves better analysis. They don’t deserve defamation after death-for exercising the right which caused their murder. They certainly don’t deserve their status as victims to shift to people who weren’t murdered for drawing cartoons. They deserve unreserved sympathy, for existing, and proudly asserting their right to do so in the face of murder and terror.
What happened on Wednesday was viscerally clear: A cornerstone of liberal democracy was assaulted by theofascists. Focusing exclusively on the ‘racism’ of the cartoons, immediately after it’s assault, distorts this fact. Whether the cartoons are horrible or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether they have the right to exist, unburdened by the threat of murder. As the incidents on Friday suggest, this is more profound than the contents of the cartoons. This is an assault against free speech, Jews, gays, women and anything or person inconsistent with their warped ideology. This is a cult of death and an attitude of appeasement, apologetics and equivocation constitutes suicide.
But people are still missing the point. They’ll continue to do so because, put simply, the victimhood of non-white people is the premise with which they draw conclusions; 10 journalists murdered for cartoons is really about the Muslims they portrayed and the Muslims who could face backlash. The murder of these journalists is not an assault on free speech-that is too simple, straightforward and direct. It is really about race narratives, interconnectivity between power structures and “islamophobia“. The fetish for nuance nullifies an honest analysis. Rather than stating the force of radical Islam directly threaten our liberties, we inwardly gaze for our Islamophobia and imperialism. Rather than saying “x” we say “x, but”. If we can’t respond to straightforward evil with a straightforward moral response, our values will continue to degenerate intermittently.
It has already begun. Freedom of speech being qualified with respect to beliefs is indistinguishable from de facto blasphemy law. Hate speech laws, blasphemy laws, every tenet of civil liberties will soon be sullied. Unless, of course, rights are affirmed and analysis is honest. The two go hand in hand and depend on positive dynamism. Not self-loathing and not paralysis.
This attitude, though, will continue to fester amongst people of my generation. Anti-racism is developing from a principled position into a vehicle for excusing and mollifying totalitarian forces. These forces don’t possess shaven heads or white masks. They do possess the same impulses, instincts and the same pathological supremacism. The response to them should also be the same. I fear it won’t and my fears are not being assuaged at the moment.
Imagine an ideology rigidly dictating who can say what and how to think. This is Identity politics and it stipulates that the legitimacy of ones views is determined by ones identity; defined by gender, ethnic or sexual orientation. This is inimical to universalist Enlightenment values.
Identity politics is, firstly, corrosive to liberty. Personal liberty emerged by smashing taboos. Therefore, ideologies which endorse speech taboos are-by definition, reactionary. Identity politics is reactionary because freedom of speech is circumscribed on the basis of who a person is. The rhetoric of privilege becomes a cudgel to batter liberty. More notably, though, it batters equality; prohibiting certain people from freely speaking-on the basis of their identity- is incommensurate with egalitarian principles. Identity politics entails this, by assuming a hierarchy of oppression should precondition how we assign human rights to individuals; Not impartially-as it should be, but contingent upon a persons identity. Although this affront to egalitarianism is objectionable, identity politics’ draconian impulse extends more prominently to debate.
It impairs debate in a simple way. Rather than maintaining a dispassionate focus on issues- discourse, shaped by identity politics, begin and end in ad hominem. Rather than constructing a sound argument, one can just emphatically declare “check your privilege”. This antipathy to argument, and to critical thinking more generally, is debilitative. Egalitarian principles has been dynamically allied with rational dialogue in ameliorating human society. Identity politics doesn’t allow for either.
It is, therefore, untenable on two counts: it weaponises the language of privilege against egalitarianism, and it circumscribes rational debate for dogma. Consequently, it should be resisted.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.
On my Friday night foray into twitter, I noticed that the renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins had applauded, with vigorous conviction, the “parody” account Jihadist Joe. The account had been recently suspended but was now back up, and was then subsequently met with effusive appraisal from Dawkins. I disagreed with the suspension of the account. In order for a compelling case to be made for an account to curtailed, explicit evidence for incitement of violence has to be shown. In my opinion, this account does not contain such evidence. Notwithstanding whether or not the account should or shouldn’t be banned, let us shift focus into the content of the account and why Dawkins was very silly to endorse it.
