Friday, January 10, 2020

The year of vicious left-wing puritanism

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, January 9).

The news story that kind of summed up 2019 for me, in a dismal way, was one that appeared in the week before Christmas.

A woman named Maya Forstater lost her job at a British think tank called the Centre for Global Development for tweeting that there were only two biological sexes. She questioned government plans to let people decide their own gender and expressed the belief that “trans” women could not truly describe themselves as women.

Forstater appealed against her sacking but lost her case, an activist judge describing her remarks as “offensive and exclusionary”. Where freedom of expression fitted in, if it was considered at all, wasn't clear.

At this point you could be excused for wondering whether the entire Western world has been seized by a collective madness. A woman lost her job, and brought the full weight of the judicial system down on her head, for expressing a view that until relatively recently wouldn’t have caused so much as a raised eyebrow, and which the overwhelming majority of ordinary people – that is to say, those who haven’t been infected by the virulent contagion of transgenderism – very likely still share.

Note that Forstater didn’t set out to incite hatred of trans-gender people or suggest they be persecuted. She simply asserted the right to express her view that “trans” women were not real women. 

Notwithstanding the florid rhetoric of the judge, no one was damaged by this opinion. Of course it outraged transgender activists, whose offence-detection meters are permanently set on 11, but that doesn’t equate to harm.

Nonetheless, the message from the employment tribunal to anyone rash enough to consider challenging the shibboleths of identity politics couldn’t have been clearer.

But it got crazier still. Enter J K Rowling, the author, who expressed support for Forstater on Twitter. At this point the Twitterati decided Rowling was a far juicier target than Forstater and turned on her like a swarm of angry wasps.

She was attacked as trans-phobic – 2019’s most tiresome buzzword – and condemned as a terf, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The author’s leftist credentials (Rowling campaigned against Brexit and once donated 1 million pounds to the British Labour Party) were no protection.

The Forstater-Rowling story encapsulated two of last year’s dominant themes: the neo-Marxist Left’s intolerance of dissent and the crucial role of the ironically misnamed “social” media in howling down anyone who dares to question approved ideology.

It also highlighted the sheer aggressiveness of minority-group activists in attacking anyone who challenges them. The standard tactic is to demand that the dissenter be sacked, regardless of whether their personal views have any bearing on their ability to do their job.

If the offender happens to be a broadcaster, celebrity or even sporting hero (as in the case of Israel Folau), this is invariably accompanied by a strident campaign for a boycott of their employer and/or sponsors. The aim is to intimidate people into silence, and the tragedy is that it often succeeds.

It’s hard to recall a time when politics were more polarised, overheated and intolerant of ideological difference. The latter is ironic, given the woke Left’s supposed embrace of diversity.

That was another feature of 2019: the emergence of that word “woke”, which supposedly denotes support for oppressed minorities, but which rapidly became synonymous with a vicious new form of puritanism.

Last year saw the finger-wagging prigs in full, sanctimonious flight. It was a year in which vindictive mobs constantly patrolled the digital public square, Twitter fingers poised to denounce anyone foolish enough to question received wisdom on a range of hot-button issues that included race, gender identity, Islamophobia, gay rights, climate change – in which anyone who expressed even mild scepticism was vilified as a denialist – and the angry new kid on the ideological block, veganism.

Yet for all this, 2019 was also strangely reassuring. Because when it really mattered, the barrage of noise and confected rage from the woke Left counted for nothing.

In Australia, left-leaning media pundits were confounded by the election of Scott Morrison’s right-of-centre government. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Tories stormed to a resounding victory marked by the mass defection of pro-Brexit blue-collar voters from the Labour Party.

In the United States, the Democratic Party appears to have become collectively unhinged in its obsessive pursuit of Donald Trump, aided and abetted by news media that at times seemed almost hysterical. The result is that we go into an American election year with the unpleasant prospect that Trump will be returned to the White House.

In all three countries, the left-leaning commentariat which dominates the public conversation has shown itself to be hopelessly out of step with the ordinary people who decide elections. Have they learned nothing?  


hughvane said...

