Two easy pieces

Since I can’t brain today, I’ll just give you some light reading: in this case, two short articles. The first, by author Lionel Shriver (if you don’t remember her battles against cultural appropriation, go here, here, and here), appears in the Spectator, and is called “Millennials don’t fear censorship because they plan on doing all the censorship.” It’s largely some familiar arguments for free speech (“if you oppose it, you could be the one who gets censored”, etc.). But it’s well written and makes a good point—the one summarized in the title:

It’s a universal given that young people think they are young. That is, youngness feels central to their very essence. They’ve yet to have the consternating experience of waking up to find they’re 45. Thus youth seems an eternal state of being, and in order to have been permanently condemned to middle age and senility as if consigned to Dante’s realms of hell, all those old farts must have done something terrible.

Accordingly, the young casually assume not only that they’re the cutting-edge, trend-setting arbiters of the acceptable now, but that they always will be. The students running campuses like re-education camps aren’t afraid of being muzzled, because they imagine they will always be the ones doing the muzzling — the ones dictating what words we can use (cis, not heterosexual), what books we can read (Tom Sawyer is out), what practices we can embrace (white people may not wear dreadlocks). These millennials don’t fear censorship because they plan on doing all the censoring.

Here’s another classic argument for allowing the “reprehensibles” the right to talk:

‘Freedom of speech’ is only thorny in relation to sentiments that you find obnoxious, stupid, wicked, false or outright appalling. (One of the positions I find it most painful to allow others to advocate in an unfettered public square is the relentless restriction of free speech.) Yet, however horrific the opinion, freedom of expression has benefits. Given the rope to hang themselves, fools, liars and demagogues make ample use of the noose. You needn’t refute their dopey assertions because those assertions sound dopey already. Allowed to talk, people reveal themselves. The world is a safer place.

That’s pretty much the case for the white supremacists and neo-Nazis whose appearance is always protested and often shut down. Yet they sound like fools; I can’t imagine they’d persuade many Americans to join them.

And one of her visions of the future, which isn’t that unthinkable:

Yet suppose that over the next two decades our pert contemporary young person is inexorably demoted to middle-aged slob. During those years, having been paying attention, this still socially aware crusader has concluded that religions are more a force for ill than good — that most religions promote joylessness, superstition, scientific ignorance, polarisation, persecution, a retrograde obsession with sex and oppression of women. The many faiths exerting a drag on human progress include Islam. But thanks to our former young person’s earlier activism, the expression of views offensive to minorities has been criminalised, and Islam in particular enjoys protected status. Any ‘hate speech’ about it tars you as an Islamophobe, a designation that by 2037 lands you in the slammer for ten years.

Here’s a short discussion between Shriver and Yasmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of Shriver’s talk at the writer’s festival in Brisbane and criticized it in the Guardian, touching off a big debate.


A lot of British Leftists don’t like Matt Ridley (who’s at once an evolutionary biologist, a very rich man, and a Viscount) because he’s a Brexiteer, a staunch libertarian, and was chairman of the Northern Rock Bank when it went bust, sticking the British taxpayer with the bill. Yet he’s also written several good biology books, including Genome and The Origins of Virtue, as well as a well-regarded biography of Francis Crick.  (I reviewed his last book, about how everything should be privatized, and didn’t much like it.)

That said, his new piece in the Times, “New enemies threaten the Enlightenment“, isn’t bad, and not just because he quoted me. Here we see a libertarian siding with Bret Weinstein, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others, arguing that despite his previous optimism (Ridley wrote The Rational Optimist), he’s worried that the Enlightenment may be stalling—or even reversing itself. (Note the climate-change remark below.)

The no-platforming, safe-space, trigger-warning culture is no longer confined to academia, or to America, but lies behind the judgmentalism of many social media campaigns. Every writer I know feels that he or she is one remark away from disgrace. A de facto blasphemy prohibition has re-emerged in western society and is being enforced not just by the Islamists who murder cartoonists, but, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the black, feminist victim of female genital mutilation has experienced, by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which called her an anti-Muslim extremist.

Countries where in my youth women wore mini-skirts in public now enforce hijabs or burkas. Sharia law, homophobia and explicit antisemitism are spreading in Britain, where in some state-funded schools four-year-olds are made to wear hijabs. Turkey’s government has joined US Christian evangelicals in trying to expunge evolution from the school curriculum.

