Tuesday, July 27, 2021
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A glimmer of light at the end of the intolerance tunnel

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THE American academic and author Camille Paglia, in her 2017 book Free Women Free Men, provides a scathing condemnation of ‘the plague of political correctness’.   

Paglia, branded by gender fluidity activists as a transgender exclusive radical feminist (TERF), argues that universities and the media ‘are currently patrolled by well-meaning but ruthless thought police, as dogmatic in their views as the agents of the Spanish Inquisition.   

‘We are plunged into an ethical chaos where intolerance masquerades as tolerance and where individual liberty is crushed by the tyranny of the group.’ 

While there’s no doubt cultural-Left ideology, language control and groupthink now dominate across Western societies, there is every hope sanity and reason might yet prevail.   

Not only are criticisms mounting against political correctness and cancel culture, but many of those championing freedom of expression and rationality are far from conservative or centre-Right. 

French President Emmanuel Macron, previously a member of the socialist party, recently argued that French society is in danger of fracturing because of critical race theory associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.  A theory claiming that Western societies are inherently racist and characterised by white supremacism. 

In a recent interview with Elle magazine, Macron says it is wrong to characterise ‘people according to their race’.  In opposition to intersectionality – a radical theory suggesting individuals can experience multiple forms of victimhood – he also argues that he stands for ‘universalism’. 

One of the defining characteristics of cancel culture is the tendency to assume anyone accused of a crime against political correctness must be guilty.  In the case of Australia’s Cardinal Pell, for example, woke commentators and the media concluded he must be guilty of sexual abuse even before the end of the appeal process. 

In his interview, Macron restates the importance of ‘the presumption of innocence’ and says: ‘If the voice of the victim covers all others, you are no longer in a society of justice, but of vengeance.’ 

Another example proving sanity and reason have not been forsaken involves two legal decisions defending the right to publicly express politically incorrect beliefs.  Last month a British woman won a tribunal appeal after losing her job for posting a tweet suggesting ‘sex is immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity’.  

The tribunal’s decision reinforces the right of individuals to express sincere and strongly-held beliefs and not be discriminated against and punished.  It follows an earlier case where the judges ruled: ‘Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’ 

When considering that case, involving a woman arrested and convicted for misgendering and offending a transwoman, the judges defended the woman’s right to express an opinion by stating: ‘Free speech encompasses the right to offend, and indeed to abuse another.’ 

A public letter signed last year by some 150 academics, authors and public figures, including J K Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, provides further evidence that cancel culture is not all-pervasive.  

The authors warned that such is the threat of ‘ideological conformity’ that the ‘free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal democracy, is daily becoming more restricted’. 

The signatories, while acknowledging President Trump’s illiberalism, also said any resistance must not be allowed to ‘harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion’.  When justifying the need for free and open debate they concluded: ‘The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.’ 

While the American opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss did not sign the open letter, her resignation from the New York Times highlights how dangerous and doctrinaire cultural-Left orthodoxy now is.  Instead of ‘intellectual curiosity’ and ‘risk-taking’, Weiss argues that the newspaper enforces ‘a new McCarthyism’. 

It is a situation where, unless you conform to the prevailing Left-of-centre woke world view, you are ostracised, bullied and abused for what Weiss describes as ‘Wrongthink’.  Much like the Ministry of Truth detailed in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, language control and groupthink prevail.

Barack Obama’s call for tolerance and freedom of thought and expression provides yet another example of the reaction against cancel culture’s censorship.  In a 2019 speech, at an Obama Foundation summit, the former US president suggested it is wrong to unfairly cancel someone because of his or her views. 

He said: ‘This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always woke and all that stuff – you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities – people who do really good stuff have flaws.  People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.’ 

It’s true there have always been periods of totalitarian censorship where independent thought and free speech are denied. It’s also true there is a thirst for rationality, impartiality and reason.  Proven by the examples outlined above, not all is lost. 

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Dr Kevin Donnelly
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of just published Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March (available at kevindonnelly.com.au)

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