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As Orwell Knew, The Left Does Not Belong to Censorious Cranks Like Billy Bragg

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Byron Dean is a writer whose work covers a wide range of topics including travel, politics, food, and culture.

It is a breath of fresh air to see it observed in a mainstream newspaper that many modern people ‘wilfully misconstrue’ liberty and licence. I have long believed the distinction between these two concepts – and the important fact that hardly anyone at all seems to acknowledge or understand this distinction – to be one of modern society’s most crucial issues. But the author, the singer and left-wing activist Billy Bragg, is utterly wrong to suggest that the quote carved beside the statue of George Orwell outside of Broadcasting House, ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’, is a ‘demand for licence’ rather than a ‘defence of liberty’.

Before making this claim in his recent article, Mr Bragg makes the bizarre observation that Orwell should have recognised that ‘people don’t want to hear that 2+2=5’. I so wish Orwell were here to respond to this himself. He was a writer who knew that people – and, in particular, ‘intellectuals’ – have in fact got a nasty tendency to be more easily influenced by power and conformism than by sound judgment, and are often quite happy to accept patent untruths just as long as they are fashionable and convenient (‘2+2=5’, for example, or, even more remarkably still, ‘the wealth will trickle down’, ‘marijuana is a soft drug’, and ‘some people are born in the wrong body’).

On the contrary, Mr Bragg: people really do wish to be told that 2+2=5, and all kinds of other silly things. The trick is getting them to believe that 2+2=4. But those who consider a position to be ridiculous have absolutely nothing whatsoever to fear from allowing it to be heard, for they can be confident of defeating it. Only those who find a position to be persuasive need to fear it: and even then, only if they fear changing their minds more than they fear living in ignorance. All of the statements in parenthesis with which I ended the last paragraph are, to my mind, as clearly false as the claim that 2+2=5. I also strongly believe that widespread faith in these statements brings immense and needless suffering to ordinary, decent people everywhere while playing neatly into the hands of the rich and powerful. And yet, regardless of how frustrating I may find it that other people fall for such nonsense, it neither cuts my throat nor picks my pocket to hear them say as much.

The offending statue

The offending statue

But with this strange analogy out of the way, now comes the aforementioned claim that ‘Orwell’s quote is not a defence of liberty; it’s a demand for licence’. I have in fact got quite a few things in common with Mr Bragg, not least the fact that Orwell is for me, as he apparently is for him, the ‘English writer that I most admire’. But personally I think Orwell would make rather short work of this charge. Of course, as Bragg rightly says, any demand for impunity made by those who have offended or provoked others with their words is a wilful demand for licence, and those who publicly express their opinions should accept that they will have to endure any reaction they cause. But this is a strawman. Neither Orwell nor any sensible modern defender of ‘the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ would, as Bragg suggests, demand the licence to ‘make inflammatory statements’ without being challenged. Nor would they even demand the licence to express an honest opinion without being challenged. But when the challenge to an honest opinion takes the form not of articulate rebuttals but of furious denunciations and shrill moral judgements, it is the role of journalists to prod public discourse back to the open plains of free discussion and debate, not to throw their weight behind the mob and send us all crashing over the edge of the cliff into the dark cave of censorship.

Next, Bragg becomes very irate with a recent letter signed by 150 academics and writers, including Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, denouncing what has come to be known as ‘cancel culture’. The old strawman is quickly resurrected again. What these people want, he says, is a ‘safe space’ in which they can express their opinions without being challenged, a point which he manages to make with considerable enthusiasm and zeal, while remaining remarkably untroubled by the petulant little detail that the letter in fact says no such thing.

What it does say is that ‘protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts’. Its signatories ‘applaud’ these developments, while expressing concerns over what is perceived to be a growing ‘intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty’. Mr Bragg’s central claim – that such people are arguing for the license to ‘make inflammatory comments’ without being challenged – is once again shown to be an obvious attack against a position which no thinking person actually holds.

Billy Bragg contends that critics of 'cancel culture' demand 'impunity', not liberty

Billy Bragg contends that critics of 'cancel culture' demand 'impunity', not liberty

Regardless of what the defenders of ‘cancel culture’ say, the letter is not about preventing people from challenging the public statements of those with strong platforms in society. Its signatories are not saying that they are afraid that people like them are being silenced or that that they fear for their own livelihoods: they are simply saying that freeborn men and women should not wish to live in a society in which people are condemned and shamed for expressing an honest opinion. And it is worth remembering that it is not only powerful people with established platforms who feel this way: the culture warriors presume to speak on behalf of underrepresented groups, but thanks to them plenty of working-class people, black people, gay people, women and immigrants in fact do have legitimate reasons to be fearful of losing their livelihoods if they dare to say what they honestly believe, which is often far more socially and culturally conservative than anything likely to be found in the writings of the letter’s signatories.

