Monday 23 November 2020

The tyranny of woke


Something has changed in the past five years. When terrorists killed people in France working for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the free world came out in support of those who had been killed and defended their right to publish cartoons that some Muslims objected to. Five years later when a French teacher showed these same cartoons and a terrorist chopped his head off there has been much less support. While President Macron has defended the right to show religiously controversial cartoons few other leaders have come to the support of France. What has changed in these five years?

Political correctness or being woke as it is more commonly called now has grown in power out of all recognition. When I was a student political correctness was a joke, the Looney left. But it quietly worked its way into the heart of university life first in America and then onwards to the rest of the English-speaking world. Most subjects in the Arts and Social Sciences are completely dominated by Wokeness now. A few years ago, issues such as feminism, racism, homosexuality and transgender were on the margins of most subjects. Now they are the whole subject. There is nothing else.

The major problem with this is that only one view is allowed. While a debate is allowed within feminism. It is not allowed to reject the fundamental assumptions of feminism or any of the other woke assumptions. There is only one politically correct viewpoint. You must agree with it or else fail.

It is this that has changed the mindset about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The free speech argument that Macron is trying to defend is that French people have the right to express themselves by writing or drawing even if this offends Muslims. But it is just this that wokeness is attacking.

While it is clearly wrong to go up to someone on the street and verbally or physically abuse him because he is a Muslim, transgender or homosexual this does not mean I am forbidden from saying or writing something that such a person might find offensive. Five years ago, we defended this distinction because we defended free speech. Now we defend the right of the person not to be offended. For the first time since the Enlightenment in Europe free speech has been limited by fundamentalism.

The issue here is whether one person’s beliefs can compel another person to act in accordance with them.

It is forbidden on some interpretations of Islam to make pictures of the Prophet. Now clearly this means that Muslims ought not to draw such pictures. A Muslim society might even decide to forbid drawing such pictures by law. But a Muslim rule cannot compel people who are not Muslims in a non-Muslim society do anything or refrain from doing something. Clearly if I live in a Muslim society it is reasonable that I may be forbidden from going to the pub. A Muslim society can justifiably ban pubs and the sale of alcohol if it so chooses. But Muslims cannot ban others from drawing pictures of the Prophet or drinking beer in France or Britain merely because they are offended by these activities. If they can it amounts to them being able to compel us to believe what they believe.

But the problem with religions being able to compel non-believers to believe what adherents believe is that religious beliefs are frequently incompatible. Islam for instance does not allow the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ or the Resurrection. What if Christians found it offensive that people in Mosques were taught that Jesus was not the Son of God but was merely a prophet? What if Christians engaged in terrorist activities against Muslims for teaching things that were incompatible with Christianity? If you can use terrorism to compel us to obey your laws, why can we not do likewise? But this will lead to us each cutting off our heads to spite our faces.

Tolerance requires that we agree to differ. Rules about drawing pictures of the Prophet can only apply to Muslims. Everyone else must be free to say that these rules don’t apply to me, because I am not a Muslim. If that is not the case, then there will be endless warfare between religions rather than mutual respect.

But what goes for religion goes for all of the other contentious woke issues. While we all have a duty to be kind to each of our fellow human beings, we do not have a duty to believe everything that they believe.

It is wrong to beat up or kill someone who is transgender, but it is not wrong to believe that it is impossible for a man to become a woman. It may offend transgender people if I write something that justifies my belief that a so-called transgender woman is not really a woman. But to force me to believe what the transgender person believes is the equivalent of forcing me to believe that is wrong to drink alcohol because this is what Muslims believe.

The tyranny of woke is similar to the tyranny of religion that existed in countries like Britain hundreds of years ago. At that time people were compelled to be Catholics then later compelled to be Protestants according to the religion of the King or Queen. People were burned at the stake for failing to believe what had previously been forbidden. Both Catholics and Protestants were martyrs because there was no tolerance and no acceptance that Christians could agree to differ about debatable aspects of theology.

The tyranny of woke is that anyone who expresses a non-woke view, such as that homosexuals cannot get married, men cannot become women or that it is better to focus on character rather than skin colour, is liable to be cancelled.

While at university expressing the wrong view may mean you fail the course in the world failure to be woke may mean that you lose your job or your friends. You find yourself no-platformed not merely by students but by the whole of woke society. As woke society increases cancellation affects more and more of us. Five years ago it was safe to ignore it, but what about five years from now.

While it is right to remember transgender people who have been persecuted, it is equally important to remember all those people who have been cancelled because they held the wrong view. A view that was merely common sense twenty years ago sees someone like J.K. Rowling relentlessly attacked. But this is just as intolerant as the prejudice that is directed at transgender people.

In order for people with different religious views and indeed different views about anything to live together we all have to accept that we must agree to differ. Christians cannot require Muslims to believe what Christians believe, but neither can Muslims attempt to apply Muslim rules to anyone else. Likewise, people who believe one thing about transgender or homosexuality or any of the other woke characteristics cannot force anyone else to believe what they believe.

Reasonable people can have different views about race, religion, gender and sexuality. These topics have not been proved one way or the other scientifically. Tolerance requires that we allow others to believe what they please while expecting them to show the same respect for our views.

This is what has changed in the past five years. The tyranny of woke agrees with the terrorist that the cartoonist did something wrong and would punish anyone who disagrees with anything woke by calling it hate speech that justifies cancellation. In Scotland cancellation may well mean jail.

If things have changed this much in the past five years expect them to change still more in the next five. Woke is the greatest threat to free speech since at least Communism and Nazism tried to rule the world. It may well be the worst threat since the Middle Ages.