Blasphemy and bigotry

A few years ago in Australia, the attorney general, George Brandis, made headlines by claiming that one had a “right to be a bigot”. This was related to the government’s plans to roll back part of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. Section 18C of the Act had achieved notoriety in conservative circles as the legal incarnation of political correctness and the end of freedom of speech.

The 1975 Act, which dealt with practical discrimination matters (equality of opportunity), was updated in 1995 to include a section on racial hatred. Specifically, the amendment was “An Act to prohibit certain conduct involving the hatred of other people on the ground of race, colour or national or ethnic origin, and for related purposes”

Section 18C makes it illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or nationality in public. Conservatives considered this an assault on freedom of speech generally, but more specifically, they considered it an attempt by the left to control political discourse.

However, Section 18D states that “Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith” in artistic performances, scientific research or publishing “a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest” or “a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment”

The attempt to remove 18C was abandoned after an outcry.

Fast forward three years, change continent and also subject (from race to gender). Google engineer James Damore is sacked because of a memo* he circulated to discuss the notion of gender balance (and diversity generally) in a tech company.

Connecting these two events is a long series of victories for what conservatives might call “political correctness”. To list a few memorable ones: Lawrence Summers‘ resignation, Paul Griffiths‘ resignation, Bret Weinstein, the response to Lionel Shriver’s speech.

Depending on one’s political persuasion, they are defeats for freedom of speech, or victories over resurgent bigotry.

Welcome to the world of cultural appropriation, microaggressions, intersectionality, being “woke” and toxic whiteness. It’s also called “identity politics”, where the legitimacy to talk about ideas is derived from your “identity” (i.e. your ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation). In this world, a white writer cannot write about black people. White people cannot attend fancy dress parties dressed as ethnicities other than their own or even, perhaps, eat foreign foods. The discussion of certain subjects – anything which relates to a minority or a social status difference – is fraught with danger if one deviates from the dogma of white, male, heterosexual oppression of others.

In short, we have reintroduced blasphemy to our culture.

Blasphemy – speaking evil of sacred matters – is not about the tone of a discussion. One cannot discuss blasphemous matters in an amicable and civilized way. It is about the discussion itself. Witness the outcry about a friendly discussion about same-sex marriage. In this response to the Google memo the author specifically says the “quasi-professional tone” is what makes the memo “so dangerous”. Trying to discuss sacred matters calmly is apparently worse than an aggressive rant.

How can we understand this in terms of our political framework?

I think it is reasonably straightforward. The desire to control the behaviour of others is independent of the economic left-right axis. We are more familiar with economically right-wing people who are also socially conservative: these are the people who want to ban abortion, prevent same-sex marriage, and so on.

However plenty of economically left-wing people also like to control the behaviour of others – just as much as they like to control their resources. If I were being uncharitable, I would refer to these people as “Stalinist” (left-wing economics, high degree of behavioural control). Unfortunately, they are often referred to as “liberals”. However people who seek to massively restrict the freedom of speech – which is a non-rivalrous freedom – are highly illiberal.

This might be a useful point to discuss the concept of “non-rivalrous freedom”. I have used this as though it is a given – a concept that both illiberal and liberal people can agree on. However for some people, there is no such thing as a non-rivalrous freedom. All freedoms are zero sum or worse: the benefits of your freedom are more than outweighed by the costs imposed on me.

So the debate is really one about if, and where, one person’s rights (to say something) encroach on another person’s rights not to be “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated”, as succinctly described in section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. However the Racial Discrimination Act did not enshrine the concept of blasphemy into law. To do that, you would need to ignore section 18D of the same Act.

As one would expect from illiberals, the supporters of this new blasphemy advocate violence in order to impose their behavioural control. They refer to the blasphemers as “Nazis”, and violence against them is justified as some sort of pre-emptive action against people who will eventually commit acts of violence of their own. I think the logic is that discussions about diversity are the thin end of the wedge which leads to Auschwitz.

