Society’s new speech codes will be its undoing

Freedom of speech and thought have never been more important. But rational debate risks being closed down

February 10, 2022
Brain light / Alamy Stock Photo
Brain light / Alamy Stock Photo

As educational standards fall in the Anglophone world and knowledge of history, past political thought and much else wanes, words are increasingly misused, turned into war cries, or (worst of all) censored out of existence, as today’s new speech codes impose straitjackets on free thought itself. All this is to the harm of debate on the largest problems of the day, problems which are seemingly no longer within the grasp of the lightweight figures—a Starmer, a Johnson, a Biden—on the public scene.

Some conventional political words are objective in intent. But too often they are shorthand labels whose meanings go unexamined, with descriptors such as “right wing” and “left wing” long used to shortcircuit genuine debate. Thus “the left,” without qualification, could recently be accused by an otherwise serious commentator of having waged a “war on history,” and so forth.

Indeed, decades before today’s political correctness and “cancel culture” began their advance, the cheapening of discourse on public affairs had become commonplace, with shorthand negative terms idly used to discredit whatever did not meet with approval. Today, such terms include “globalist,” “populist” and “sexist,” as well as words which should be used only with care, such as “extremist.” Further examples are “hard right” and “hard left,” “far left” and “Marxist,” and further along the verbal spectrum “fascist,” “neo-fascist” and even “left fascist.”

This kind of vocabulary is employed with diminishing analysis of the significance, timeliness, or (sometimes) justice of the views being reproached. But it is itself superficial to consider such terms as no more than tics without substance. For the pigeonholing they represent has not only been intended to disparage but often to disqualify and consign to oblivion ideas and individuals held to be unacceptable, while elevating—with equally little thought—those that pass muster.

Moreover, even the labels “Labour” or “Tory” in Britain, and “Democrat” or “Republican” in the US—where Donald Trump and his acolytes describe Biden’s Democratic Party as “communist”—are sufficient in the eyes of many to bring a person or a policy into discredit, or conversely to invest them with merit. But such reflexes generally rule without much regard to the matter at issue, and this at a time when the social, political and economic crises afflicting the western world are becoming deeper and more complex. Truths and lies are equally being told by those who consider themselves to be “on the left” and “on the right.” Indeed, neither possesses a monopoly on truth or falsehood, and in this respect they are equal.

Likewise, a fair judgment as to who were the “best” or “worst” presidents and prime ministers of the United States and United Kingdom owes nothing to the classification of them as “left” or “right,” “conservative” or “progressive.” Their merit or inadequacy, distinction or mediocrity, have also owed little or nothing to particular party. For the conduct of politicians in office is determined by other factors, above all by personal character, intelligence or ignorance, and the challenges of the moment.

Again, the simpleminded equation of “the left” with “radical” and “the right” with “conservative” does not hold in reality, and never has. On the contrary, “the left” is not radical but conservative about working-class interests, seeking—at least in theory—to defend such interests against encroachment and to uphold labour resistance to workplace innovations of which it disapproves. Conversely, “the right” is anything but conservative in its espousal of the “free market,” being ready to sweep away whatever stands in its path, long-established institutions included, and to sell off public goods to market interests. Moreover, despite the rhetoric in favour of “free choice,” today’s corporate gigantism and monopoly are the negations of it.

Yet when words have been made into totems, politically correct or otherwise, not only do perceptions of the truth wane but such words themselves have the power to command events. Call something by a term or name which signals and imposes a taboo, and its fate can be sealed. Worse still, when a word rules the roost, the word itself makes real knowledge redundant—and merely serves the uninformed.

For example, “globalisation” has been widely fetishised as a term of recoil and is therefore little examined by those who pronounce against it. It is seen as a sinister phenomenon rather than the outcome of tendencies inherent in the market-economic system. Marx—to whose very name is attached another knowledge-blocking taboo—long ago foresaw such an outcome. Or as the Chinese president Xi Jinping declared in his address to the UN in September 2020, “economic globalisation” is a “trend of history.”

Equally ignorant is the invocation of “freedom” as an absolute, in disregard of the limits upon liberty which are needed if a civil society is to cohere and survive. But the word “freedom” is sufficient as a slogan, about which further thought is unnecessary or redundant. “This election is Freedom vs Marxism. Choose wisely and vote Trump,” declared Donald Trump Jr in November 2020.

As ignorance deepens, and as words and unexamined ideas come to represent whatever is to be admired or abhorred, censorship and self-censorship in “free societies” become the more insidious. Moreover, in the currently losing battle for free thought and expression, publishers, literary agents, newspaper editors and journalists march arm-in-arm against the most important liberties of all in fear of adverse market and special-interest reaction.  Is such fear “left-wing” or “right-wing,” “reactionary” or “progressive”? It is an absurd question.

Too many formerly creative thinkers and writers have also sunk into the pit of frightened expression or enforced silence. Indeed, the habit of free thought and expression can now cost you dear in many settings, from the classroom to the shop floor, and in profession after profession.

I am even reminded today of a visit I made in the mid-1970s to a rural work camp during the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. A teacher with the “wrong” attitudes had been sent there for re-education, and stood before me with a lump of manure in his hand. When in the countryside in the past he had thought only of not dirtying his shoes. But he had now come to realise, so he said, that manure was “a treasure.” And having to call cow dung—or bullshit—a “treasure” is not far from today’s imposed language codes in the notional free world, as darkness of mind descends upon us too.

There are also few limits now to the imposition of “correct” nouns and pronouns upon discourse and communication. Family members are “loved ones,” fishermen are “fishers,” the word “actress” is on the way to being abolished. And surely “God” should no longer be “He” or “Him” or “the Lord,” we need to be rid of Father Christmas and Mother Nature, and isn’t it time that the New Statesman called itself the New Statesperson?

Meanwhile, in all the media, we are confronted with the commentariat’s declining ability to present facts and statistics clearly, and its often inadequate analysis of the issues it has chosen for discussion. As for the lonely void of “social” media, “discussion” quickly descends to idle insult, exchange of abuse, and intimidation.

Yet despite the growing need for insight into the free society’s true condition, not much can be learned today from the labours of academia either, whose sterilities, especially in the social “sciences,” know few bounds. Instead the academy is increasingly the home of moral and intellectual cowardice, and offers little opposition to restraints on free thought and expression—on the contrary, now helps sustain them—while university presses deal ever more in obscurantism without meaning.

Our thoughts and actions should today be directed to that which is conducive to the survival of civil society, contributes to public wellbeing and a sense of community and belonging, and seeks to hold rights and duties in balance.

Instead, the political class focuses its attention on “inclusion” of the “diverse.” But the question  “inclusion in what?” is key. The nature of the society in which the diverse are to be included is no longer subject to truthful or searching inquiry. For another fetish-word blocks debate on this, as on a host of other matters. It is the adjective “progressive,” and the unquestioned assumptions that surround it. In the name of “progress,” the “progressive” would today censor and halt dissent from policies which the need for “progress” is said to demand, however frivolous, nonsensical, or destructive of the common good such policies might be, while civil society implodes before our eyes.