How can we move beyond the nihilistic culture wars?


What can you even say these days? For some people, particularly on the right, society has become so hypersensitive that clumsy or nonconformist comments on race or gender lead to people being boycotted — or, in the parlance, “cancelled”. Forgiveness, good-faith debate and even irreverent humour are all increasingly difficult, the argument goes.

But the sentiment is also a substantive one. After Brexit, Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, what can you say that is not either a simplistic endorsement of the populist wave or a familiar rejection of it? What arguments are worth having now? What takes us beyond the nihilistic culture wars?

Two books offer answers. Matthew d’Ancona once succeeded Boris Johnson as editor of the conservative Spectator magazine, but he has drifted towards the centre, enraged by Brexit in particular. In Identity, Ignorance, Innovation, he seeks to broaden political debate beyond the “quagmire” of immigration. Andrew Doyle, a Brexiter who places himself more on the left than the right, makes a narrower case in Free Speech. He argues that all points of the ideological spectrum should converge in backing absolute free speech. It’s not free expression that endangers social cohesion, it’s the absence of it. Although d’Ancona and Doyle agree on a number of cases, they end up in very different places.

Their agreement is that the current fashion for limiting who can say what on what topic is unhelpful. Take the case of Bret Weinstein, a leftwing professor in Washington who in 2017 objected to his college’s move to reinvent the Day of Absence protest. Traditionally the Day of Absence had been for people of colour to stay away from the campus voluntarily to make their presence felt.

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After complaints about racial injustice, the college wanted white students and teachers to stay away instead. Weinstein argued that, by enforcing absence, this would change the protest to something sinister. Students branded him a racist and he and his wife were hounded out of their jobs. (The couple, it should be pointed out, received a $500,000 settlement. It’s also unclear how common such cases are, especially in the UK.)

D’Ancona argues that excluding voices from debate in this way “is not how a successful pluralist, interconnected society works, or could ever work.” Nonetheless, he urges his fellow liberals to take white privilege seriously, and to welcome the challenge of identity politics.

For decades, liberal society has failed to make good on its promises of gender and racial equality. Identity politics is a response to that, says d’Ancona, and a reason that there can be no return to the pre-Brexit/ Trump consensus. After all, politics is “sequential”, just as Tony Blair learned from Margaret Thatcher.

Next, d’Ancona moves to education: he laments that young people are ill equipped for the knowledge economy, because they do not read books. He blames the straitjacket of the school curriculum and testing, and the rise of the internet. American teens are online six to nine hours a day, and living in “the digital instant” prevents reflection on what has gone before.

The answer is “less teaching to the test, more teaching.” This is an old debate, and, although d’Ancona’s contribution is passionate (one senses the frustrated parent), it lacks the detailed evidence to offer a truly persuasive alternative.

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His final section, entitled ‘Innovation’ and ranging from automation to misinformation, is the most disjointed. Among its proposals are life-long learning and wealth taxes, taking advantage of the political space provided by coronavirus.

D’Ancona is generous with his excerpts of other writers — including Labour politician David Lammy, American psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and former Conservative adviser (and FT columnist) Camilla Cavendish. Perhaps as a result, Identity, Ignorance, Innovation does not add up to a political agenda (it also sidesteps questions from the constitution to climate change).

What I most took from d’Ancona’s book was his lack of complacency: his is a heartfelt attempt to renew liberal ideals for the coming decades. He cites and employs the principle of charity — interpreting someone’s arguments in the most reasonable way possible. How sorely our public debate needs others to express themselves similarly.

Doyle’s approach is different. A former university lecturer, he has satirised wokeness as Titania McGrath, a Twitter character with insights such as “All criminals are white, especially if they’re not.”

His defence of free speech is absolutist: it’s impossible to draw a line on what speech is acceptable, so no line should be drawn. Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons, arguments against gay marriage, and even racist comments should all be allowed, because the alternative would be to empower the state.

Doyle does a fair job of reclaiming free speech from the ideological right: he cites, for example, how the American Civil Liberties Union defended neo-Nazis’ right to march through Chicago in 1977. He also shows why we might think twice before making misogyny a hate crime, which may lead to police investigations into comments that are merely offensive.

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Doyle criticises “faceless” social media networks for censoring offensive comments. He also seeks to rebut the classic case for limiting free speech: that no one expects to be able to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre. Shouting in a theatre is not a free speech issue, argues Doyle: rather, by buying our theatre ticket, we have “entered into a contract to behave in a manner that does not detract from the enjoyment of others”.

Yet this absolutist case is flawed. In reality, Twitter and the theatre are acting similarly, in drawing standards of behaviour to protect the experience that they offer. Ideas are not the same as violence, but they do have consequences. Social networks tried allowing people to say what they like, and it proved inimical to many users and to US democracy. Sometimes the answer to bad speech is not “more speech”; it’s to unplug the speaker’s microphone.

There are contexts in which political opponents need to do more to tolerate good-faith disagreement. But would society be improved by online platforms allowing racist, sexist and homophobic comments? I think not. Free speech, like many of our liberal values, needs to be defended, but it also needs to be interpreted for the modern age.

Identity, Ignorance, Innovation: Why the Old Politics and Is Useless What to Do About It by Matthew d’Ancona, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP: £20.00, 288 pages

Free Speech and Why It Matters by Andrew Doyle, Constable, RRP: £9.99, 144 pages



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