It has been almost thirty years since the controversial novelist Salman Rushdie was issued with a fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, the theocratic death sentence issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. There were few more clarion voices defending the man and advocating an absolutist approach to free speech at the time than Christopher Hitchens. After his article in the New York Times ‘Now, Who Will Speak For Rushdie?’ Hitchens was interviewed on C-SPAN and spoke of the piece as being “full of clichés, I say all the obvious stuff, all the things we take in with our milk: freedom of expression, freedom from fear and so on. But there are certain days when clichés come alive.” In today’s perilous authoritarian terrain, old clichés are coming alive more than ever.
In the last few years we have witnessed the surge of new-authoritarianism from the illiberal-left, policing language to the point that Nottinghamshire Constabulary will physically police words on the subjective whims of those most impacted by them, probably as a result of listening too intently. The enforcement of political correctness has been so strident, allied with multiculturalist thinking, that the left will tolerate intolerance if it comes from someone sufficiently marginalised; a minority in a hierarchy that conflates underrepresentation with oppression. Don’t question reverse racism, it’s just prejudice without the power; a necessary evil. Don’t question #killallwhitemen, it’s just prejudice without the patriarchy; activist rhetoric fit for the cause. The good intentions we are told to search for, if found, might at least bring credible respect to the conversation from this side. In contrast, the old fashioned idea of politeness – perhaps the part of political correctness worth saving – has been all but abandoned by swathes of the right, who in fighting the regressive left resort unnecessarily to insult and incendiary tactics.
The classical liberals, believing in the simple charms of liberty, absolute freedom of expression and the merits of unfettered debate, have been swamped by the awkward paradox of illiberal progressivism. Meanwhile, the alt-right have carved out their own steadfast faction and allied themselves unceremoniously with the oldschool liberals under the misunderstood banner of libertarianism. But through all the noise of left-right warring, the words I read that strike the most clarifying note are ones that default to cliché, to common sense, to deeply liberal tenets born of secularism and secured by democracy.
These are the principles that were seemingly overlooked when the latest freshers controversy came courtesy of an Orwellian speech guide from student leaders at James Madison Universty. The seven page guide took the form of 35 things not to say, this blatant efface to free speech including phrases ranging from the complimentary; ‘you have such a pretty face’, to the shamefully humanist; ‘we’re all part of the human race’. Being told not to be nice is to find ourselves lost in the latest stretch of the progressive ideological maze. What happened to navigating the world on your own terms, guaranteeing free expression to all, encouraging contention, debate and sometimes resolution. This is a process that we have long held as sacred and assumed immutable, these are the ideas that those of all political persuasions have long enjoyed the fruits of, that all but the most hideously authoritarian adopt on instinct. These are the things that we take in with our milk. They’re usually found in the articles that defer to Jefferson, Paine and John Stuart Mill for the final incisive blow.
It might be Jonathan Haidt on free speech, Jordan Peterson on the tyranny of language-policing, Brendan O’Neill on universalism or Maajid Nawaz on the necessity of pluralism on the path from theocracy to democracy: whilst all these vaguely centrist voices drift and intersect, finding their distinguishing place, they all land on somehow profound clichés that seem to have been neglected in the marketplace of ideas. These principles were abandoned when apologetic liberals failed to muster up enough scorn for the terrorist massacres of Charlie Hebdo writers, instead placing more than a modicum of blame on the cartoonists themselves for racism. The same guarantee to free expression has been infringed upon both in the name of terrorism and in the fight for protection from it, as Prevent’s stifling vetting strategy demonstrates.
So let these clichés ring with a more uplifting chime than ever before, let them come alive, because in times of such sanctimony, self-righteousness and government-bulwarked censorship, the precious fundamentals of what it should mean to all of us to live in a free society are being insidiously corroded. Now, freedom of conscience, thought and speech, freedom of and from religion, freedom to engage, debate and ultimately empathise with each other on a bedrock of universalism are not holding quite so steadfast. In response we must be absolute in our embrace of free expression; as Hitchens insists “unlike other absolutisms, this guarantees rather than abridges the rights of all.” When it comes to liberty, it is a great new age for old clichés, because they have been all but forgotten.