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Free speech warriors are the real puritans Critics of today's progressives understand liberty, but not their opponents

(Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)


February 24, 2021   6 mins

The pro-censorship woke brigade are often characterised as puritanical by their pro-free-speech antagonists. Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, has called cancel culture a “resurgence of Puritanism”. In one passage of their introduction to their fascinating essay collection, Panics and Persecutions, the editors of the digital magazine Quillette, one of whom is also Young, distinguish between a puritanical contemporary Left and their more libertine predecessors. The Left, they claim, “can’t be described as revolutionaries” because their demands are either “meaningless” or “ludicrous” or “represent further extrapolations of progressive politics”. By contrast, their “hippie grandparents” were genuinely committed to the ethos of liberty:

“Unlike the progressive counterculture of the 1960s, which encouraged sexual openness, flamboyant individualism, and euphoric cultural mixing, today’s social justice crusades are built around joyless rites of self-interrogation, announced publicly but conducted inwardly.”

As much as anything else, many of today’s debates about identity and free speech deal with aesthetics. By presenting these activists as puritan zealots, the Quillette editors can invoke the contrasting glamour of the sixties counterculture. Today’s young activists are uncool.

In his new book, Free Speech and Why it Matters, the comedian Andrew Doyle also invokes past progressives that were more sympathetic to free speech so he can criticise the contemporary Left. Referring to civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights campaigners, he writes: “without freedom of speech theirs was a lost cause”.

Doyle also charges his defence of free speech with an optimistic tone. Freedom of speech is important because it allows us to defeat bad ideas: “We are far better placed to know and overcome evil if we are acquainted with its essence, and the best way to achieve this is to listen and to read”. The implication, here, is that progressives who have abandoned free speech not only shy away from difficult truths, but have also lost faith in our capacity for greater moral progress.

Nevertheless, both Doyle and the Quillette editors make a series of points that complicate this neat distinction between the optimistic progressive radicals of the past, who embodied the essence of free speech, and their dour incarnation in the present.

Puritanism is not simply about being pessimistic about the human condition, and unwilling to entertain new ideas. It is, as the American novelist Marilynne Robinson put in her essay, “Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry”,  about the struggle for moral goodness. Struggle is the key word here. For Robinson, being good “is a great struggle and a mystery”. This means that “moral people seem to me especially eager to offer pardon in the hope of receiving pardon, to forgo judgement in the hope of escaping judgement”. So in trying to suppress your base instincts, trying “govern oneself”, you adopt a more tolerant attitude to the beliefs of others — this is the essence of free speech and the antithesis of cancel culture.

Doyle touches on this in his book. In one passage, he writes that we all understand the impulse towards censorship because we sometimes feel it. But in trying to enforce this instinct, we also “degrade ourselves by subordinating our reason to baser instincts”. This valorisation of reason over instinct, as Ralph Leonard and Maria Albano have written, recalls elements of Platonism and traditional Christianity: it is puritan in its assumption that human passions are so volatile and dangerous that they need to be contained by reason. Doyle puts the point more forcefully when he writes, “we find that in many cases the greatest threat to free expression comes from ourselves”. It is only through constraining our primal instinct toward censorship, then, that we can ensure freedom of speech.

The impulse towards censorship, then, is base. Repressing that instinct for censorship — our reason suppressing our base passions — is puritan. Consequently, puritanism fosters the environment for greater liberty. The relationship between constraint and freedom is also explored by the Quillette editors. They consider, for instance, the French Revolution and its often-cited legacy. “In its liberal form”, they write, “the revolution peaked with the constitution of 1791, which created a democratic constitutional monarchy”. The revolution degenerated, however, with the Terror — the orgy of denunciations and executions that gripped republican France: “As with communists, religious fundamentalists, Cold War McCarthyites, and autocratic populists, the architects of this terror argued that the Republican project was too urgent to be constrained by the need for due process, free speech, the right of assemblies, or other civil liberties”. They compare these people who are unconstrained by moral principles to modern-day progressives who see themselves as “vanguards against racism and fascism”.

But therein lies a tension. The criticism of contemporary progressives in this section is that they are unable to sufficiently constrain their base instinct for censorship; but the soixante-huitard radicals the Quillette editors admire were also characterised by their very lack of inhibition. Later on the editors state, quite correctly, that “crowdsourced dissent-suppression campaigns” show that freedom of speech depends as much “on a hospitable intellectual culture as on legal codes”. Which begs the question: what does this culture consist of? It does not depend on openness and radical optimism; rather, free speech depends on a puritan ethos.

