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Ode to offense

Ode to Offense

Austin, TX

Those following this thread will know that I’m no fan of Donald Trump. His misogynistic and downright mean tweets about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, and now Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi, are enough alone to get him kicked off my Christmas card list.

But, like Voltaire, I would go to my grave defending his right to spout his bigoted, mendacious and often nonsensical diatribes.

A laissez-faire attitude to speech was once the cornerstone of Western civilization. The emergence of free thought and expression is what emancipated us from the Dark Ages and gave birth to the Enlightenment and subsequent French and American revolutions.

Women’s suffrage, the African-American struggle for civil rights and the more recent attention paid to disabilities and mental health issues can all credit wins to the ability for champions to voice disruptive and sometimes dangerous ideas.

In this country, free speech is placed at the very zenith of the Bill of Rights, above the right to bear arms, remain silent and have a speedy and public trial when accused of a crime. Free speech as a concept is almost synonymous with the United States itself, deeply ingrained from the founding fathers to the comedy of Robin Williams and the sermons of every Sunday.

And yet, in this most liberal of nations and ages, we are seeing the advent of a new breed of watchdogs policing what Orwell called thought-crime.

Free speech is under threat in the land of the free. And nowhere more so than its institutions of higher learning – ostensibly vessels for education and free thought.

Just last week, Atlanta’s Emory University decided to offer a “safe space” to students who may feel “traumatised” by graffiti scrawled on a campus sidewalk that read simply ‘Trump 2016’.

In February, Williams College in Massachusetts (that most safe space of states) disinvited a number of speakers whose views were deemed in breach of campus protocols – even though they were meant to participate in a lecture series called “uncomfortable learning”.

Across the country, ideas that are not compliant with the ideological positions of faculty are increasingly unwelcome, decried as ‘micro-aggressions’ that could cause the poor students to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Where controversial speakers are occasionally allowed through the sandstone gates, they are compelled to announce “trigger warnings”.  Students are encouraged by faculty to avoid these events and instead seclude themselves in a warm room where they can meditate and finger-paint and pin gold star stickers on each other and generally take shelter from any opinions that might challenge the postmodern orthodoxy they have been fed by teachers and television their entire lives.

Meanwhile, equally extreme ideas such as gender being socially constructed or literature penned by ‘dead white males’ being invalid are not only welcome on campus but often found within formal curricula, without any recourse to real scholarship or opposing views.

It’s not only freedom of speech that is under pressure but assembly as well. A Trump rally in Chicago last week was shut down by an angry protest organised by Bill Ayres, a professor and former leader of terror group Weather Underground and an alleged mate of Obama’s. The protestors argued that Trump’s supporters should be silenced as their views on immigration are “un-American”.

Maybe so, but what could possibly be more ‘un-American’ than opposing the right to free assembly and speech?

Many of the shrieking baby boomers and academics that disrupted the rally are the same people who staged historic sit-ins and marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King in decades past. And yet they fail to see the irony, blinded by their own self-righteousness.

Of course, the Religious Right is just as bad (and arguably worse) with its penchant for deleting evolutionary biology and sex ed from the school syllabus. But we expect closed-mindedness from pastor’s wives and prudes, not from those that have apparently devoted their lives to learning and describe themselves as ‘liberal’.

Acknowledging just how far the culture (and cult) of political correctness has gone in the US is critical to understanding Trump’s popularity.

Trump consistently outperforms on metrics of ‘telling it like it is’. While many of those at Trump rallies are admittedly unlikely to have spent too much time on college campuses and so are probably not reacting to the ‘safe space’ absurdity, they are still exposed to the PC culture that is visible everywhere from primary school assessments to sitcoms to the White House. And they have clearly had enough.

But it is not only Trump supporters that are fighting back against what some are calling the “regressive (as opposed to progressive) Left”. A new cabal of ‘cultural libertarians’ is gaining ground online and on campus, led by figures like LA-based comedian Dave Rubin and flamboyant British journalist Milo Yiannopolous (whose current ‘Dangerous Faggot’ tour through US colleges comes with particularly heightened ‘trigger warnings’).

Other more mainstream comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher – hardly arch-conservatives – have also voiced their frustration with the growing intolerance for intolerance, arguing that humour is suffering from being confined to an increasingly narrow list of acceptable topics.

Comedy is meant to be subversive and challenging, as is higher education.  The authoritarian thought police in philosophy and gender studies departments across the land – as well as their allies in Hollywood and TV network boardrooms – may not like dialogue that could be construed as racist, misogynistic or offensive (and frankly neither do I). But banning these ideas is counter to the tenets of free speech and assembly that are at the core of liberal democracy.

If Donald Trump becomes the world’s most powerful man, they will partly have themselves to blame.

Let’s hope they have a ‘safe space’ big enough for us all.

safe space

Published on 25 March 2016