Way back in 2012 I wrote a piece to mark the annual Banned Book Week. As the occasion fell on us again 6 years later, I perused it again and it was a sobering reminder of how the discourse around censorship and free speech has changed.
I wrote it at a time just prior to the intellectual suicide of campus culture and the mass-cloistering of the young that currently threatens our culture. Back then I was far more concerned about the demands made by religion, particularly but not exclusively Islam, for our right to freely express ourselves and indulge in the expression of others to be creepily curated in the name of a complete misunderstanding of “sensitivity” and “respect”. I could not have predicted at the time, that what I thought was a death rattle of the old order, a last gasp of establishment orthodoxy, would become a rallying call for youth movements purporting to be “anti-establishment”.
It is one thing for ranting dead-eyed religious zealots to call for the banning of books that mock their delusions, we expect it from them. Moreover, whenever they engage in this behaviour we can consider it a victory of sorts; it demonstrates among other things that they have no place in a free society and are terrified of the free exchange of ideas; it lays bare the fragility of their allegedly impermeable faith. It is quite another for universities, supposedly the primary custodians of free thought and the examined life, to indulge the whims of censorious fanatics in the name of “safety”.
A collective sense of malaise, masochism and unearned grievance is now playing out with disturbing results in the erosion of academic freedom and open discourse…
Books targeting religion and orthodoxy are often offensive by design, and rightly so, and we shouldn’t be surprised when it raises the hackles of their most authoritarian adherents. But now we find ourselves in a situation where books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, works of social commentary and conscience, offensive only to the unjust establishments of yesteryear, are singled out for exclusion in order to coddle young minds and shield them from the realities of history, where intellectual diversity is shunned in favour of a uniform political ideology enforced by threats of violence. We see this repeatedly when speakers and intellectuals holding an even subtly divergent view from the social justice orthodoxy attempt to speak on university campuses. Even the appearance of scholars past and present can be deemed problematic, with calls to “decolonise” curricula deemed too replete with the works of old white men, from literature to (bafflingly) the sciences.
It is interesting to reflect on what worried and angered me then compared to now. I used to be a fierce Hitchensian critic of religion and considered it the biggest threat to civilisation as a whole. My view is more nuanced these days; I still consider religion a great danger, but its danger varies in intensity and latency between and across geographies and specific belief systems. In the form of terrorism, it still poses a great external threat to the West and an internal threat in other parts of the world. It does pose an increasing internal threat to the West in the form of home-grown radicalisation, but this is primarily a danger because it is aided and abetted by the corrosion of our cultural values and a collective sense of malaise, masochism and unearned grievance, which is now playing out with disturbing results in the erosion of academic freedom and open discourse.
But despite my seemingly gloomy tone, I remain an optimist. Those who call for censorship are almost always signing up for a place in the dustbin of history and so it will be with retrograde social justice movements. As I said 6 years ago:
“Censorship is a subtly suicidal act, a reaction to some subliminal awareness of the assured failure of any attempt to hold the intellects of others in bondage.”