Roger’s Rules

London Chronicle: Brexit & Free Speech

The last time I was in London, in June, I was witness to the amazing populist recovery of sovereignty the world now knows as Brexit. I reported on it several times in this space (here, for example, and here, here, here, and here). It was amusing, back then, to observe the evolution of respectable sentiment about Brexit.  On the run-up to the vote on June 23 almost everyone who was anyone agreed on two things: 1) those supporting Brexit were ignorant, xenophobic yobs and 2) Brexit would never pass.

The smug certainty that, of course, Brexit could never happen yielded first to incredulity, then to rage when it was clear that not only had the referendum passed, but also that it had passed handily, 52% to 48%. It was partly amusing, partly alarming to watch the flailings of the politically correct mandarins attempting to explain to each other what happened. Some called for a new referendum, since the one that delivered Brexit was impossible, while others warned of imminent financial collapse and British isolation from the light-giving fisc of EU dispensation.

In the event, nothing happened. Or, to be more precise, the British stock market stabilized and then shot up, the pound lost a small percentage of its value, making British exports more attractive, and life went on as usual.

The immediate question was, would Theresa May, the new prime minister, really pursue Brexit?  She was known to be a mild “Remainer” but otherwise was something of a cipher.

In the event, her declaration that “Brexit means Brexit” turns out to have been in earnest. At the Tory Leadership Conference in Birmingham, which is ongoing as I write, Mrs. May just announced that she would trigger Article 50, which would formally initiate Britain’s exit from the tentacles of the EU, “before March next year.” That alone should console supporters of Brexit, as should her otherwise straightforward, no-nonsense tone. Negotiations would be complex, she acknowledged, but her administration would work tirelessly to get “the best deal” for Britain.

A preliminary step, she explained, is repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, which “enshrined” Britain’s new relationship with Europe. “It’s an important step we are taking,” Mrs. May said, “because first of all it makes clear to those who voted to leave the EU, that is exactly what we will be doing.”

That’s the news, and it is good news, as of a few minutes ago.

I came to England a few days ago in order to participate in a conference in Winchester on the fate of free speech in the academy, U.S. as well as British editions. We’ll be publishing the papers for that conference in The New Criterion come January, but I can reveal now one thing that struck me about our deliberations.  Two years before, we had held a conference on a similar topic (which you can read about here): “Free Speech Under Threat.” To some extent, what transpired in Winchester a few days ago comes under the rubric of what the philosopher Yogi Berra called “déjà-vu all over again.”

But there are differences. In the couple of years since we last considered the issue of free speech, blatant assaults on free speech have grown much more common to the point where they are less scandalous than simply business as usual. People are harassed, shunned, sacked, fined, even jailed in some Western countries for expressing an unpopular opinion.

It is difficult to maintain a perpetual sense of emergency, however, and it’s my sense that many incursions upon free speech are now met more with a weary shrug than the outrage they would have occasioned even a few years back. Novelty is the handmaiden of outrage, and there is, alas, nothing novel about the assaults against free speech on campus today.

One of the most conspicuous strategies to limit free speech on campuses in the United States these last few years has been via the weaponization of victimhood. This is where the demand for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and the anxiety over “micro aggressions” makes common cause with political correctness to curtail free speech and establish the reign of politically correct orthodoxy.

It’s my impression that this latest gift of American academia has yet to be fully transplanted to England. The toxic rhetoric of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro aggressions” is beginning to catch on here and there but has not, so far as I can see, really taken root here.

I’m sure that will change before long.  It’s just too potent a weapon to ignore.

What’s interesting about this efflorescence of infantilization is how sinuously it colludes with the imperatives of political correctness to stamp down on free speech and, beyond that, on the very processes of adult thought. Female students at Columbia University object to having to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses because the great Latin poet describes scenes of rape between the gods and human women. They find these classic tales “traumatizing.” Similarly, at Brown University, a public debate about whether there really is an endemic “rape culture” on American college campuses— by the way, there isn’t—traumatized some female students. In response, the university provided a “safe space” equipped with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

That may seem merely risible. But it is a sterling illustration of the oft-neglected fact that the preposterous can cohabit seamlessly with the malevolent.  Politics is full of examples. But the spread of political correctness offers its own sorts of examples. The ridiculous or preposterous nature of the demand for “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and all the rest should not distract us from its sinister quality. It is profoundly anti-intellectual. Its fundamental demand might be expressed thus: “I am paying $65,000 per year to go to college. Please be sure I do not encounter any idea that challenges my settled prejudices or disturbs the delicate bloom of my ahistorical ignorance.”  College administrators are only too happy to cater to these unethical demands. Consider Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, who recently said that anyone who decries the idea of “safe spaces” on colleges or opposes “trigger warnings” or ridicules the pain of those “microaggressed” is an “idiot” and a “lunatic.”

As I say, the bottom line in the metabolism between infantilization and political correctness is that it weaponizes victimhood. The target of the resulting barrage is the entire tradition of intellectual independence and spirit of free inquiry: hard-won achievements that are everywhere under assault.  The ultimate aim, as in all totalitarian initiatives, is the subversion of truth by its subjection to political codes.

There are some signs of pushback. The University of Chicago, for example, recently advised students that its commitment to academic freedom means that “we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

All well and good. But such examples of dissent are vanishingly rare. Much more common is what happened to Glenn Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor and doyen of the Instapundit weblog.

The other day, in a typical example of the racial healing that Barack Obama has brought to America, black protestors in Charlotte, Virginia, took to the streets to riot after police shot and killed a black man who was brandishing a loaded gun (which, as it turns out, he had stolen). When news reports came in that the protestors had swarmed on to a highway and were surrounding vehicles, Reynolds tweeted “Run them down.”

Twitter, which has displayed a growing appetite for censoring its users, suspended Reynolds’s account until he deleted the tweet. USA Today, for which Reynolds writes a regular and much-read column, suspended him for a month.  And his university, through the mouthpiece of a dean, announced that it was “investigating” the tweet.

Exactly what it means to “investigate a tweet” might seem to pose a sort of minimalist hermeneutical puzzle. But the minatory atmosphere of the entire episode is patent. The world of Twitter is full of Black Lives Matter partisans calling for the murder and rape of whites, killing police, and sundry other goads to violence.

Does “Run them down” in this context constitute something similar? I say No. For one thing, as Reynolds points out on his blog, the behavior of the protestors was inherently threatening. Your best bet if angry protestors surround your car on the highway is to drive on. Reynolds acknowledged that his tweet lacked nuance, but that comes with the territory of a genre that imposes a limit of 140 characters on one’s compositions.

There was a period in which Evelyn Waugh habitually ended his letters with the injunction “Death to Picasso.”  What if he had included this in a tweet? But of course, a character like Evelyn Waugh would be impossible in today’s Lilliputian regime of political correctness.

I should note that as I was winging my way to London Tuesday night, I got the news that Reynolds’s dean ended the investigation. Glenn Reynolds, she said, was exercising his First Amendment rights. No disciplinary action would be taken. But the dean did go on to bemoan the “hurt and frustration” felt by those who had been “offended” by the tweet. Brave soul that she is, however, the dean declared that she would “move forward to rebuild our law school community.”

What in heaven’s name can that possibly mean? What was there to “rebuild”? Reynolds had written an eleven-character tweet expressing a sentiment with which many observers would concur. What species of sensitive plant would be “offended” or overwhelmed by “hurt and frustration” at such a communication?

Really, the dean’s letter ought to have come with an air sickness bag. There was rejoicing in the blogosphere when it was announced that the University of Tennessee was ending its “investigation” into Reynolds’s tweet and that there would be no disciplinary action taken against him. But joy in that decision ought to be qualified by the fact that any “investigation” was initiated to begin with.  The process might easily have taken a different tack and Reynolds could have found himself emeshed in surreal, quasi-legal proceedings for months or years. In a way, what matters is not the outcome of the process but the fact that such mechanisms of intimidation have become common recourse for institutions bent on stifling free speech and enforcing conformity.