Doyle, for instance, points out that a genuinely hospitable intellectual climate would consist of a sceptical attitude to people in power being able to enforce hate speech codes without descending into tyranny. “You might trust our leaders to judge these matters sensibly, but it takes a certain myopia not to see governments of the future might want to abuse the precedent”. Doyle’s case against censorship, then, also partly depends on a pessimistic view of human nature. “The price we pay for a free society”, he argues, “is that bad people will say bad things. We tolerate this, not because we approve of the content of their speech, but because once we have compromised on the principle of free speech we clear the pathway for future tyranny”.

This talk of tradeoffs is reminiscent of what Thomas Sowell calls the constrained vision of life: there is no perfect or optimal way to organise society because our interests are always in a state of tension. To try to overcome this tension, as utopians of far Left and far Right have done, leads inevitably to a state of pitiless tyranny. The culture most conducive for free speech is thus one that maintains this tension — accepting that liberty and self-expression cannot be sustained without a degree of discipline on the part of those who participate in society. In other words, puritanism.

Doyle even invokes the fragility of civilisation against the demonic tendency toward censorship. “Civilisation”, Doyle writes, “is the barricade we erect to hold back our baser instincts. This cannot be sustained without free speech and, although I do not believe we are as yet experiencing a full-blown crisis, the first fissures in the barricade are certainly widening”. But he doesn’t go deep enough here; free speech itself cannot be sustained without tolerance.

Doyle’s elegantly written and moderate polemic is in stark contrast to his personae as Titania McGrath — his largely unfunny satirical embodiment of woke culture. In this book, Doyle is more like the eminently reasonable schoolteacher he once was, patiently instructing us on the virtues of free speech, and emphasising the importance of decency and good moral conduct. The problem is the class is no longer a room of well-behaved students; his audience now resides in the cynical digital landscape, where there is little incentive for the kind of puritan self-control necessary for the free exchange of ideas.

Even John Stuart Mill, the archetypal liberal thinker, views intellectual tolerance more like a quid pro quo between conflicting interests than a vindication of abstract rights: “minorities, seeing that they had no chance of becoming majorities”, he writes, “were under the necessity of pleading to those whom they could not convert, for permission to differ. It is accordingly on this battlefield, almost solely, that the rights of the individual against society have been asserted on broad grounds of principle, and the claim of society to exercise authority over dissentients, openly controverted”.

In their earlier denigration of contemporary progressives as puritanical, the Quillette editors and Doyle have it backwards. The problem is these progressives are not puritanical enough. In her essay on puritanism, Robinson distinguishes between Puritanism and Priggishness. She describes Priggishness as “a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.” This is a more accurate description of many progressive activists.

A “prig with an original idea”, Robinson adds, “is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus”. A prig is a person who has not thought deeply about an issue, but is absolutely convinced he has the correct opinion on it. Many of today’s contemporary progressives are pejoratively derided as moralisers, but the problem is many of them do not moralise enough — they don’t go through the individual grind and struggle a truly moral person often has to go through to get to their position.

This is not to say that puritanism necessarily leads to tolerance. Of course, many self-described puritans have been the very opposite of tolerant; there is a reason it’s a synonym for zealot. But some of the core principles associated with it are still valuable for us today, even if many of the people associated with it have behaved abominably. There’s also a risk that this maintenance of tension can lead to a sort of moral relativism, and make us unwilling to try to persuade those who we think are genuinely wrong. But puritanism doesn’t imply there are no right or wrong answers, but simply that humans will always be vulnerable to stumbling on the wrong answers. And a philosophical approach that recognises this is better placed to paint the kind of society conducive to the free exchange of ideas than one which naively assumes we can perfect humanity.


Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which will be published by Atlantic in June.

tomowolade

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Alastair Herd
AH
Alastair Herd
3 years ago

If I was to take a stab at summarizing this:

  • Puritanism isn’t so much about repressing others as constraining the self, which leads to a more generous approach to others.
  • This is based on a fundamentally negative view of humanity.
  • So, it allows for the discussion and disagreement about important issues and free thought.
  • Priggishness is about conformity and censorship.
  • It often has a positive view of human nature and so is vindictive towards those who don’t tow the line, viewing it as a result of their moral failure.
  • It doesn’t allow for disagreement, because then a person has to actually look introspectively and evaluate why they think what they think.

