Lionel Shriver

The young oppress their future selves

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

Matt Ridley’s fine recent Times column was hardly the first to raise the alarm about the pseudo-Soviet intolerance of the left emerging from university campuses. Yet he began with arresting statistics: ‘38 per cent of Britons and 70 per cent of Germans think the government should be able to prevent speech that is offensive to minorities.’ Given that any populace can be subdivided into a veritably infinite number of minorities, with equally infinite sensitivities, the perceived bruising of which we only encourage, pretty soon none of us may be allowed to say an ever-loving thing.

We won’t rehash the whole trigger warning/safe spaces nonsense. But I am baffled by what seems a broad millennial distrust in, if not militant opposition to, freedom of speech — now disastrously disparaged as a dastardly ploy of the far right, which has happily co-opted the battle cry. Let’s not let Milo Yiannopoulos own it.

I grew up in America in the 1960s when, sure, we had our own nonsense. But back then, defending the First Amendment was a left-wing cause, and we mutinous youth exercised our freedom of speech like a motherfucker. We marched against the war, dared to use profanity in the days it still sounded dirty, burned the flag, refused to get married just to have sex, and lobbied against prudish censorship laws. We danced naked on stage and sneaked into Deep Throat under-age. We wanted to do and say whatever we bloody well wanted. For the young, struggling from cultural straitjackets seems normal to me. Struggling into one doesn’t.

Classical liberals like me are forever pontificating that freedom of speech is precarious, and all too easy to lose. Yeah, yeah. But contemporary western young people appear to value this right so little that the prospect of losing it isn’t faintly troubling.

It’s a universal given that young people think they are young. That is, youngness feels central to their very essence. They’ve yet to have the consternating experience of waking up to find they’re 45. Thus youth seems an eternal state of being, and in order to have been permanently condemned to middle age and senility as if consigned to Dante’s realms of hell, all those old farts must have done something terrible.

Accordingly, the young casually assume not only that they’re the cutting-edge, trend-setting arbiters of the acceptable now, but that they always will be. The students running campuses like re-education camps aren’t afraid of being muzzled, because they imagine they will always be the ones doing the muzzling — the ones dictating what words we can use (cis, not heterosexual), what books we can read (Tom Sawyer is out), what practices we can embrace (white people may not wear dreadlocks). These millennials don’t fear censorship because they plan on doing all the censoring.

You’ve no need for free speech in order to uphold the certainties of your own time. In Galileo’s day, no Bill of Rights was required to proclaim the world is flat. Thus the present reasoning on the left seems to mirror the right’s in relation to privacy: why worry about the state tapping your phone or reading your emails if you have nothing to hide? Likewise, what need have people for free speech if what they say is respectful, sensitive to the feelings of marginalised groups and in line with the demands of social justice? But beware — watch The Handmaid’s Tale — orthodoxies change.

‘Freedom of speech’ is only thorny in relation to sentiments that you find obnoxious, stupid, wicked, false or outright appalling. (One of the positions I find it most painful to allow others to advocate in an unfettered public square is the relentless restriction of free speech.) Yet, however horrific the opinion, freedom of expression has benefits. Given the rope to hang themselves, fools, liars and demagogues make ample use of the noose. You needn’t refute their dopey assertions because those assertions sound dopey already. Allowed to talk, people reveal themselves. The world is a safer place.

The greater benefit: when you want to say something that others consider obnoxious, stupid, wicked, false or outright appalling and that you regard as perfectly reasonable, you get to speak your mind.

The current campus KGB, rapidly radiating into the larger culture, prefers present power to future freedom. The problem is a failure of imagination. Presuming they will always be in charge, today’s moral avant-garde can’t envision falling victim to their own constraints.

Yet suppose that over the next two decades our pert contemporary young person is inexorably demoted to middle-aged slob. During those years, having been paying attention, this still socially aware crusader has concluded that religions are more a force for ill than good — that most religions promote joylessness, superstition, scientific ignorance, polarisation, persecution, a retrograde obsession with sex and oppression of women. The many faiths exerting a drag on human progress include Islam. But thanks to our former young person’s earlier activism, the expression of views offensive to minorities has been criminalised, and Islam in particular enjoys protected status. Any ‘hate speech’ about it tars you as an Islamophobe, a designation that by 2037 lands you in the slammer for ten years.

Former young person keeps mouth shut.

Myself a former young person, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a generation that pushed back against authority, and that transformed social mores in a way which left everyone growing up behind us freer, more various and more at liberty to experience pleasure. Permission to voice controversial ideas of either a left or right stripe is readily revoked, whether by states or by mob accord. The price of having to put up with other people talking rubbish is worth paying. In dismissing freedom of speech as solely the underhanded tool of evil white supremacists, and in preferring the rights of particular sanctified groups over the umbrella rights of the whole society, young people obsessed with identity politics are oppressing their own future selves. In 20 years, I may not even be here anymore. They will be.

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