Your piece about social hysteria is well thought out, constructed and expressed, but it will not bring about change … “no prophet is welcome in his own hometown” (country) … and will serve little purpose other than to provide the material that causes the ‘woke’ (a loathsome term) Left to foam at the mouth. In response to your finishing and rhetorical question … “no!”

Hilary Taylor said...

At times I use the 'what would the average smoko room make of all this?' test. I suspect that often the people sharing tea & eats would struggle to even understand what the 'woke' were on about, and I don't mean to be patronising. It's a comfort to me at least. Many folk I know would say we now have to walk on eggshells in the average work or social situation, and this is depressing, and boring. People I used to regard as liberal, progressive even, are now cast as hopelessly out of touch. They're not, it's just the noisy few influencing the atmosphere and the media elevating them.

khrust said...

This is a good, hard-hitting opinion piece Karl. It is particularly worrying to me the extent to which "progessive" or "woke" philosophies have infiltrated the legal profession and the law itself in the UK. The judgement against Maya Forstater being one example and the hideous "hate speech" laws another. This has been happening irrespective of whether Labour or the Conservatives are in power. Western European governments have been defying the will of a majority of the people in this manner for some time now. Immigration is perhaps the most obvious example of this (in the UK). Douglas Murray's acclaimed 2017 book "The Strange Death of Europe" is very illuminating on the subject.
Down here in NZ we are trailing the trend in legal activism by a few years but it is certainly gaining momentum. It is also hardly surprising that it is happening. Law is after all, a branch of the "humanities" and it is the humanities and social science departments in Universities which have been almost totally taken over by postmodern and neo-Marxist ideologues over the last 40 years or so. Whilst I am heartened by the electoral rejection of the left wing parties in the UK and Australia (though not in Canada), we actually need conservative politicians with the balls to push back hard against the madness of wokedom. Is "Soymun" the man to do this? I doubt it.

Odysseus said...

I am afraid our turn is coming, probably this year when Ardern and Little introduce their hate speech legislation with the assistance of the Far Left Human Rights Commission, Orwellian doublespeak if ever there was, to criminaize diverse opinion. There is a culture war underway in the West led by the "liberal" elite who loath and fear the opinions of ordinary people. The latter were outrageous enough to vote for Brexit and Trump, undermining the "liberal" grip on power and upending their world view. Wokeness is a symptom of the extreme lengths they are prepared to go, as is their current adulation of the evil and repressive Iranian regime.

Andy Espersen said...

Very timely and to the point article, Karl. A pleasure to read. Re the "activist judge" in Forstater's appeal you wonder where freedom of expression fitted in. Well it does not fit in - and perhaps the problem here is that Britain has no legislation expressly guaranteeing freedom of speech. This freedom was always just taken for granted. Nobody would ever dream of hauling an Hyde Park orator off his soapbox. If you did not agree with him you would just walk away (or reasonably politely debate it with him). A judge in the U.S.A could never have come to the same conclusion as this judge - because here they have a written constitution with its First Amendment which all judges must follow whether they like it or not.

Do we need a written constitution guaranteeing such rights?? I am beginning to think so.

transpress nz said...

One thing very clear is that Left Wingers only believe in Free Speech for themselves and not for those who disagree with them. In Stalin's Soviet Union those who in any way criticized the government, let alone Stalin, got sent to the gulag. The present government doesn't believe in Free Speech either and given the role that it has in a Democracy, is anti-Democratic.

David McLoughlin said...

In Stalin's Soviet Union those who in any way criticized the government, let alone Stalin, got sent to the gulag.

Actually, most of them were shot. Mostly it was just the luckiest who were sent to the gulags. Though Stalin was so capricious, he actually let some people go free!

I'm becoming increasingly concerned about a fairly major threat to freedom of speech that is coming from much of the Anglo-world media as well as academia, its students and the teaching profession. This means it is now dominating public discussion with only one view allowed. Entire generations of young people are now leaving schools and universities thoroughly indoctrinated with it. The past few weeks have seen it raging and I suspect this will only get worse.

This threat comes from an "emergency" that is so all-encompassing it not only can't be disproved, but virtually everything that happens everywhere is claimed to be caused by it and proof of it, according to its promoters. It's a Theory of Everything, but not the one physicists have been seeking since Einstein.

