Fiery blast aimed at ‘snowflake gen­er­a­tion’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

A ques­tion for ide­ol­ogy wonks: what do the fol­low­ing books have in com­mon, apart from their fo­cus on free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion? Frank Furedi’s On Tol­er­ance: A De­fence of Moral In­de­pen­dence, Mick Hume’s Trig­ger Warn­ing: Is the Fear of Be­ing Of­fen­sive Killing Free Speech?, Bren­dan O’Neill’s A Duty to Of­fend and Ke­nan Ma­lik’s From Fatwa to Ji­had: The Rushdie Af­fair and Its Af­ter­math.

An­swer: all four are by peo­ple who once be­longed to the (UK) Revo­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Party, who wrote for its jour­nal Liv­ing Marx­ism, and who are con­nected to the two en­ti­ties — the on­line mag­a­zine Spiked and the Lon­don­based In­sti­tute of Ideas — to have emerged from the ru­ins of both. Co­in­ci­dence? I think not!

Why are peo­ple who de­scribe them­selves as ‘‘lib­er­tar­ian Marx­ists’’ so ob­sessed with the is­sue of free­dom of speech? Well, they’re lib­er­tar­i­ans for a start. You can’t be much of a lib­er­tar­ian if you’re con­tent to let the state do your ar­gu­ing for you. Nor, in­deed, can you be much of a Marx­ist if you ac­cept that the state is com­pe­tent to de­cide what is of­fen­sive and to whom.

But what re­ally gets the RCP veter­ans ex­cited is the mind­set of the mod­ern ‘‘pro­gres­sive’’. They see it as one in which cen­so­ri­ous­ness, ig­no­rance of one’s own as­sump­tions and in­tol­er­ance in the name of tol­er­ance are the hall­marks. For Furedi and co the rad­i­cal pol­i­tics of the past have de­te­ri­o­rated into ide­o­log­i­cal dogma and the per­sis­tent in­ven­tion of fresh blas­phemies.

Claire Fox is di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Ideas and her new polemic, I Find That Of­fen­sive, is yet an­other grenade from the RCP crowd. Its prin­ci­pal tar­get is ‘‘the snowflake gen­er­a­tion’’, which is to say the cur­rent crop of stu­dents, es- pe­cially stu­dent ac­tivists, who keep up a con­stant, cloy­ing de­mand for their own and others’ su­per­vi­sion. ‘‘Safe spaces’’, ‘‘trig­ger warn­ings’’ and ‘‘mi­croag­gres­sions’’ are all symp­toms of this trend and to­gether add up to a new kind of pol­i­tics in which the per­sonal is less po­lit­i­cal than the po­lit­i­cal is per­sonal.

As Fox puts it: “The way mi­croag­gres­sions ‘the­ory’ goes, if you add up mi­nor or mi­cro in­stances of even un­con­scious racist, ho­mo­pho­bic, anti-Semitic, clas­sist, ableist, cis­sex­ist speech and be­hav­iour, all th­ese in­nocu­ous trans­gres­sions give you jus­ti­fi­able rea­son to feel macro-ag­grieved.’’

Fox iden­ti­fies two main driv­ers of this nar­cis­sis­tic weepy-woo. One is iden­tity pol­i­tics, the no­tion that the most po­lit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant thing about you is your race, eth­nic­ity, gen­der or re­li­gion. The other is the in­fan­til­is­ing, safe­ty­first ten­den­cies of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety, “a cli­mate that rou­tinely catas­trophises and pathol­o­gises both so­cial chal­lenges and young peo­ple’s state of mind’’.

For Fox, it seems, both po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and health and safety have not only ‘‘gone mad’’ but have also com­bined into a sin­gle ide­ol­ogy.

She has a strong case, on the face of it: one only has to lis­ten to some com­men­ta­tors dis­cussing same-sex mar­riage to re­alise there is in­deed a ten­dency to treat mi­nor­ity groups as dan­ger­ously vul­ner­a­ble. But I also think this phe­nom­e­non has as much to do with what is learned in mod­ern uni­ver­si­ties as it does with stu­dents’ ex­pec­ta­tions that the univer­sity act in loco par­en­tis.

In par­tic­u­lar it re­flects the fu­sion of iden­tity pol­i­tics with a view of lan­guage as con­sti­tu­tive of re­al­ity — as no less of a weapon, po­ten­tially, than a plank of wood with a nail through the end of it. Fox touches on this phe­nom­e­non once or twice, but its sig­nif­i­cance is never an­a­lysed.

In the end I found my­self both at­tracted to and re­pelled by Fox’s book, which is part of a se­ries called Provo­ca­tions. At­tracted be­cause she is right to de­plore the cen­so­ri­ous­ness of parts of the left; re­pelled be­cause its in­ten­tion is ob­vi­ously fac­tional: it is only the left’s cen­so­ri­ous­ness that is de­plored. The of­fence-mon­ger­ing of the right — and there is lots of it around — is largely ig­nored. This is disin­gen­u­ous. It’s also straight from the RCP play­book.

That all of the au­thors in my open­ing para­graph re­ceive an honourable men­tion in the book only adds to the sense of clan­nish­ness. Fox does make some sound points. She is un­der no obli­ga­tion to be ob­jec­tive but I would like to be­lieve she was think­ing in­de­pen­dently, or mak­ing a gen­uine ef­fort to do so, es­pe­cially as her sub­ject is in­tel­lec­tual free­dom. is the au­thor of On Of­fence: The Pol­i­tics of In­dig­na­tion.

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