So is this a case of one form of illiberalism (restrictions on speech) being used to prevent another (genocide)?

I follow the logic: in order to perpetrate a genocide, one needs to start with dehumanising racial vilification. So the line in the sand is drawn very far in advance of genocide: at any questioning of policies designed to eliminate ethnic, gender or racial disparities.

Because just talking about these subjects leads inexorably to genocide and Nazism, one is justified in preventing those discussions with violence at the outset. “Because Nazis” is the start and the end of the justification.

And so we arrive at a logic which defines a modern, Western, economically left-wing blasphemy: ideas which defile the sacred value of equality.

Blasphemy is a deeply illiberal concept. It circumscribes freedom of thought and expression. It was the crime of Socrates, Jesus and Copernicus. Liberal Western democracies are built on the bones of blasphemers.

Left-wing, secular supporters of blasphemy happily get into bed with socially conservative Muslim supporters of blasphemy, as long as the blasphemers are white, male oppressors like the editors of Charlie Hebdo. As one notes here, it’s OK to mock white, Christian, male establishment, but for oppressed minorities, the same mockery gets upgraded to blasphemy-class. Labour MP Keith Vas lead a protest against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989, and Labour MP Max Madden asked “Why is the Labour Party so hooked on Rushdie’s freedom of speech to insult Muslims but so uncaring of Muslim distress?”

There’s quite a long history of left-wing illiberals siding with illiberal Muslims here.

I would question the idea that liberal societies are best defended with illiberal methods.

But perhaps the objective of the illiberal Left is not to defend liberal democracy, which they might regard as bourgeois, oppressive and exploitative. Perhaps the “sacred matter” for left-wing illiberals is inequality or oppression. At best, freedom of speech is seen as a price worth paying in order to remove economic disparities between groups. At worst, freedom of speech is seen as an obstacle to achieving that aim, something which perpetuates disparity. So it has to go. Expressed using our political framework, for the illiberal Left, behavioural controls are perfectly acceptable means to achieve economic redistribution objectives.

Scientists must take some responsibility for the political implications of their work

This chilling threat is not a quote from The Gulag Archipelago, or The First Circle, or 1984. This is a quote from a Guardian article about the Google memo. Saying that scientists should take the “political implications” of their work into consideration is saying that politics comes before truth, reality and a better understanding of the world.

Genuine science is amoral. It invents penicillin, viagra and zyklon B. It finds differences between men and women, and perhaps even between ethnic groups (e.g. that red-heads are descended from Neanderthals – ouch !). It doesn’t know what all the consequences of its work will be, because it doesn’t know what it is going to find. It can’t know – that is the very nature of inquiry.

Science is apolitical and so by definition, it gets in the way of our politics. Attempting to make science conform to your morality is a contradiction. It means abandoning science for something else, an ex-post justification for instinctive political positions and morality. Abandoning science – freedom of thought, inquiry and speech – for politics is the essence of the totalitarian ideal: total power invested in the state, including the power to decide reality.

Australian liberals were concerned about the illiberal Right’s project to remove Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. But liberals should also be worried about the illiberal Left, who would remove Section 18D and reintroduce the crime of blasphemy.

The Australian Racial Discrimination Act tries to create a space between bigotry and blasphemy, between gratuitous (racial) hatred, and the suppression of ideas and discussions. That space – where liberalism exists – is being encroached upon from both sides.


* The point of this article isn’t really to agree or disagree with the claims of the memo, just to discuss the reaction to it.

For an excellent article and civilized (if blasphemous) debate on the science behind the Google memo, click here.  The Economist put together a very solid rebuttal of the claims of the memo. One interesting reaction to the memo is here. In this latter article, I found two of the statements interesting (and coherent with the ideas expressed above): The first is the concept of “protected demographic categories”, and the second is that “focusing on the … scientific claims is a red herring” because the focus should be on “remedying … injustice”.