The modern woke movement has nothing in common with the Puritans. It would be much better if it did.

Last edited 3 years ago by Alastair Herd
A Spetzari
AS
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

Really good summary. Saves everyone else a read of the article.
The trouble with the article is that he is disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing – purely through his own narrow definition of what he thinks Puritanism really is.
It is just:

censorious moral beliefs, especially about self-indulgence and sex.

The actual Puritans were very repressive – Cromwell’s Britain or the New World colonies. So I really think he’s destroying his own straw man for the sake of disagreeing with Doyle – even though they essentially are in agreement on the target of criticism.

Jonathan Ellman
IS
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Perhaps if the word ‘puritan’ was replaced with ‘idealist’ it would make more sense.

Pete Kreff
PK
Pete Kreff
3 years ago

Or ‘fundamentalist’ perhaps.

David Adams
DA
David Adams
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

He says at the beginning of the article that “Critics of today’s progressives understand liberty, but not their opponents”. He’s trying to get them to understand themselves and their opponents better. That can only be a good thing, as having a clearer idea of yourself, your allies, and your opponents gives you an advantage.

Alex Lekas
AL
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  David Adams

The critics understand their opponents quite well. Because they’ve seen this sort of behavior before, typically associated with repressive and tyrannical regimes. The writer chose to make “puritan” the basis for his article and it seems that was done to distract from would these would-be societal censors really are.

Wilfred Davis
WD
Wilfred Davis
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

The actual Puritans were very repressive…’

I do not know enough of the history to offer a definitive judgement, but I have to say that the briefest internet search throws up a host of articles (many relating to the Puritans in America) stating that this is a misconception. On the evidence presented, they were cheerful, delighted in marital love, had no objection to a drink or two, enjoyed games, and so on.

Otherwise expressed, the historical Puritans weren’t actually as ‘puritanical’ as that term is popularly understood.

I think the author does his best to express his understanding of Puritanism (in terms of an attitude to one’s own and others’ behaviour). A problem remains for the readers, though, that the term is already ‘captured’ by their own views of its application to certain societies in history.

Arnold Grutt
AG
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

In fact the classic defence of ‘free speech’ was written by a Protestant Puritan. On the other hand it’s the ‘woke’ who wish to visit our houses and ‘check our thinking’ while wearing state uniforms. I know whom I consider more ‘repressive’ and ‘inquisitorial’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Arnold Grutt
John Blenkinsopp
John Blenkinsopp
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

You’re citing 2 examples of when certain Puritans were briefly in power. Robinson shows that Puritan thought was rather different from how it is remembered, and crucially that Puritans were more concerned about their own moral failings than those of others.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

Very good!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 years ago

I’ve read the article twice now, and I still don’t understand what point, if any, the writer is trying to make.
All I can gather from it is that he doesn’t find Doyle’s alter ego funny, which is probably because he is one of those that Titiania is set up to lampoon

CL van Beek
CL van Beek
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I agree, Jordan Peterson said in a Joe Rogan podcast that suppressing free speech unlocks the gate to hell. Strong words, but he also wrote the foreword in a book about a country that did not have free speech. The book is The Gulag Archipelago. Also in the famous Cathy Newman interview he said something like, that by being politie all the time you cannot have a real argument, because you constantly have to think about not stepping on someone’s toes. Walking on eggshells, that is what you need to do all the time, when there is no free speech.
An other dangerous effect of suppressing speech is that when you force a group of people underground by not allowing them to be part of the public discussion, there is a big change they will go underground and become more and more radical, outside the eye of the public.
In the Netherlands we have the political Muslim party DENK in the parlement who hold two seats (out of 150). They often take a liberal stance when there is a vote. I am happy this party exists, because they have influence on the debate, and are influenced by it.
(edit, forgot to mention DENK is a muslim party).

Last edited 3 years ago by CL van Beek
Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It comes down to the somewhat leaden point that the Quillette people should be labelling those who censure speech, Prigs not Puritans. Can see right there why he doesn’t get Titiana. Anyway, I’m happy to give it a go myself….