All religious beliefs should be subject to scrutiny, debate, and in some instances, contempt. I should also make it clear that I don’t subscribe to the Reza Aslan/Owen Jones school of apologetics; where they argue Islam has nothing to do with the behaviour of violent Islamists. This is plainly wrong. Although saying Islam necessarily entails jihadism is itself incorrect, it is clear that Salafi-jihadism is an interpretation of Islamic texts, and so retrogressive beliefs, extrapolated from particular scriptures, ought to be challenged and reformed to cohere with modernity. In this sense, I find Islamic orthodoxy-the view that Islamic scripture is infallible- a view that should be met with vigorous challenge. Jihadist Joe doesn’t do that. Or I should say he doesn’t do just that, because although his account certainly traduces ideas within Islam, it also denigrates Muslims indiscriminately and assumes innate maleficence in their character. This is blanket bigotry. Assuming, a priori, that being Muslim entails you engage in rape or you’re equivalent to Nazis is not a legitimate critique of Islamic ideas, it is blanket bigotry. And saying so doesn’t make me an apologist for Islam, or islamophilic , it simply suggests I find bigoted views contemptible and sufficient for obloquy.
The attitude of Dawkins’ defenders has highlighted very starkly that cognitive dissonance isn’t peculiar to religious people. Some have said the account isn’t focused on Muslims, but Islam, and seeing as Islam is a set of beliefs, the account therefore doesn’t qualify as bigotry. This syllogism is dishonest, asinine and pathetic. Dishonest because people know fully well that Jihadist Joe is generalising negatively about Muslims. Asinine because negatively generalising about Muslims is bigotry and nothing less. And pathetic because, whether they notice it or not, the proponents of these apologetics inevitably defer through strawman or descend into execrable invective.
In a different instance, a soi-disant atheist philosopher argued that when one is hostile to bigoted views, one is animated by a totalitarian impulse. After I said about roughly a billion times that I don’t want Jihadist Joe to be banned on twitter, he responded by saying: since there isn’t an objective basis for morality, one should, therefore, assume a morally libertarian attitude to Jihadist Joe’s propaganda. He was, in essence, recycling an argument steeped in cultural relativism; why is it anyone’s business that Jihadist Joe spews virulent generalisations about cultural groups? Well, I said, if we allow cultural relativism to determine our normative interactions, what would be the point in combating racism in the world? Or combating misogyny? Or combating homophobia? What would be the point in combating all forms of bigotry and supremacism, if, by corollary of his reasoning, all bigoted views should just be accepted in civil society, and remain accepted. What would be the basis whereby we invigorate progressive values such as antipathy to bigotry, if such values carry equal moral validity to values commensurate with bigotry itself? Let me repeat, a soi-disant atheist philosopher was recycling the arguments of cultural relativism, in the name of uncritically supporting Richard Dawkins, and prostrating himself to rhetoric indistinguishable from the BNP. This is irredeemably dire. It is vitally important that religious ideas be critiqued in instances, and vigorously so. It is also vitally important that those who go beyond these critique, and assume Muslims pose an existential threat, are not curtailed from speaking. The secular principles here should not, however, preclude anyone from repudiating Jihadist Joe’s toxic comments. In fact, it should energise it. Just as freedom from religious belief should inform an attitude that dispassionately subjects religion to critique, the converse should be paramount. Freedom of religious belief should inform, not curtailment of bigoted views, but implacable repudiation of said views; On the basis that bigotry is objectively contemptible, what is objectively contemptible should be challenged in civil society, and so Jihadist Joe’s views therefore shouldn’t entail moral indifference in civil society. The fact that Richard Dawkins is not even indifferent to Jihadist Joe, but is actively supportive of him, is an enormous shame for someone who has contributed so immensely to the secular humanist movement.
