Saturday, March 10, 2018

The snarling and hissing of the illiberal Left

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 9.)
It’s hard to imagine now, but censorship was a cause celebre in the 1960s and 70s.

The banning or restriction of movies, books and even records was never far from the headlines. Post-war liberalism was colliding head-on with traditional morality and the official censors were struggling to draw new boundaries between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

The film censor featured in the New Zealand media so often in those days that he (it was always a “he”) became virtually a household name. Between 1957 and 1973, cuts were made to 37 per cent of films because of sex, violence or bad language.

Even without the film censor or Indecent Publications Tribunal standing over them, some government agencies took it on themselves to act as moral guardians – including the monopoly New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which refused to play any record deemed subversive (for example, the pacifist protest song Eve of Destruction) or sexually suggestive (the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together).

It was the era of the indomitable Patricia Bartlett, secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. The former Catholic nun became the scourge of movie distributors and book publishers, pouncing on smut – a word almost never heard these days – wherever it raised its lubricious head.

Why am I recalling all this? Because in the censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s, it was the liberal Left that led the push for freedom to choose what people could see, read and hear.

Ultimately they won the battle against the moral conservatives. But at some point in the intervening decades, something strange began to happen.

The New Zealand Left executed a gradual 180-degree turn. Now it’s the Left who are the self-appointed censors, mobilising to shut down any ideas and opinions that offend them.

The old term “liberal Left” has become a contradiction, because many of the strident voices on the Left are frighteningly illiberal – not on questions of sexual morality, where anything is now permissible, but on matters of politics, culture and ideology. Their antennae twitch constantly, acutely alert for imagined evidence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

This is especially true of the social media generation, who block their ears, drum their feet on the floor and hum loudly to block out any idea or opinion that upsets them.

This is a generation of New Zealanders who never experienced a sharp smack when they misbehaved, were driven to school every day by over-indulgent parents and were taught by teachers and university lecturers who lean so far to the left that many need corrective spinal surgery.

The threat to freedom of speech and opinion no longer comes from bossy government agencies (although the Human Rights Commission makes a sterling effort to deter people from saying or thinking anything it disapproves of) but from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where digital lynch mobs indulge in snarling, hissing gang-ups against anyone who challenges leftist orthodoxy.

An example was the hysterical outcry against Sir Bob Jones over a column written by him for the National Business Review, in which he suggested that Waitangi Day should be renamed Maori Gratitude Day and marked by Maori doing nice things for Pakeha, such as bringing them breakfast in bed and weeding their gardens.

It was obviously satirical – a classic piece of Jones mischief – but humour is lost on the prigs and bigots of the new Left. Someone launched a petition to have Jones stripped of his knighthood and NBR, to its shame, removed the column from its website, using the weasel-word justification that the column was “inappropriate”.

Public discourse has reached the point where almost any mildly right-of-centre opinion is liable to bring forth frenzied denunciations and calls for the offender to be silenced, fired or boycotted. The silly, melodramatic term “hate speech” has come to mean anything that upsets someone.

New Zealand has so far largely been spared the extremes of intolerance shown on overseas university campuses, where violent protests force the abandonment of lectures by anyone the Left doesn’t like.

Could it happen here? Of course it could. Only last year, University of Auckland students tried to exclude a pro-life group from campus activities, Yet 50 years ago, New Zealand student newspapers were at the cutting edge of demands for free speech.

I wonder what the old-school liberal Left make of all this. It took generations for New Zealand to mature into a tolerant, liberal democracy and now it sometimes looks as if we’ve not only slammed on the brakes, but engaged reverse gear.


hilary531 said...

It's so bizarre as to leave me despairing of civil discourse and any kind of progression of the public consciousness. I have withdrawn from platforms because it's bad for my health to encounter vicious bullying from people who so spectacularly fail to see the irony. It's now my habit to email victims of these fascistic hordes to offer solidarity, irrespective of if I agreed with their piece, comment, position, activity...just on principle. Not everyone has the kryptonite psyche of Bob Jones and I abhor the pile-ons that some endure. My figurative head is in my figurative hands and if you didn't laugh you'd most definitely be weeping at this contemporary 'fail'.

David said...

Karl, I am gradually forming a view that a New Age of Puritanism is developing, but with the puritanism, conservatism and moralising coming from the formerly "liberal" Left.

Part of my thesis is that when former opponents of a conservative elite themselves become the elite, they become the new elite and seek to suppress views, activities and people they do not approve of, just as they and their views and activities were once suppressed.

