So now we know: the right and the respectable left are just as good at PC purges as potty, radical students are. In fact they’re better. The effective exiling of Ken Livingstone from polite society; yesterday’s almost hourly toppling of Labour councillors who once tweeted or Facebooked something ugly about Israel; the scouring of social media in search of Zionist-haters we might expose and shame and crush… all this zealous speech-policing, this crusading against people who said the unsayable, has made the intolerant, No Platforming student left look like amateurs in comparison. The right is out-PCing the left.
I know what the warriors against anti-Semitic idiocy in sections of the Labour party will say: ‘We’re not being PC, we’re fighting against racism!’ The fools — that’s exactly what the scowl-wearing censors of the NUS say as they ban or libel people whose ideas they don’t like. Whether they’re No Platforming Maryam Namazie, a decent secularist, or Nick Griffin, an actual xenophobe, or sombreros, inanimate objects incapable of moral thought, these speech-crushing bureaucrats scoff at the idea that they’re being PC and insist they’re simply combatting sick ideas. And now the right and the ‘decent’ Labour left do the same: exercise zero tolerance of what they see as ‘sick’ thinking.
What the right and the left share in common is a devotion to the cult of ‘You Can’t Say That!’. This is the stifling culture of conformism that is threatening free, open and edgy debate in 21st-century Britain. It isn’t enforced by the state; rather it speaks to what John Stuart Mill called ‘the despotism of custom’, where the parameters of acceptable thought are policed, and policed thoroughly, by informal, non-state actors. Today, that dirty job is done by Twittermobs and Change.org uprisings and quarrelsome gangs who gather at the opening of controversial exhibitions or plays to demand they be called off. ‘You Can’t Say That!’ is their rallying cry. They seek to destroy offensive ideas, and to secure the borders around acceptable thinking.
And this is the cry of right-wingers and respectable Labourites, too, as they trawl the web for evidence that some councillor once said something nasty about Zionism or Jews, and as they leap with glee as that person is then exiled from the land of the decent. ‘You Can’t Say That!’, they holler. The similarities between the left and the right are striking. Where leftists insist there’s a ‘sickness’ of Islamophobia, people on the right say there’s a ‘disease’ of anti-Semitism. Where leftists hound and sometimes successfully censor people who say Islamophobic things, the right harries those who have made anti-Semitic comments. And where the left’s definition of Islamophobia sometimes includes commentary that is simply stingingly critical of an idea — Islam — so, increasingly, does the right’s definition of anti-Semitism. The inclusion of opposition to Zionism under the title of anti-Semitism is deeply worrying, and potentially deeply censorious.
The intolerance of the current crusade, of the new right-wing PC, is summed up in the widespread use of the term ‘sickness’ to describe Labour’s problems. When crusaders brand a way of thinking a ‘sickness’, what they’re saying is that debate with these people is pointless, intellectual engagement is a waste of time; what we need instead is a cure, and the cure is invariably censure, and shame, and exclusion from society. Witness the suggestion that Labourites who have said anti-Semitic things should be banned from the party for life — what authoritarianism; what fatalism; what a dearth of belief in people’s ability to change their minds, and in our ability to help them change their minds; what a turn away from the ideals of freedom and transformation.
Does the left have a problem with anti-Semitism? Absolutely. I’ve been writing about it for a decade, both in this magazine and at spiked. But why should zero tolerance be seen as the best solution to anti-Semitism, or any kind of prejudice? Why should people who have said questionable things be thrown out of parties and silenced by the despotism of PC? What about arguing with them? What about using our freedom of speech to challenge and change them? These people are not sick; they’re wrong. And if you are unwilling to convince them they’re wrong, instead saying ‘Cast them out, because You Can’t Say That!’, then you are a coward. As all censors are.
That the right is joining the left in punishing those who say the unsayable is truly depressing. It suggests politics is dead and all that’s left is purging. Purge the transphobes. Purge the Islamophobes. Purge the sexists. Purge the far right. Purge lads. Purge racists. Purge people who support Israel. Purge people who hate Israel. Purge everyone until the only people left are the purgers. Though, as history shows us, they’ll be purged too, soon enough.