Friday, April 29, 2016
Free speech and Symbols of Oppression
If speech is free, then our generation has lost the sense of responsibility that comes with the endeavor. The use of speech is a forgotten privilege because speech has consequences. There is accountable speech, there is inflammatory speech and there is irresponsible speech. The ability to make sounds does not imply an obligation to do so. The Talmud warns against lashon hara which translates from the Hebrew as ‘evil tongue’ but which means derogatory speech. To quote Wikipedia “Speech is considered to be lashon hara if it says something negative about a person or party, is not previously known to the public, is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation, and is true.”
Our society has become intoxicated with this nihilistic joy of verbal expression, as if self-restraint is a dirty word. But perhaps the worst thing about it is that it has encouraged those who lie for a living; racists and bigots all, to emerge in full rancid flower. It has encouraged sloppy and altogether malicious scholarship because without a distance being drawn between academia and its student charges there can be no respect for any truth save those ‘truths’ most hysterically enunciated. The antisemitic BDS movement employs this tactic.
If the greatest gift that modern society has given us is our freedom to choose then our greatest failure has been our inability to recognize the danger to our society that a nihilistic approach to those choices entails. A good example is the election in the UK of Malia Bouattia as President of the National Union of Students (an organization that claims to represent some 7 million students). Malia opposed an NUS resolution condemning and boycotting theocratic, fascist, slave trading and genocidal Islamic State; she expressed public concern about the presence of a “large Jewish Society” in a UK university. Of course “the Jews” don’t preach hate; they are intellectually passive about their own rights, in fact they are generally, intellectually passive about their fate. For those reasons they have always made an easy target for the rabble-rouser. I suspect that Malia Bouattia did not express similar concern when one of Britain’s most prestigious university's London based Islamic society consistently churned out wannabe mass killers and terrorists. We can only conclude, therefore, that her motivation was racially biased in its conception.
Just because we can, it does not mean that we should. It is a fundamental principle of civil society. We have largely lost that basic understanding of what makes for a healthy society.
Sense of proportionality and restraint is the essence of being a responsible adult. And as children as young as sixteen demand and receive adult rights and privileges such as (in Scotland, Great Britain) the right to vote, the concomitant responsibilities associated with those rights are being ignored with a contempt that augurs badly for society.
The issue that most concerns me about free speech and the radicalization of debate by students (and many of their ‘progressive,’ intolerant professors) is that history is neither pretty nor linear. If I want to pick and choose the objects or narratives of our history, whether I shared parts of them or not, then I am engaged in censorship and that also worries me.
Campaigners in Oxford University, for instance, staged a “Mass March for Decolonization” where they called for the removal of “imperialist iconography.” In this particular case they were referring to the statue of Cecil Rhodes, British businessman and an enthusiastic proponent of “settler colonialism” for whom the former Rhodesia was named.
But here is the problem. Political Correctness is a disease. It is one step away from the latest fascist political philosophy, intersectionality. An unholy hierarchy of causes are permitted to be defined as worthy of inclusion in a saintly martyrs temple while everything else is rewritten to reflect the “correct” interpretation of history. At the next level, there are people and narratives, simply erased from history.
This is already an ancient practice. The Egyptians would scrape away all references to the non-person or event that celebrated the life and achievements of said non-person. All monuments referring to the non-person were obliterated. The non-person was literally, erased from history. German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, writing in 1820-21 with painful prescience posited that "Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
The Nazis, in our own era burnt books and then, they burnt people.
It isn’t just that these people want to shut down debate; they want to rewrite history, sanitize it so that it fits into their own set of intellectual parameters, irrespective of any non-linear, messy but divergent realities that may clash with theirs. That is fascism. It may no longer be appropriate for Cecil Rhodes to stand outside Oriel College (even with the £100m in gifts that the college may lose if his statue is removed). But then perhaps a better way to commemorate his life would be to move him to Rhodes House, which has been awarding scholarships to train future world leaders since 1902. Or maybe, a set of statues that commemorate Rhodes’s less salubrious attributes could be sculptured to surround him. That would be of educational value. An unprejudiced education is after all, something that even those people both fortunate and privileged enough to make it into the hallowed halls of Oxford University, might one day learn to appreciate?