Matthew Powell
MP
Matthew Powell
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Glad to hear it. I thought it was just me.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Thumbs up.

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

He’s really not one of Titania’s targets. He’s very much on our side. May I suggest you read A.Herd’s btl summary above.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

and I still don’t understand what point, if any, the writer is trying to make.

There isn’t much point, really. It’s a tortured exercise built on the nonsensical fallacy that ‘censorship’ is somehow a ‘base instinct‘, and therefore being against censorship is suppressing our base instincts, therefore “puritanism”.
Seems the …well, the whoever penned this piece takes his own personal individual set of base instincts (of which censorship appears to be one), and extrapolates them to the rest of mankind as if they were universal, as opposed to aberrant / subjective. Something what a 5-year-old child would do.

Fraser Bailey
FB
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I think I (broadly) agree with the writer, although the article contains so much tortuous jargon that it is often difficult to tell. That said, one has to be suspicious of someone who finds Titania McGrath to be ‘largely unfunny’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

As Titania observed: it would be a much more compassionate world if everyone who disagreed with me was put to death.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

Thumbs up.

Karen Lindquist
BM
Karen Lindquist
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fraser, agree on all counts. I ultimately agree with the point, but the unnecessary complicated writing makes it an unpleasant read when it would be much better if he simplified it to be more direct and clear.
And honestly, Titania is a bright spot in my day often.
But I do like the distinction between Puritan and Prig. He drives it home at the end.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I think the article is like a blind person describing a sunset, he misses the whole case. Secularism can be moral, as headhunters are moral in that morality is based on the correct cultural norms. Ethics are universal, or ultimate, right and wrongs, and thus almost impossible for social things us to state.

The problem with secular morality is they cannot have ethics to base their morals on. Without the 10 Commandments as a core all they have is situational ethics, relative morality, and flexible codes of honor. Secular right and wrong is always just going to be correct and incorrect.

Christianity tells us Judgement is the right of God, that we first, and always, must be focused on what we are inside, then on what is outside. That fallowing the Ethics of God is primary, that there are rules, and they first apply to us.

That Liberalism evolved from Christianity was inevitable, that it could evolve from any other religion is unlikely . (edited to put un in front of likely)

Last edited 3 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Saul D
Saul D
3 years ago

The problem with the articles can be summed up in the phrase it uses: “the struggle for moral goodness”.
Morality is a socially learnt balancing act between competing obligations – it represents what a group of people believe is the best set of heuristics based on long-term experiences. The morality we have now is different to that of the past – it moves, but slowly – sometimes so slowly we don’t notice changes have occurred.
It gets into trouble where one group of individuals believe they have ‘a truth’. They then demand other people also believe this ‘truth’, and they refuse allow to any challenges to be heard. Eventually, they harden to demand censorship of anything against the ‘truth’, and then start imprisoning dissenters and worse. This is the terror of ideological thought.
There are huge historical examples of this – Christianity and Catholic church, Soviet Union, Cambodia, China, Germany, but it also drove the Pilgrim Fathers from England to America and dragnnades against the huguenots.
This is why freedom of speech is so important. No-one has ‘the truth’ and we should be able to talk and debate freely to muddle our way through the challenges of our time. It is better if this is done with respect for another person’s humanity – don’t call people names for instance, and challenge the arguments not the individuals – but it is only through oppositional debate that we can integrate a mass of competing interests and edge cases to improve our heuristics.

William Murphy
WM
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

If you want a taste of vigorous freedom of speech, check out “The Republic of King Jesus” on YouTube. Professor Alec Ryrie is a wonderful lecturer and brings out the wicked humour in this collection of religious nutters in the England of the 1640s and 1650s. As if the execution of the King and Cromwell’s reign was not enough, you had the Ranters, Levellers, Seekers and Quakers all proclaming their holy messages. Check out 34 mins onwards if you are short of time.

Of course the Quakers went all respectable and survived long term. But their early days included public nudity (they were free of original sin) and a letter delivered personally to Cromwell denouncing him as a stinking dunghill. No wonder people welcomed the restoration of the Monarchy.

Richard Starkey
Richard Starkey
3 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

No-one has ‘the truth’

And ain’t that the truth!

Allie McBeth
AM
Allie McBeth
3 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

And here, now, we have people trying to shove their ‘truth’ down our throats, denigrating and even threatening violence against those who don’t kneel before it.

Jayne Lago
JL
Jayne Lago
3 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I agree completely and many of my friends and colleagues feel the same. But then we should be asking ourselves why these people who are determined to enforce their views/woke on the rest of us, have so much power that we are being overrun by a tsunami of ‘free speech deniers’.

William Gladstone
WG
William Gladstone
3 years ago

You can always tell a psuedo intellectual “progressive” because they labour the point massively, use very dubious logic based on even more dubious “facts”.
No people who believe in free speech are not puritans, and actually I think Doyle et al are way too kind to your lot, you have far more in common with fascism than you do puritanism.

Josh Cook
JC
Josh Cook
3 years ago

You can always tell someone who either hasn’t read or can’t understand an article.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Doyle’s elegantly written and moderate polemic is in stark contrast to his personae as Titania McGrath — his largely unfunny satirical embodiment of woke culture. 
is Titania “unfunny” because it reeks of truth? This piece goes quite a ways to avoid just saying that efforts to stifle free speech are anathema to a society that pretends to value freedom.

Fraser Bailey
FB
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

People such as the writer of this piece are determined to destroy all humour.

Pete Kreff
PK
Pete Kreff
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Funnily enough, puritans tend to be humourless and dour.

Sholto Douglas
Sholto Douglas
3 years ago

The hippies and lefties of old were all for free speech and freedom in the libertine sense, but they were no political libertarians.
I recall conservative politicians at the time being prevented from speaking at universities and elsewhere.
Things haven’t so much changed since then, they have just gotten worse.

Su Mac
Su Mac
3 years ago
Reply to  Sholto Douglas

Very good point!!
Basically the left have always been politically censorious and intolerant but socially, behaviourally “loose” but now all personal behaviour has become political so it is within their censorship sights.

Last edited 3 years ago by Su Mac
stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Su Mac

Thumbs up. “The private life is dead…” (from Dr. Zhivago).

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Su Mac

I think it’s more that the left were a broader church, not just in their politics, but in the range of personalities they attracted. Sure there were the joyless, censorious types – but they didn’t dominate in the way they do now.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Sholto Douglas

Thumbs up.

A Spetzari
AS
A Spetzari
3 years ago

As others have suggested this is a word soup of ideas.
The only thing that is clear is that the author disagrees with Doyle. And that being Priggish is subtly different from being Puritan. Other than that I cannot make out anything concrete

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

The fact that the writer finds Titania McGrath to be ‘largely unfunny’ suggests that he himself is extremely ‘priggish’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

perhaps the writer finds Titanian strikes a bit too close to home.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
3 years ago

Titania is very funny, but obviously much too near the knuckle to gain the tolerance of those she lampoons. Which provides a thought for the author: those that are so easily lampooned are usually unable to see how ridiculous they are.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Louise Henson

Titania “the persona revealed that she was raised by parents who “lavished” her with “gifts and money” to distract her from her “oppression”.”

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
3 years ago

It’s funny that this platform requires comments to be approved before they are posted! Especially in the context of the discussion on free speech !
Who is approving or disapproving our comments? Priceless
My previous comment has not been posted & awaiting approval- whatever!!

Last edited 3 years ago by Alka Hughes-Hallett
stephen f.
SF
stephen f.
3 years ago

We now have overweening proctors here, carefully deciding what could be offensive-based on standards that only they seem privy to…

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Like the mask, this moderating is done to protect others, not you. A diseased thought can as surely infect society as any virus can.

Jayne Lago
Jayne Lago
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Our 12 months of Coronavirus has been hell for us and more so for the people who have lost someone. But the free speech issue or rather lack of it will be far more dangerous than any virus.

Walter Lantz
WL
Walter Lantz
3 years ago

I have to agree with several other posters that the article followed a vague, circuitous and tortuous path to…. nowhere.
Before my eyes glazed over I never got to the part where the author discussed why censorship – to what purpose must certain voices be suppressed.
IMO the woke army of goodness is a politically active manifestation of “every child gets a prize”. It is a natural progression for a generation raised to believe that unhappiness is by definition injustice. Happiness is one of the fundamental rights of man and thus rooting out and eliminating unhappiness is a clear moral responsibility. Of course it’s all a load of misguided rubbish and as Jordan Peterson has explained the natural state of man is usually unhappiness.
I agree with Douglas Murray’s reference to “God-shaped holes” and the idea that the Woke are simply filling a spiritual void. (apologies to Mr. Murray if I misinterpreted that). Using censorship to expunge thoughts, opinions and ideas that cause unhappiness is in keeping with the doctrine.
It is also natural and expected, as history shows, that such a cause, however noble its original intent may have been, would be infiltrated, misrepresented and misused by the usual gang of opportunists, chancers and camp followers.