This is not just about Islam, though it is curious how silent feminists are on Islamic sexism. The enforcement of dogma is happening everywhere. Members of a transgender campaign group have refused to condemn an activist for punching a feminist. Anybody questioning the idea that climate change is an imminent catastrophe, however gently, is quickly labelled a “denier” (ie, blasphemer). How bad is this spasm of intolerance going to get? Perhaps it is a brief hiatus in rationalism, a dimming of the hard-won secular enlightenment, which will soon re-brighten after doing little harm. Or perhaps it is like China’s Cultural Revolution: a short-lived but vicious phenomenon confined to one part of the world that will do terrible harm then cease.

He then recounts one earlier episode of dogma-enforcement and statue-toppling: the effacement of classical culture by Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries. (I didn’t know much about the woman philosopher and polymath Hypatia of Alexandria until I saw Ridley’s reference, and have spent some time looking her up; she was cruelly murdered by Christians). This kind of stuff was what the Enlightenment ended, but Ridley says we still “have a fight on our hands.”  I’m not so sure about that, but to stave off anxiety, I’m going to read Steve Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress when it comes out on February 27. I’m sure it will be bracing and optimistic.



  1. CJ
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Matt Ridley is absolutely not a climate change denialist.

    • John Hamill
      Posted October 30, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t he prefer “luke warmer”?

      • CJ
        Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and while most experts disagree with his assessment of how dangerous climate change will be in an uncertain future, he has some interesting things to say about the historical record of scientists attempting to predict the future of systems as complicated as economies, ecologies, technologies and societies. As well as how human natures on all sides of the political spectrum steer toward certain biases and special interests. It’s important to get it right because the consequences of being wrong on either side of the debate (i.e what to do given the scientific facts of Anthropogenic Climate Change) can have, and have had, terrible consequences…especially for the developing world.

      • josh
        Posted October 31, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        “Luke warmer”, the “intelligent design” of climate change denialism.

    • colnago80
      Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      That may be, however, he associates with climate change deniers like Anthony Watts and the folks at Breitbart and the National Review.

      This is a case of someone who is expert in one branch of science, namely evolutionary biology pontificating on another field of which he has little or no evident expertise, namely climate science. I would cite an essay by Martin Gardner in his book, Fads and
      Fallacies in Science
      where he discusses the danger of uncritically considering the views of such individuals. See William Shockley on the subject of intelligence and Linus Pauling on the subject of vitamin C and cancer.

      • Craw
        Posted October 30, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        “associates”. People who practice guilt by association usually deny they are doing it. Refreshing change.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 30, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          I detest guilt-by-association, but it’s distinguishable from guilt-by-pandering. Not saying that’s what Ridley does (I’m not familiar enough with him to say), just that some people do.

      • Posted October 30, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        I first became really acquainted with the concept of climate change at the end of the 80’s when reading a book about weather (Clouds in a glass of beer) which was quite interesting. In it, the author said that in his view, a warming earth would throw more water vapor into the air. That would result in more clouds which would reflect away sunlight and keep us in balance. I wish he had been more right.

        Good book anyway, it’s really more basic atmospheric science than anything (why clouds form, what is relative humidity, and so forth).

        • colnago80
          Posted October 30, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          That’s correct. This is an example of a negative feedback effect. Unfortunately, the number of positive feedback effects are dominate. Examples:

          1 Increasing temperatures will melt the permafrost in northern Canada and Russia releasing methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas then CO(2).

          2. Increasing temperatures will increase the water vapor in the air which is also a much stronger greenhouse gas then CO(2)

          3. Increasing temperatures will melt the glaciers and pack ice. Ice is s better reflector then water and dirt. See Wein-Boltzmann equation.

    • Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you’re right. I thought I’d remembered that from my review of his last book in the TLS, but checking it again, I couldn’t find that, so I omitted that characterization.


  2. John Hamill
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry … I was previously compelled to read about Hypatia before an interview with Richard Carrier and he recommended the movie Agora about her. It’s great …

    • Carey Haug
      Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I assume the feminist journal Hypatia was named for her. I hadn’t heard of it until the Rebecca Tuvel controversy.

