There’s an inherent contradiction at the heart of liberal thinking that perpetually raises its head. It’s one which has become ever-more pronounced in our age of ultra-progressive politics: the tension between equality and liberty. Many progressives think you can have both. Alas not. You can only have either, or a greater emphasis upon one at the expense of the other.
This contradiction has once more been made evident today amidst reports of a lecturer who says he is the latest victim of ‘cancel culture’. James Treadwell, a professor of criminology at Staffordshire University, says that he is ‘being investigated for transphobia’ after his employer received ‘formal and official’ complaints about his gender-critical views on Twitter.
Staffordshire University has confirmed that his case is indeed being reviewed. It has said:
‘As a university we are committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion to ensure we promote a positive culture where everyone is able to be themselves. We are equally committed to academic freedom and lawful freedom of speech.’
Here in two adjoining sentences are embodied this contradiction – between equality and liberty, or to put it another way, between tolerance and freedom. Either we can have a world in which transgender people – or any other minority section of society – have a right for their identities to be equally tolerated, respected and protected by the state. Or we can have a society in which individuals have their right to speak their minds, in which their opinions are also tolerated, respected and protected. You can live in a society in which no-one is allowed to be offended, or one in which everyone has the right to be offensive. You can’t have both.
As a pragmatic compromise, liberal societies forever choose a middle path, between individual-based liberty and state-enforced equality, oscillating in various degrees between one to the other. Our culture today places emphasis on the latter, of collective safety before individual liberty. This is at the root of ‘cancel culture’, in which individuals are censured or censored for saying the wrong thing because it might be hurtful to groups of people. Yet our sensitive so-called ‘snowflake’ world elevates the right not to be offended over the right to be offensive.
For many years it seemed that the libertarians were on the ascendency. In the arts especially there has been a growing consensus since the 1960s that the right to expression trumps societal taboos, sentiment or reactionary outrage. This is why Mary Whitehouse was such a figure of fun in her time: she seemed a dinosaur out of kilter in an age of untrammelled liberation. Theatre censorship ended in Britain in 1968 and even as late as 1995 it was legally impossible to obtain a home video of Reservoir Dogs. Even the idea of banning Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which some councils did on account of its perceived blasphemy, would be unthinkable now.
Yet the trend has since swung the other way, mostly in conjunction with the rise of identity politics, which seeks to protect all swathes of society, first from discrimination and acts of violence, but increasingly now from hurt feelings or disagreeable opinions. This shift has been enshrined in equality legislation and in ‘hate speech’, which protects groups and abstract nouns against individuals.
This has thrown up many problems and objections, not only from those who believe free speech is sacrosanct. It has exposed the related tensions between the rights of groups themselves to be offensive against each other. The ‘gay-cake’ controversy in Northern Ireland was a case in point: should Christians be allowed the right to act in accordance with their identity and beliefs, even if it might be offensive to gay customers?
Another recent eruption in the culture wars has been between Trans campaigners and gender-critical feminists, with the latter objecting – as women – that biological men be allowed into female prisons, rape shelters or participate in female sports. Then there is the old matter of some opinions held by some religious fundamentalists in regards to women and homosexuals. Which group should be protected? The offended or the offensive?
We see this conflict between safety and freedom in wider society. Lockdowns and the matter of mandatory vaccinations have pitted two camps against each other, between those who believe the safety of society is utterly paramount, and those who believe foremost in bodily autonomy. It’s a debate that was previously played out over banning smoking in pubs, and, before that, the compulsory wearing of seat-belts.
In the political sphere, at least, there is implicit recognition that there has to be a compromise between the two aspirations. In the cultural sphere, alas not. Ever since the French revolutionaries issued their contradictory and self-refuting call to arms, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, progressives have been living in the shadow of this fraudulent banality.
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