Hugh R
Hugh R
3 years ago

What the likes of Young et al are suggesting, is that a political point of view that has been repeatedly rejected by the voters, is trying other non-democratic pinch holds to have its Theology adopted as practice, nevertheless.
The theologists genuinely believe they are attempting to do us (democrats) all a favour because we are all too ‘uneducated, xenophobic, racist or trans-islama-whatever-aphobic’ and supremely stupid to know whats good for us.

Pierre Pendre
PP
Pierre Pendre
3 years ago

Where would we be today without the freedom of speech Churchill pursued in the 1930s against the appeasement of Hitler for which he was derided and traduced? Ditto Nigel Farage without whom we would never have escaped the EU. History is replete with courageous men who defied the received wisdom of the church and governing elites and were proved right.
The contemporary mass media have been fully co-opted by the establishment and care mostly about being on the winning side – as opposed to the right side – of the big political and social questions. God forbid that Tweedledum might write or say something that upsets Tweedledee. Where does the ordinary citizen go for diversity of views if, on top of the above, Big Tech conspires with politicians to deny freedom of speech through social media and the host of small sites like this one that have sprung up.
Matt Taibi has a good piece on Substack about efforts to shut down Fox by denying its access to communications to ensure that there is less opposition in future to elite progressivism from vulgar right wing populists. Of course people who want to close down opinions alternative to their own claim the most high-minded of motives if you take them at their word. Even allowing that this true of some of them, it’s not of others. They just prefer not to be contradicted by opponents who might have better arguments.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  Pierre Pendre

Ironically, we are told that if workplaces are sufficiently “diverse” (i,e, have people with different skin colours), then everything will be ok i.e. we should get our “diversity of views”.
But we all know that’s not true, although no-one is brave enough to call out the fact the emperor has no clothes.

Jayne Lago
JL
Jayne Lago
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

How I agree with this……we may Be very lucky to have a diverse culture although I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted one……..what makes me angry is the complete lack of will/ grit by our leaders to do something about the ‘free speech arena’ that we should all be able to enjoy. Remember their are many countries around the world now battling for democracy and free speech while we are losing ours.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

-“Doyle, for instance, points out that a genuinely hospitable intellectual climate would consist of a sceptical attitude to people in power being able to enforce hate speech codes without descending into tyranny.” — 
My problem is that I don’t see the mechanism for this to happen, despite the fact that I agree with the sentiments.
Sometimes I can spot people on UnHerd, who act as politicians. UnHerd has a particular stance and a few people (only a few) seem to always agree with that stance. For example, if I said “Today I read something interesting in Socialist Review.” they would automatically give me a downtick without reading the comment.
I see politicians like this. They only do things and say things which give upticks. So, “We’re going to change the school curriculum to stop talking about slavery.” would give many downticks – so they don’t do it or say it. Instead, “We are going to examine the school curriculum to try to improve it. ” Plenty of upticks. So, they set up a committee to report and after 3 years the committee produces a 2000-page document which the politicians don’t really have time to read. Then another priority comes along and everybody forgets the original question.
You actually need a politician who stands up and says, “We have nothing to be ashamed of. We are going to change the curriculum to exclude the issue of guilt for slavery. ” There would then be only the teachers’ unions to overcome and that also would not be easy.

Last edited 3 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

‘Socialism’ means different things to different people. It has its drawbacks, but it also has its merits. In the USA, socialism is tied to progressivism which has a bad name here, and looking at progressive American politicians you begin to understand why.