PS: see Kenan Malik’s brilliantly pithy response to that secular humanist I mentioned in the piece; the desperation he shows, because his ‘abstruse‘ Philsophical arguments are not being appreciated, is deliciously juxtaposed with the fact he is fucking senseless. And his demand that I read Orwell and Paine was deliriously funny (can anyone point to anything written by Paine or Orwell that has contributed to the riveting pantheon of relativism?)
This is further evidence that the Pseudo-scientific relativism of my secularist friend wasn’t the only one I encountered .
And these group of tweets form the basis for this blog.
By Tom Owolade
“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, end of chapter 2 entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”).
Mr Timothy Squirrell has had an extremely tough week. After his endorsement of Christ Church Oxford’s decision to revoke a debate on abortion, between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, Squirrel has been the recipient of substantial personal abuse. I myself have regrettably contributed to the barrage of insults and abuse he has received, and I duly apologise. However, although the virulent abuse he has received is thoroughly unjustifiable, his views are in the public domain, and therefore merit scrutiny and examination. The aim of this post is an attempt at explaining why Mr Squirrell misunderstands freedom of speech; both, as a concept, but more importantly as an attitude.
Mr Squirrell contends, in a recent blogpost, that freedom of speech isn’t an indivisible right. He believes it is conditional, rather than essential, and thereby needs to be critically evaluated against more concrete rights; notably, the right to be protected against hearing inflammatory or threatening speech. Squirrell, by believing it is crucial to tie freedom of speech to the very particular circumstance’s of its usage, operates under a consequentialist framework. He says:
I said that there are some limits to freedom of speech, without prescribing what they are in any given instance, but listing five factors which need to be taken into account and weighed up when setting up any kind of debate: what might be said, who is speaking, where it takes place, what the subject is and how it’s framed.
As it happens, I also believe freedom of speech isn’t an indivisible right, in the sense that I can think of a circumstance whereby it would be appropriate to deny public platform. But, the criteria I deploy, to determine whether or not a public platform should be revoked, are infinitely more parsimonious than Squirrell’s. Rather than relying on biological determinism (identity politics), or pre-emptive consequentialism (assuming an implausible outcome), I believe any speech can be permitted- if and only if- it doesn’t play an explicit causal role in inciting physical harm or endangering individuals. Apart from that very specific, singular caveat, I believe freedom of speech is an essential component of open, progressive societies. That explanation is freedom of speech as a concept, and Squirrell fails to address its characteristics honestly. He relies upon employing a category error to build his supposition. He argues that speech itself-irrespective of whether it’s done as a means of exhortation or in the context of a debate- can constitute a material threat to a victimised group, and this is the basis whereby it ought to be revoked. He argues:
it is not only their right to feel safe in a space that they call their home, but it is the obligation of the college to make it safe.
Can anyone honestly say, that by simply hearing a negative view, against abortion, the well-being of women are endangered? Mr Squirrell seems to imply that if Mr Stanley says “I think abortion is wrong”, not women who abort ought to be threatened, but “I think abortion is wrong”, sufficiently threatens the well being of women. In this sense, he misunderstands the concept of free speech, as he conflates a moral expression, which would be done in a context of a debate, with an exhortation to harm or endanger particular individuals. This is why category errors are useful in this context; they integrate varying types of speech crudely together, and induce hysterical emotion rather than moral clarity. As Hume noted, ‘reason is the slave of passions’, therefore category errors appeal to us in a very primitive sense. The pro-life position is wicked, especially when argued by men, therefore airing a pro-life position constitutes an immediate threat to the well being of women-irrespective of whether it is a critical dialogue or not. Critical debate, therefore, ought to be secondary to the moral orthodoxy of insulating the vulnerable from ‘dangerous ideas’. Squirrell unapologetically fetishises the status of vulnerability by adding:
We’re beginning to realise that we don’t need to be ashamed of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We’re beginning to realise that sometimes we have to prioritise the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of our friends and colleagues over the ability of privileged people to come in to our homes and say whatever they like.
Apart from the condescending paternalism, of this lachrymose nonsense, what really strikes me is the implication that women think uniformly. Rather than being, naturally diverse and individual agents, Squirrel’s presentation of women amounts to viewing them as a uniform bloc. This ‘analysis’ is hostile to nuance, as it undercuts the possibility of women being pro-life. It is also averse to the ruddy context he likes to valorise; many women do oppose abortion and usually on religious grounds. Therefore, although the issue primarily affects women, Squirrell’s hostility to the pro-life position on the grounds of protecting women suggests that, women are inherently in favour of abortion, and this is patently untrue. Rather than protecting women-who naturally don’t think uniformly-Squirrell’s ‘analysis’ is an ideological short hand for exulting the pro choice position into a semi-religious status, which treats conflicting views as Haraam and eschews dissent.
Now, not only does he misunderstand freedom of speech as a concept; what it is. But Squirrell also misunderstands it as an attitude; why it’s vitally important. His viewpoint is seemingly, that of antipathy, to an attitude which celebrates the critical exchange of ideas in a transparent forum. This is again informed by the supposition that any critical method of enquiry, which relates negatively to a particular context, constitutes a material threat to the individuals within that context. This viewpoint is wrong in all conceivable senses, but two prominent fallacies protrude.
First of all, when a value is chained determinedly to its context, and partitioned to suit the emotional impulses of like minded people- it loses it’s objective essence. The objective essence of free speech is one that manifests itself in untrammelled critical dialogue, the free exchange of ideas and the indiscriminate celebration of debate. Rather than viewing freedom of speech objectively, what Squirrell’s ‘analysis’ amounts to is viewing freedom of speech as an arbitrary, conditional right, imprisoned by caveats, and lacking a defensible core.
Secondly, Mr Squirrell severely lacks perspective. Squirrell’s reliance on impulse, rather than objectively derivable argument, mean one thing; if one asserts freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right- without explaining coherently what constitutes an absolute right- one leaves themselves vulnerable to the axiomatic framework they employed. Being determinedly consequential means that, if the arbitrary conditions are met, Mr Squirrell’s freedom to speak publicly, can also be revoked easily.
What if, Mr Squirrell, you were convinced of a moral position? This moral position is an unpopular one in that particular context. Yet, your right to express that position, in a public platform, is denied on the basis of protecting the emotional well being of a particular victimised group. What if, you were an atheist just prior to the enlightenment, then an unpopular moral position in that particular context, and your right to express your views in a public platform is denied, on the grounds that your atheism constitutes a material to the well being of, say, Catholics-downtrodden, vulnerable to hostility, marginalised. Should this particular context, rather than attacking ‘women’s autonomy’ but people’s religious beliefs, dictate that the right to express ideas be censored?
I’m not making a direct comparison between atheism and being pro life (not least because I’m actually pro-choice). I’m arguing that the attitude which directly facilitated the flourishing of atheism and previously dissident viewpoints is being attacked, vigorously, and on the same basis; the nebulous invocation of threat and a corresponding paternalistic impulse.
Freedom of speech shouldn’t be partitioned by contexts, or expunged by collective emotional impulses (‘The tyranny of the majority‘) but should be deduced, and defended, on foundational a priori grounds. The attitude, which underpinned the rise of progressive values, against the yoke of reactionary authoritarianism, ought to be supported vigorously.
If pioneering progressives didn’t subsequently jettison the foundational, liberal axiom that no position should be treated as infallible, and all ideas should be made permissible, why should we? This sinister complacency ought to be resisted. Just because, the view you happen to dislike is being censored, doesn’t mean, or even suggest, you should throw away your principle in an abject whimper. You become hostage to a sensibility which animates fluctuating orthodoxies, and antagonises objectively grounded reasoning.
Defend what initially allowed progressive values to flourish, and resist what justified the initial opponents of this flourishing; that context-driven moral impulses ought to subordinate debate and argument. And concomitantly, ought to subordinate objectively grounded principles. This is why Mr Squirrell’s viewpoint is a contemptible affront to the ideals of the Enlightenment.
By Tom Owolade
Mr Luftur Rahman-the independent mayor for the London borough of Tower Hamlets- stands accused of “cronyism and corruption“. These are surely serious allegations. Mr Rahman is also a Muslim of Bangladeshi descent. Therefore, the serious allegations levelled at Mr Rahman are an axiomatic expression of racism. These are the arguments, in essence, of many of his supporters. That the robust scrutiny of a publicly elected politician might not just be the robust scrutiny of a publicly elected politician is the argument they peddle, and peddle with notable vigour.
His two main defenders George Galloway and Ken Livingstone have declared, in very emphatic terms, that a racist witch-hunt has been launched by the establishment to discredit and destroy Mr Rahman. With the sanctimony with which they denounced his supposedly racist detractors, one may be forgiven for thinking Mr Rahman was a principled and important activist, dragged down by waspish devils- a modern day Martin Luther King Jr. He is nothing of the sort. He is a mediocre politician who thrives in a culture of cronyism and subordinates himself to useful interest groups within his community. He is more a politician from a Martin Scorsese film than a Martin Luther King. It is unclear what underpinned the reasoning Galloway and Livingstone both exhibited though. It can be argued it was informed by a cynicism, which set out to exonerate their political chum from scrutiny. Or more unpalatably, it may have been informed by an adherence to a particular type of thinking, as provincial as it is pernicious: a thinking that suggests all scrutiny of non-white people by white people is, by it’s very nature, expressly racist.
On my Friday afternoon twitter feed I noticed something similar. The bulbous charlatan Mr Mohammed Ansar- in similar vein to Galloway and Livingstone- had declared that the questioning he received from the author Jeremy Duns and the lawyer David Allen Green, constituited the workings of a ‘cabal‘-intended to impugn his integrity. Personally speaking, I think Mr Ansar does an exceptional job of impugning his own integrity himself. What interested me most about that exchange though was his casual deployment of a type of rhetoric. A rhetoric of paranoid victimhood, and of conspiratorial hysteria, characteristic of some people that would staunchly define themselves as anti-racist. Except they are not.
Why can’t the same moral standards apply to everyone? The most authentic expression of egalitarianism, and of humanism, is surely the equitable application of moral standards to all humans. Shouldn’t this also be the pre-requisite for any soi disant anti-racist? Except it isn’t. Just as being potentially benign entails being rightly afforded equality of opportunity- the inverse should also be as equally applicable. The potential for malignancy, within all humans, should also entail all people are subject to equal standards of scrutiny and accountability. Therefore, if Mr Rahman is accused of malignancy-with well substantiated evidence-it is surely incumbent upon anyone with a respect for transparency and integrity to examine these claims, and to surely do so without the hysterical invocation of racism. Surely, except they don’t always.
What if, contrary to Galloway et al, the investigation into Mr Rahman’s alleged misdeamonour isn’t motivated by malice, improper vindictiveness, or even racism? But is rather, underpinned by an insistence upon a single virtue that politicians and people should be held to account- irrespective of their identity. This is essence of the democratic ethic, an elemental virtue that is being compromised by acquiescence to projected victimhood. Rather than holding up non-white politicians and portentous ‘community leaders’ to the same inquisitional standards we apply to white politicians and portentous ‘community leaders’-Mr Rahman’s racial identity dictates we don’t. Virtues are not virtuous in of as itself but are virtuous to an extent. Rather than saying the virtue of transparency is good in of as itself, the virtue of transparency is good only to the extent that it doesn’t make the life of Mr Rahman uncomfortable. The morally forthright simplemindedness of saying I’m a virtuous person and that’s that, is superseded by saying I’m a virtuous person to an extent that it doesn’t upset community leaders. And always give the benefit of the doubt to politicians from ethnic minorities. And doesn’t appear unpleasant and appear intolerant. And is understanding of their hard circumstances. And is paralysed with the fear of appearing racist. I think being a straightforward liberal and a straightforward democrat is far more important.