March 9, 2020

Last month the journalist Toby Young founded the Free Speech Union. Its mission is to “stand up for the right of its members to tell the truth in all circumstances, even if that means causing offence to some”.

Young himself has had to resign from a plethora of positions in the face of a huge social media backlash for some of his previous puerile comments. He is now fighting back against the ‘tyranny of opinion’ warned against by John Stuart Mill.

Anyone can defend opinions they agree with. It takes a true liberal to stick up for those with whose opinions we find incredibly irritating or fundamentally disagree with. As a liberal, I shudder at the way today’s liberalism has mutated into the epitome of illiberal.

I joined the Liberals when I was 16; not as a cunning career move, but because I believe in the equal worth and value of every person. I believe that every person should be free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs and to express them as they wish. I reject forced conformity, whether from the law or from social pressure.

Today’s liberalism does not uphold these liberal values.

Eyebrows were first raised when thinkers such as Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell were no-platformed for their views in the name of liberalism. Then, last year, when the police turned up at the workplace of Harry Miller to ‘check [his] thinking’ because of some of his tweets, it began to look like we were heading full tilt into Orwellian territory.  These days, it is perfectly normal for so-called liberals to condemn the views — and even the thoughts — of those who do not sign up to all their beliefs; even those who once would have been part of the same ‘tribe’. Liberalism has lost itself.

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So I applaud the intent of the Free Speech Union in pushing back against some of these expressions of ‘liberalism’. But I think it should work both ways.

Today, it is almost impossible to avoid the eggshells littering the terrain of public debate, as we try to remain ‘politically correct’, fearful of saying the wrong thing. But lest you find yourself nodding along, it’s important to take a step back and realise that the liberal Left are not the only PC police. I do hope this new Union, many of whose members come from the Right of the political spectrum, will also be taking issue with the ‘PC brigade’ of their own tribe.

Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a world where all sides seek to judge and condemn. And the language of the Right is just as explosively politically correct as that on the Left. While they may not seek physically to no-platform those whose views they don’t like, there is an aggressive hostility about their tone which seeks to shut down the other side just as effectively.

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Right-wing PC views condemn any publicly-declared statement of compassion from the Left as simply ‘virtue-signalling’ which therefore must be vilified. For example, Barack Obama was dubbed a ‘virtue-signalling doormat’ by Piers Morgan for claiming that having more women in authority would improve living standards.

Those who express certain concerns around social and racial justice are dismissed as ‘woke’, which is now a kind of shorthand for not worth listening to.

The Right-wing PCers are concerned about belligerently policing the trappings of nationhood and national heritage. There is outrage when Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t sing the National Anthem and contempt for anyone not wearing the right kind of poppy 24/7 during the Remembrance period. Meghan and Harry are lambasted for not being royal in the right way: an Express columnist recently called the pair “freeloaders” and a “joke woke couple”.

This synthetic anger springs from the conviction that previously mainstream views are now being marginalised. They think, therefore, that they can hit back with as much offence as they believe they are receiving. But this simply intensifies the downward spiral of public debate.

We have arrived at the point where the self-righteous are judging the self-righteous for being self-righteous…self-righteously. My point is we’re all guilty.

I do believe that political correctness can actually be a good thing. When applied properly it speaks of treating people with dignity and respect, and not dismissing or denigrating them because they are different from me. But the negative side of this is that it is often zealously policed by disapproving Twitter warriors, ready to orchestrate a pile-on.

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It is inevitable that in a polarised social-media-driven society, some of what we say will trigger offence. But this does not mean that we should deliberately set out to cause it. Perhaps we might feel that, given that people are going to be offended anyway, we don’t need to bother trying to be respectful or restrained in our language. But I want to call out both approaches — while being aware that this warning also applies to my own interactions on Twitter.

Those behind the Free Speech Union and those who are fighting back against the rise of liberal illiberalism will say that they want to restore traditional British values; freedom of speech being among them. That is all well and good. But I would add civility to this list. And I would also add the often-overlooked Christian value of grace.

Grace is the gift of something wonderful and undeserved. It is epitomised in Christ’s offer of forgiveness, and to release us from our anger and hurt. In return, we are asked to offer forgiveness to others, even when it is not sought. Our culture finds this concept almost impossible to grasp. Yet such an understanding would surely allow a healthy national debate, in which different opinions can be permitted and debated without the other side feeling threatened.

The Christian apologist Michael Ramsden makes the point that we live in a time of competitive victimhood. Everyone defines themselves by how they have been ill treated by others. And this increasingly goes for the Right, as they push back, ever more vigorously, against the liberal thought police.

It is appropriate to seek justice for our grievances, but if our pursuit is motivated by bitterness, we will be left with resentment, even when justice is achieved. As long as we take this approach, there will be no forgiveness in our public debates. So while we may protect free speech, public discourse will always be tainted with a tone of calculated offence.

So my challenge to us all is that we are willing to give up our anger and replace it with an attitude of grace. This applies to both Left and Right; Remainers and Leavers. Otherwise our current tribes and divisions will continue to define us for years to come.

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