George Lawlor hit the headlines and Breakfast TV shows after he wrote in his University magazine that he didn’t need lessons in how not to be a rapist. He was hounded and lambasted on Twitter. But he also found support among champions of free speech. Here he expands his thoughts on the illiberal thought police taking over UK and American campuses
Witch hunts, tarring and feathering, and a fear of diversity of thought; no this isn’t Cromwell’s England. This is the twenty-first century.
In much of the West we now live in a world terrorised by a mob of self-righteous, fun-hating, intolerant zealots.
Let’s call them the New Puritans.
They decide what you can say and what you can think. And they will visit their wrath even on former revolutionaries such as Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell. Their over-weaning arrogance knows no bounds.
If you happen to find yourself blaspheming against their rather fluid orthodoxy (concrete floors can become quicksand in the blink of a prejudice) expect their wrath. Heresy is punished in an almost medieval way. Twitter has replaced the stocks. Hateful language has replaced rotten fruit.
The driving force behind this new-style fascism is the concept of ‘safe spaces’. Students deem themselves to be entitled to live in an environment where they are not offended, upset or arbitrarily disagreed with.
If you think this sounds ridiculous and far-fetched, consider this. In America students are now demanding ‘trigger warnings’ for passages in classic literature that might upset or offend them. Mentions, for instance, of rape or war or suicide.
Universities have become breeding grounds for this kind of activism, with students often making the most enthusiastic censors. Shockingly, even Oxford hasn’t escaped the New Puritans. When a few undergraduates tried to set up their own paper, No Offence, it was banned by the students’ union and the editor was reported to the police.
At Cardiff University students were so outraged by Germaine Greer’s comments on transgender people that they were inspired to start a petition to ban her from speaking on a topic entirely unrelated to transgender issues.
And it’s not only on campus that this censorship and intolerance thrives. Imagine you’ve landed a probe on a comet for the first time in human history. But instead of being lauded as a pioneer pushing the boundaries, you are thrown in front of a kangaroo court and branded a misogynist for the way you dress.
These retributions have become so routine that barely a week goes by without a public branding.
Even Peter Tatchell – founder member of OutRage and erstwhile scourge of bigotry – not to mention his attempt at a citizen’s arrest of the egregious Robert Mugabe – has been accused of being a racist and of incitement to violence against transgender people.
You can read his ‘incitement to violence against transgender people’ (co-signatory with 131 other absolutely dreadful people such as Mary Beard, Bea Campbell and Caroline Criado-Perez) here.
On the basis of this, Fran Cowling, LGBT representative at the National Union of Students, refused to take part in a debate at Canterbury Christ Church University unless Tatchell was disinvited.
It’s an unwelcome blast from the past, bringing with it an intolerance and hatred better suited to a darker page of history.
However, by utilising the power of the Internet, these New Puritans are both something very old and very new. Think Oliver Cromwell meets Twitter. That’s the world in which we now live.
Twitter mobs are whipped up into a fury and ‘social media campaigns’ are launched against targets at will. The plan: not only to punish and claw a grovelling apology from the ‘accused’, but to also make an example, to declare to the world ‘this is what happens to dissenters. Want it to happen to you too?’
Its perpetrators will be shocked to hear this. But they are, in the classic sense, fascists.
The thing with the New Puritans is their sense of moral superiority. That they’re the good guys and whenever they see ‘injustice’ they must crusade against it in a competition of who can be the most PC – an orgy of faux outrage.
The religious fundamentalist comparison isn’t unreasonable. They don’t see themselves tormenting other human beings. They see monsters to be slain and nothing gives them a kick more than a good old high-tech lynching. They’re the elect among a world of heathens.
Twitter, and the rest of the Internet for that matter, had so much potential. It could have been the ultimate tool of free speech. With a push of a button, someone in Preston could communicate with someone in Paraguay. Leaders could be held to account, a voice could be given to the voiceless.
Alas, it proved to be a double-edged sword. The democratic nature of the Internet had paved the way for this new mob rule and the New Puritans have been given their favourite toy.
So instead, with the push of a button lives can be ruined. With the push of a button someone can be made an example of. With the push of a button you can discourage diversity of opinion. What a time to be alive.
I say screw them. Don’t be pushed around by them. Debate with people, engage with people. Never surrender your right to your own opinion, not in the face the New Puritans and not in the face of anybody else.
Think what you want and say what you want. It’s a freedom we’ve inherited and it cost millions of lives. So it’s a freedom we better damn well down hand to our children. The backlash might seem tough but you’ll survive. I did and I’m stronger for it.