      • Posted October 31, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        That’s correct. She was (apparently) a teacher of philosophy, though none of her works survive as far as I know.

  3. DrBrydon
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Shriver’s thoughts about what a criminally enforced PC world would look like are interesting. I don’t think it would be a smooth journey, nor look like college campuses do today. There are too many factions who are united in disliking many things, but divided in what is important. When it comes time to decide who wins in a trans vs. Islam debate, they will fracture. Since criminalizing non-PC speech and conduct cannot be done in a free society, what would happen is that the various groups would fight for power, just like they did in the French and Russian revolutions. Many Social Justice Warriors would find themselves up against the wall, and the rainbow would be reduced to a couple of colors. Of course, because they eschew the study of History, especially European History, this will be a surprise to them.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 31, 2017 at 4:27 am | Permalink

      Progressivism revels in other peoples’ victimhood and uses each case as a marker on the Long March encouraging progress. Of course each category of victim (the working man, feminists, gay people, climate change) is callously abandoned once the Long March has passed that particular category, whether or not the issues have been resolved.

      My guess is that future progressives will care less about the currently fashionable ‘safe spaces’ and ‘hate speech’ and be following some other ‘new victim on the block’.

  4. Jenny Haniver
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    You didn’t know about Hypatia??!!

    Now you do.

    • Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      No, it was a gap in my knowledge that, thankfully, has been filled. I’m a biologist!

    • Blue
      Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Hypatia is a perfect example of how humans
      who are its female ones ‘ve been working stiffs
      outside of the home / “the hearth” for, literally,
      centuries (and others for millennia.

      Tragically what she did outside that realm ?
      Why, .that. was as disliked and as persecuted against
      as that foe which many women of today out in the workplace,
      of course, quite experience every single day.

      Including to the point of … … well, our murders.


    • Posted November 1, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      For shame all of you!! Carl Sagan told the story of Hypatia in the original Cosmos.

      ..and of course, both the movie and Sagan make a few errors about her and her beliefs that blunt the points they’re trying to make.

  5. Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    “they sound like fools; I can’t imagine they’d persuade many Americans”. Neither can I.

    It is disheartening to see how fragile and often insecure many young people have become when they contemplate the harm from foolish provocateurs. Today, their voices make them fools. Minorities, whom they tend to degrade, are no longer provided a service by the censorship of such provocateurs.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    The 2009 movie “Agora” about Hypatia starring Rachel Weisz is quite good.
    (Weisz also played the historian sued by Holocaust denier David Irving in “Denial”, which has a happier ending!!)

    It remains a matter of controversy how much he mob that murdered Hypatia was directly instigated by Bishop Cyril, but it’s a black mark on Christian history either way.

  7. Posted October 30, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Any ‘hate speech’ about it tars you as an Islamophobe, a designation that by 2037 lands you in the slammer for ten years.

    Shriver is way too optimistic if she thinks it will take another 20 years before we reach that point. Police are arresting people for far less already.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    The header’s an allusion to the great Bob Rafelson flick staring J-a-a-a-ck and a chicken salad sandwich?

  9. Posted October 30, 2017 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I find that most of the radical left’s extreme ideas are almost as ludicrous as those of the white supremacists and Nazis, though the former at least means well. I don’t really fear either gaining much of a foothold in the US.

    I’m much more afraid that the radical left’s arguments can be used effectively label the entire left as crazy. Besides the racism, this forms a large part of Trump’s appeal to his followers. The “snowflake” label works well for them because there’s some truth to it.

    Perhaps it will be easier to convince the radical left to become less radical if they fear that it enables Trump. Although the argument for free speech is on higher moral ground, I fear it is too abstract. They can’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have freedom of speech and press or think it can’t happen hear. Fear of a second Trump term is much more immediate. It would be Halloween made real.

    • Posted October 30, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      This is a big part of someone like Freddie deBoer’s fear. The left losing the sense that it’s being watched by the non-aligned and instead going hardcore on displaying to ITSELF its dedication to particular commitments makes for bad PR.

  10. Posted October 30, 2017 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I meant to type “can’t happen HERE” of course. I wish we could edit our posts! Jerry, you only need to change your commenting module to make this a reality.

%d bloggers like this: