In England, we are famously bad a speaking freely, despite free speech inarguably considered one of our better exports. Our unfathomable social dictats outline a few polite topics when in ‘polite company', and to them we tend to stick, unless very drunk, or in the safety of friends. It is an unblinking, inert state, learned at the knee: placid and unshakeable in the face of even the most outrageous racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or classism. (Those of us with more integrity have evolved an expression of pointedly silent fury, which doubtless imparts all manner of powerful, perspective-altering objections without compromising the smooth trajectory of our encounter. It is, mostly, in the nostril flare).
For some time now, British-brand freedom of speech, and the democracy it endows, has really been one long English garden party - where everyone makes nice, and drinks deeply into the barrel of their glass when faced with the guest who persists in an awkward line of enquiry for all involved, even though it’s a lovely day, and the sun’s out, and there’s Pimms. Right now, of course, those guests making waves are the Migration Crisis, in general, and Donald Trump, specifically - whose scale of preposterousness seems, somehow, to make that disgusting comparison tenable - and as a result, we’re at a very sticky point; being forced well off the designated topics to confront all sorts of nasties that at some point we all forgot how to talk about like grown ups.
So it’s no surprise, really, that our student body has of late taken heartily to a new breed of don’t-hurt-my-feelings-fascism that’s busy no-platforming people (traditionally reserved for fascists, or Nazis, or genuine fans of Hitler) who’ve spent their life using free speech to actually promote freedom. The latest debacle: NUS Officer Fran Cowling refusing to share a platform with celebrated human rights activist Peter Tatchell because he signed a letter protesting defending Germaine Greer’s right to speak in the face of another ludicrous no-platform (so… still defending freedom; still not, as Cowling claimed, a racist.)
In Socio-psycho-linguistic terms, we’d call this Aggressively Defensive Self-Preservation: the desperate attempts of a confused body politic to protect the inherited narrative of their liberal identity - A.K.A Pillock Syndrome: the latest offspring of the entitlement culture that just keeps on giving.
Unsurprisingly, I’m a liberal. Many of us tend to be, these days, by default, thank god. But this sort of liberalism embarrasses me.
Actually, two types of liberalism embarrass me.
The first type is The Difference Denier: this rampant refusal to entertain the idea of intellectual diversity - when it’s the question of ‘diversity’ which is so often at stake - in hysterical terms; or, more seriously, to move off the platform and broach the difficult but essential task of articulating the uncomfortable cultural differences we must confront if mass migration - or indeed, truly integrated multiculturalism - is to have any long term hope in Europe and the UK, as we are seeing all too clearly in Sweden and in Germany, and which Hugo Rifkind captured brilliantly here.
The Difference Deniers make the notion of liberalism - an heroic, hard-won, bloody, against-the-odds position - a joke. It makes idealogical progress a dead thing: a shrine we’re sitting on with our eyes closed and our fingers stuffed in our ears yelling loudly. It denies the obvious truth that ideas need to live in the real world, fuelled and tested and retooled by intelligent, purposeful, challenging debate. Even if it offends you.
The second type of liberalism that embarrasses me, more and more, is The Laughing Leftie: the wry, safe, unexamined hipster politics that lives in London and Paris and New York Coffee houses, slurping up its own hand-ground, air-pressed self-satisfaction with a side of foam. This is the one many of us are guilty of; the one with principles, but no solutions; the one that lets Donald Trump - so obviously crazy, right?! So obviously a joke - slip through the cracks of the American electoral process, again, and again, and again - until, all of a sudden, actually, it’s too late to stop him.
The response of The Laughing Leftie at this point of crisis merges into its sibling, Difference Deniers: helpfully, in the UK, we just tried to ban him from the country, inflating brand Trump in the process. Our unsettling response is a microcosm of the mass failure of liberal America to engage seriously with the reality of what he represents for millions of disaffected and angry individuals who stopped caring about nuance or evenhandedness a long old while ago; people who, sure, can’t crack a joke so laced with post ironic meta-irony that you might almost-but-not-really-just-a-little-bit die inside laughing, but will, in fact, determine the future of the most powerful country on earth. So who's laughing now.
In the world, in general, it’s a bad time for freedom of speech and liberal values. Our garden party variety needs to toughen up. We need to get past the niceties - and the wailing students, and the twitterati, and the cowering administrators and the placating politicians and our own innate discomfort - and down to the nitty gritty. With all this to contend with, it might take a while before British free speech is really out of the woods, or the closet, or whatever, and actually able to do its job.
And if this is a sign of things to come, it strikes me that the creative arts have got their work cut out in slipping divergent opinion through the back door and calling it ‘fiction’, just like in the times of yore. Today, though, there's one key difference: this time round it’s the people, not the monarch, swinging the axe.