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On free speech, political power, and female penises
I gave this speech last night at the launch of Brussels Signal, a new outlet for European news and commentary. They asked me to speak on the theme of free speech…
Centuries from now, if we have managed to produce any historians – which is not a given, I’m sorry to say – I suspect that they are going to find our current era very interesting indeed. “Why was it” students of history will wonder, “that the guiding ideology of the American Empire, and its European vassal states” (that means us, friends) “shifted so suddenly in the second half of the twentieth century?”
I don’t think they will use words like ‘wokeness’ or ‘political correctness’ to describe this new ideology. Rather, I think they will call this historical event the Second Reformation, in recognition of its being contiguous with the First Reformation. While our ancestors of the 16th century went to war against Catholicism, we have gone to war against Christianity per se. And our world has been turned upside down as a consequence.
Happily, the Second Reformation has not been nearly as bloody as the First, at least within the West. Ours has been – mostly – a cold conflict. And in general I would say that Europeans nowadays are too old, too rich, and too fat to be much interested in taking to the streets, although we must not be complacent about the possibility for hot war in the future. The scenes in European cities over the last fortnight ought to remind us to be vigilant against the possibility of armed conflict returning to Western Europe.
Still, despite the relative peace of our own experience of religious war, there are many instructive parallels to be drawn between the Second and the First Reformations.
For instance on the question of symbolism. I used to look with bemusement at the Reformation obsession with transubstantiation, the question of whether consecrated bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ.
“Who cares?” I used to think. “What an odd thing to fight over.” But I have now found a question that may help the contemporary mind to understand, on an emotional level, what was at stake in the conflict over transubstantiation. It is a question that continues to confound political leaders across the West, ending careers and seeing police action taken against those suspected of ‘hate crimes.’ Here it is: do women have penises?
Answer carefully. Your livelihood may well depend on the answer, particularly if you work in one of the many institutions that has been captured by the children of the 1960s revolution. These revolutionaries will be quick to describe your ‘biological essentialism’ as a kind of violence, even while they condone the actual violence committed by Hamas against innocent Israeli civilians.
The absurdity is the point. The inconsistency is the point. The hypocrisy is the point. What we are talking about when we talk about seemingly bizarre matters of symbolism is power. To look a person straight in the whites of their eyes and tell them that water isn’t wet, and to see them give way to your position without demur, is to demonstrate your power over them.
There are some people, particularly on the centre-Left, who dismiss this fussing over rainbow flags and ‘taking the knee’ as just so much culture warring. How trivial this all is, they say, while they hurriedly jog backwards in the face of an advancing enemy. They assume that we will return to normal before long, that we will passively return to our great liberal tradition of free speech and civil debate, if only we meet the revolutionaries halfway. Which means, as far as I can tell, giving them absolutely everything that they want.
The unfortunate truth, though, is that true liberalism is a long way from being the human default. I think often of these lines from the final letter written by the 20 year old Thomas Aikenhead, who the last person to be executed for blasphemy in Great Britain, in 1697. On the day before he was hanged for saying – among other things – that he preferred Muhammad to Christ, poor dumb Aikenhead protested against his cancellation:
It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure.
If only he were right. Alas, “an insatiable inclination to the truth” is not necessarily to be found in every man, and a political system that prizes such inclinations is a rare and precious thing. The culture war conscientious objectors are wrong to think that drifting back towards a liberal consensus is both natural and inevitable, not least because – as Aikenhead shows us – we were executing people for blasphemy in Western Europe up until really quite recently.
Free speech norms do not emerge and endure passively. Many people do not want to permit their political enemies to speak freely. If given the opportunity, the power hungry will censor their opponents, in exactly the way that we are seeing today. This dark urge in human beings must be controlled through laws and norms that are continually defended. Such laws and norms both enable and are symptomatic of a flourishing society – a society in which people trust their institutions, and trust each other.
The problem that we’re facing right now is that the ideology that has emerged from the Second Reformation is hellbent on shredding that trust, by inflaming ethnic tensions, setting children against their parents, tearing down statues, and encouraging perpetual revolution. Not only does this ideology regard free speech as suspect, it also serves to undermine the conditions within which strong free speech norms can be sustained.
Which is exactly why this ideology must be taken so seriously, and why it is so important that people in positions of influence have the courage to resist demands to repeat absurdities. To seek for the truth, in the words of Thomas Aikenhead, “as hid treasure.” The truth is a kind of treasure. And it can all too easily be lost.