Something so dogmatic used to be called religion, and those who questioned it were deemed heretics and often paid with their livelihoods and even their lives. Science eventually triumphed over such dogmatism. The science that gave us everything that has made life on this planet so great for billions of people invited challenge because only by challenging it could science and the world improve.

Followers of this rigid new orthodoxy call it "science," but its dogmatic, fanatical promoters won't allow their "science" to be challenged, which makes it truly a religion, not science.

Those who could be contrary opinion-formers who try to inject some inconvenient facts are trashed (often right around the world simultaneously in co-ordinated attacks) in the mainstream media and in social media to the extent fewer and fewer people dare speak up. Those who do are starting to lose their jobs; demands are already being heard to make it a criminal offence to challenge this new religion.

You will rarely find any contrary views, let alone challenges, in the mainstream media because most Anglo-speaking media got together last year in an arrangement coordinated by The Guardian and Columbia Journalism Review and agreed to promote their cause as the "biggest emergency in history" and to ban contrary views. You only see the whiff of a contrary view when the media hurl ridicule against any public figure who questions their dogma. In NZ, Stuff, Radio NZ and TVNZ and probably others are party to this agreement. It's not a conspiracy, or a secret. They trumpeted their joining it. They are proud to be supporting the righteous cause.

Journalists used to be committed to uncovering the truth, no matter how inconvenient. As a profession they were wary of spin and looked out for propaganda, which they called out and treated with contempt. Not any more. Many of today's journalists are banner-wavers and ardent promoters of a massive propaganda campaign on an international scale the like of which the world has never seen.

Orwell would probably be astounded at how quickly and totally this campaign has come to dominate the public space, with virtually every news item on whatever subject being linked to it one way or another. No news bulletin goes without at least one homily and often many. No long-form item, documentary or extended interview goes without reaching it eventually, if not in the first line.

I'm totally at a loss working out how to combat it because you can't. Ordinary folk like me are immediately dismissed as loons if we say anything publicly. Those who could make a difference by speaking out no longer dare. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Trev1 said...

Well said David. You are not alone.

Doug Longmire said...

Thanks Karl and correspondents, Very well written article, and direct to the point.
The woke generation with their proposed hate speech laws (which will, for example, make it a crime to state that one does not wish to live under Sharia law, or that there are only 2 genders) seem to have the media completely under their sway.

The mainstream media in NZ right now seems to be hitting an all time low in quality. Especially in regard to their complete denial to any questioning of the "climate change" dogma .

Andy Espersen said...

As Trev1 says, You are not alone, David. You end your long comment saying you are totally at a loss how to combat it. Don't despair. I was pleased to note Karl's conclusion :"The barrage of noise and confected rage from the woke left [counts] for nothing".

I have just read Steven Pinker's latest book, "Enlightenment now". Read it, David. It precisely answers your frustration (and that of Karl and the rest of us). Enlightenment (with a capital E) was that amazing wave of rational, intellectual and humanistic understanding of our human condition which swept over Europe from the mid-18th century. Pinker's book is, "....[his] attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century".

Trev1 said...

How can we combat the growing threat to freedom of speech in New Zealand? Well first, we must not fall silent. We must continue to share our views and perceptions as widely as we can, which is where blogs like this and some social media formats are useful. We must in particular continue to challenge dogmas that insist there is only one way of looking at an issue, and we should try to read widely those commentators who face similar challenges in their own societies overseas. Digital subscriptions to high quality newspapers and journals published abroad are a lifeline. Supporting the Free Speech Coalition is also a good thing to do. Finally we must be ready to resist any attempt to curtail our civil liberties including those set out in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our own Bill of Rights Act. There are no doubt further possibilities that may occur to others.

Brendan McNeill said...

Make no mistake, we are experiencing the first fruits a neo-Marxist cultural revolution that has been several decades in the making. While their absurdity is obvious (to us) they are completely serious, and believe themselves to be on the side of the angels.

This ideology has become the prevailing orthodoxy in education, government departments, and somewhat surprisingly, the corporate world. It will not be easily removed, and pushing back will come at a cost that very few will be prepared to pay. Most will just ‘’go along to get along.”

Resistance will almost certainly not come from existing political structures, universities or the institutional church. The establishment of the Free Speech Coalition is an encouraging sign. Hopefully more will follow.

David McLoughlin said...

The establishment of the Free Speech Coalition is an encouraging sign.

I don't know what good it can do in the present, worsening climate.

Free speech is now portrayed in much of the media, academia and influential online forums as a "right wing" or "extreme right wing" folly that needs to be put down. It is already dangerous to take public positions on many subjects. Supporting freedom of expression is rapidly becoming one such cause becoming dangerous to support.

When freedom of speech is widely viewed as dangerous extremism, totalitarianism can't be far away.

"First they came for the journalists..." is not much of a warning when the journalists are part of the baying mob.

Doug Longmire said...

I for one would be very pleased to argue in court in my defence if I was prosecuted for expressing an opinion of the type that was normal in more sane times.
The example quoted by Karl above is one which I totally agree with and I would look forward to fighting it myself.
BTW - there are only 2 genders.

Brendan McNeill said...


I believe you are correct. The truth is I’m more pessimistic about our cultural trajectory than my previous post implied. The Free Speech Coalition is a worthwhile but reactionary response to the present cultural climate.

As a Christian and a political conservative with a similar world view to that of Roger Scruton who passed away in the last couple of days, I have witnessed a good deal of reactionary responses to cultural change around the liberalisation of prostitution, same sex marriage, and now potentially legalisation of euthanasia, decriminalisation of abortion, and dope. I wouldn’t say the resistance has been futile, but you could hardly label it a success!

Having recently abandoned biology (science) and deemed that gender is nothing more than a social construct, our culture has finally shredded the last tenuous link with its Western Civilizational inheritance. We were once a product of faith and reason, Jerusalem and Athens. Having abandoned both, we are now we are sailing in unchartered waters.

Actually they are well charted. These days are similar to those experienced in Hungary just after WWII when the communists began to exert their influence. Short of a religious renewal of the type experienced in Britain under Wesley, or in the USA under the preaching of Moody, our future is totalitarian. I cannot tell if it will be a functional dystopia, like Communist China, or a dysfunctional dystopia like Venezuela. Both options are bleak.

If you are, or have ever been a person of faith, now is the time for prayer and personal renewal.

khrust said...

The picture painted in the comments above, in particular by Brendan McNeill, make grim reading indeed. Just to amplify on those, I suggest that the vanguard of neo-Marxist incursion into the corporate world is through human resources departments. This is where positions such as Chief People Officer get to introduce IAT testing (Implicit Association Test - for "unconscious" bias), push agendas of diversity, intersectionality, equality of outcome and "alliances" with trans-people employees etc. HR departments, irrespective of the corporations area of business, are invariably staffed by humanities graduates, fresh out of their university indoctrination in social justice/intersectionalist ideology. Unfortunately, the legal profession is also slowly going down the same path, with young, activist lawyers pushing a strongly leftist agenda. The more I read, the more it becomes clear that neo-Marxist ideology has become a religion substitute for those activists deeply involved in it. Enlightenment values such as objectivity, reason, evidence and critical-thinking have been cast away by the converts to this new religious fervour in favour of rigid postmodern ideology, hollow rhetoric, outrage and emotion. Some segments of society are holding out against it though, including traditional religious conservatives, science, engineering, libertarians and much of the non-university-educated working class. The best hope we have in my opinion is that the left will do what it always does - turn on itself with vicious internal squabbles and thereby self destruct. Here is hoping.

Bush Apologist said...

Khrust, While the comments above do make "grim reading", I think your view on what "the best we can hope for" is inaccurate.
Like Brendan McNeill, I am a person of faith as well as reason. The leftist rhetoric being lamented here has no semblance of truth and so must and will eventually be "pushed back" - the cost of doing so Brendan refers to is simply earthly. In this I remind myself of Mat. Ch16, in its entirety, but vs 18 in particular. A little reading of authentic Christian history will show that this is really nothing new - it may also help to fortify one's hope!