I do not believe it is an age thing. The Baby Boom generation's mostly "liberal" views and opposition to the old "conservative" generation took control of much of the western world by the 1980s and now the children of that generation -- raised on those "liberal" views and by and large holding similar world outlooks -- are moving through the universities and into the workforce, politics, academia etc.

This grouping -- Baby Boomers/Millennials -- (to which I and my children belong BTW) by and large have become as intolerant of views contrary to their own as pre-WWII generations were. They seek actively to suppress contrary views though public condemnation, public shaming, the law (they are loud in demands for "Hate Speech" laws to supplement existing laws they use to shut down contrary or unpopular views). Social media has not caused this but has greatly allowed such illiberal views to propagate around the world in the flash of a hashtag.

I call these people the New Puritans and this era a New Age of Puritanism, not only because of this cohort's similarity to the pre-WWII generation's conservatism (of their Left world outlook) but also their moral conservatism.

I would argue that the Left elite, which now dominates public discourse in the West, is also increasingly conservative on sexual morality. With respect to you Karl, I thus argue you are mistaken to say the only exception to this new illiberality is sexual morality, where you say "anything is now permissible."

That is simply not so, IMO.

I would argue that the #MeToo movement (which I equate with a classic McCarthyist witch-hunt, where reputations and lives are destroyed by the hurling of accusations with no supporting evidence); the various celebrity- and priest-hunts; the widespread equating of the most violent of rapes as being the same as unwanted or unliked touching of someone on the knee, or even groping them at the office party or wolf-whistling in the street; all seem to be evidence of sexual illiberalism of a kind not even shown by the pre-WWII generation of sexual, moral and social conservatives.

Of course at this point I have to drop in the standard disclaimer that I do not support groping someone at the office party, and the like. I believe that is gross behaviour and I have never done any such thing. I can say this boldly because I know that nobody will ever emerge to claim I did that to them 27 years ago or whatever. The worst I have done, IMO, is to ask two different woman colleagues at different times to go for a coffee when they were single and I was single, and both declined and I accepted that and never asked again. But I do not accept that groping someone, or asking someone for a coffee, or wolf whistling (does anyone do that now?) is on the same level as rape, or can cause as much harm to someone as rape unequivocally does.

Excuse this essay, and thank you for making me think, Karl.

You and your readers might like this article on morality by, of all people, a university academic philosopher, published on, of all places, The Conversation, an academic website loved by RNZ and the ABC as a source of on-message guests, but in this case offering some interesting insights on morality and what it is and isn't. It's called:

"The greatest moral challenge of our time? It’s how we think about morality itself"

and is by Tim Dean, Honorary Associate in the Philosophy department, University of Sydney.

hughvane said...

I have been debating the onset, some might consider it onslaught, of the New Puritan Age, with a friend of similar vintage, ie. born more than 60 years ago. We were told how to think morally in the 1950s by people of our previous generation, and we acted accordingly - mostly. Then came the liberal 'anything goes' (Cole Porter knew a thing or two head of his time) of the 1960s & 70s, through to perhaps 8 years ago when people took being offended by something said or done to a whole new level.

On a lighter note, I look forward to KdF's articles because they seldom fail to educate me to new words and their meanings. Today's is 'lubricious'. Thank you Mr du Fresne, or 'keep 'em coming Karl'.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Karl

We are a society in transition.

The Judeo/Christian world view posited that man was born a slave to his most base passions and desires, (sin) and required a saviour to free him from the power of sin so that he could pursue a life of liberty grounded in virtue characterized by self-control.

Modernity has rejected this view and embraced an alternative view that was posited by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.

Which is to say that liberty is man’s natural state, and can only be regained by casting aside those prohibitions and social mores that bind us, so that we are free to engage in personal self-expression without boundaries other than the rule of law. If the law itself is deemed to be repressive, then we liberalise it.

As we throw off our chains, we find all kinds of unintended social consequences arise. If we cease to be self-controlled, then we need an enlarged and intrusive surveillance State to police our behaviour. We also require a new moral code, particularly in the realm of sexual expression, which has been the primary focus of liberalisation over the last forty years.

We are approaching the day when everything is permitted amongst adults provided there is mutual consent, and there is no ‘power imbalance’ in the relationship.

Those who object to this new state sanctioned ideology are regressive reactionaries and are culturally unsafe. At the very least they will require compassionate re-education.

CS Lewis saw this day coming more than fifty years ago when he said:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Such a day is rapidly approaching.