And who can doubt that this ‘cancel culture’ is a slippery slope? We have seen the slipping and sliding in action already. The shaming of those who deliberately provoke and offend others quickly extended itself to involve the shaming of those who express ‘bigoted’ opinions – with the task of guarding the definition of ‘bigoted’ of course being left in the capable hands of the wokerati, and to Hell with such bourgeois ideology as quis custodiet ipsos custodes? For example, even as one who unwaveringly defends freedom of speech in the tradition of the First Amendment, I do not feel too sorry that Professor David Starkey, an historian I much admire, has seen his long career end in scandal and criticism for saying an unbelievably stupid, provocative and unpleasant thing, nor do I weep for the many small-scale bigots who have been angrily (and quite justifiably) denounced for deliberately posting things which will offend and upset other people.

But poor old JK Rowling, a writer whose opinions I generally find quite nauseating, should not have been dragged through a virtual kangaroo court for expressing an honest opinion in good faith. And last year’s attempted ‘cancellation’ of Sir Roger Scruton, in what tragically turned out to be the final year of that eccentric but gentle individual’s scholarly and often courageous life, was a clear example of how, when the opportunity arises to silence a harmless and genuine but ultimately dissenting voice, the culture warriors can be reliably anticipated to come down on the side of a creepy little snide like George Eaton.

What matters for these people is not the content of your character, but rather your outward appearance – the opinions you express, rather than the intellectual rigour or even honesty with which you express them. If JK Rowling had kept quiet about her feeling that the phrase ‘people who menstruate’ might actually be congruous with the word ‘women’ – a suspicion which, unfathomably enough, does actually haunt the lives of rather a lot of ordinary people – she would still be the darling of the Twitter thought-police. But because she publicly stepped half an inch outside of what is presently deemed to be acceptable opinion, she has been shunned.

Professor Noam Chomsky, veteran of the American Left

Professor Noam Chomsky, veteran of the American Left

And Professor Noam Chomsky – a man who has for the last seven decades been singlehandedly making greater contributions to the causes of peace, social justice and democracy than all the culture warriors combined, is also now in the process of enduring an attempted ‘cancellation’ at the hands of the very wild-eyed zealots Bragg defends. Perhaps Mr Bragg will join some of his allies in dismissing Chomsky’s opinion altogether on the basis of his being ‘white, wealthy and endowed’, thereby adding ad hominem to the growing list of basic logical fallacies which constitute their arsenal, and ignoring the inconvenient fact that this description also applies to most of them. By condoning and encouraging this kind of behaviour, we are conceding the principle that debate should take place in a free and open environment, and rendering it only a matter of time before it becomes impossible to continue pretending that a culture of free speech still exists in our society.

The uber-woke are digging their own graves here. And alas, they may be digging the grave of social democracy too. By refusing to engage with the arguments of honest, decent, well-meaning people who simply do not agree with them, they are forcing those people away. As Orwell knew very well, left-wing politics is doomed to fail all the while it calls up in the minds of ordinary people a ‘picture of vegetarians with wilting beards…of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers’. All the while it seems to be less about overthrowing bullies and tyrants and more about indulging the puritanical instincts of cranks, it will force people it might otherwise have persuaded to take flight – and if their flight is rapid enough, he says, it may carry them all the way to fascism.

The time has come for journalists and politicians on both sides of the culture wars to start condemning hate-mobs of all political persuasions. It is not difficult to adopt a tolerant and respectful attitude towards our opponents, even those with whom we furiously disagree and whose opinions we find repellent. The failure to do so by people on all sides should be enough to have us asking ourselves whether the present epoch is really the shining beacon of tolerance and diversity which its self-congratulatory rhetoric proclaims it to be. Every generation has been capable of tolerating opinions with which it is comfortable: the challenge is learning to tolerate opinions with which we are not comfortable, and which ruffle our most basic assumptions. I think it fair to say that people across the political and cultural divide are currently failing to meet this challenge more spectacularly than almost any other generation I can think of.

By failing to engage with their opponents in argument and instead treating them as stupid, immoral sub-humans not worthy of debate, the culture warriors are adopting the tactics of the far-right populists, and in so doing are bowing out of civil society and taking up instead the cause of the bully, the demagogue and the despot. It is in a way tragic, in a way comforting, to know that their revolution will one day come to devour its own children. And when it does, they too will be forced to think on those things which Rudyard Kipling called the ‘Gods of the Copybook Headings’: the immortal truth, for example, that pride comes before a fall.


Note: This article was originally written in July 2020.

© 2020 Byron Dean