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
3 years ago

Read this quite carefully, and I don’t understand what you’re on about..or even whether you think there is a problem or not. It seems like a very arcane exercise in fence-sitting

Mike Spoors
Mike Spoors
3 years ago

It will be interesting to see how much more mileage there is in ‘critical ……..’ add you own ……. from the multitudinous miasma of victimhood. Everywhere we turn to both left and right we encounter ‘offence’ with the left being ‘hurt’ by it whilst the right are ‘enraged’ by it. In earlier and more simple times if we found something offensive we avoided it but now it must be confronted or encouraged. Both ends of the offence spectrum are fighting a battle to essentially satisfy those for whom these things matter. But for the majority on both the left and the right they don’t really matter at all. Something that in itself makes the virtue signalers of both sides feel even more offended or validated.

In brings to mind the, apocryphal exchange….

Judge : Your client is no doubt aware that Vigilantibus, et non dormientibus, jura subveniunt?

Lawyer : In Barnsley, m’lud, they speak of little else.

And so the battle of woke is played out in the darker recesses of Universities, the BBC, the NYT and bravest of all The G******n, periodicals that few have heard of let alone read and online platforms that are not wholly devoted to selfies, cosmetic enhancements, and pictures of cuddly animals.

But when the battle is won,or lost, which windmill is next to be tilted at? Or is that too offensive to raise whilst there is so much still to do and even much more time to waste doing it?

simon taylor
simon taylor
3 years ago

The article is wordy tosh.

Nelly Booth
Nelly Booth
3 years ago

accepting that liberty and self-expression cannot be sustained without a degree of discipline on the part of those who participate in society. In other words, puritanism.”
Allowing a “degree of discipline” to constrain one’s behaviour is not Puritanism. It requires discipline, yes, but a good deal more than “a dgree” of it.

Peter Cullen
PC
Peter Cullen
3 years ago

The article may seem to be a discussion of free speech supporters against woke censorship supporters. The writer casts this discussion in terms of terms of ‘puritanism’ and ‘priggishness’, but these terms that themselves are subject to different interpretation. They are not defined as technical terms that would find wide acceptance among the readership as a basis for any discussion, except of the meaning of the terms themselves. Maybe that is what the writer intended, but the article just clutters up any reasonable discussion of the limits of free speech.
The writer is a bit ‘ad hominem’ by disparaging, quite irrelevantly, the character Titania McGrath.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Cullen

Ad feminam, if you please, Peter.

Pierre Pendre
PP
Pierre Pendre
3 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Awomen.

Ozymandias
Ozymandias
3 years ago

The author states: “The impulse towards censorship, then, is base. Repressing that instinct for censorship — our reason suppressing our base passions — is puritan.”
First, even assuming that repression is puritan, free speech proceeds on the basis of restraining–not repressing– an impulse to censor others. Restraint is a characteristic of mature adults.
Second, the hallmark of puritanism, for present purposes, is intolerance. In practice, puritanism is the suppression of speech deemed heterodox or otherwise intolerable, by demonizing and punishing those who express such speech. No puritan would promote the free expression of ideas. The apparent contention of the author–that the practice of restraining any impulse to suppress in favor of addressing all ideas on their merits–seems contrived.

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

Does anyone else on here find Stephen£’s “thumbs up” thing a tiny bit irritating?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

it’s the result of a ridiculous commenting platform. Clicking on the ‘thumbs up’ symbol has this habit of considering one click to be nine or some other arbitrary number.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I have had this explained to me by the technical people as a vote causing a ‘refresh’ that brings up several previous votes by others.

I did prefer the previous functionality.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Sorry, but I will continue, as we are no longer allowed to see who is voting. Perhaps if we all did it the proctors and improvers of this site would get the message…

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Also-when you upvote now, it erases a downvote, and vice-versa…

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Which is particularly pointless. If my comment has an aggregate balance of -1, is that because one person disliked it, or because 50 liked it and 51 didn’t, in which case I would view it as an excellent contribution and try to do more in the same vein.

piergastalias
P
piergastalias
3 years ago

The problem with this article is that it constructs a totally unhistorical (not to say counter-historical) definition of puritanism, while at the same time identifying as specifically puritan the notion of “constraining instincts” or “controlling baser passions” – which is, on the contrary, a core notion of almost all schools of moral thought in the Western tradition, be they Graeco-Roman or Christian.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

Titania McGrath — his largely unfunny satirical embodiment of woke culture
“NOTE TO CIS PEOPLE!
If you don’t include pronouns in your bio, you are an evil transphobe
If you do include pronouns in your bio, you are appropriating trans culture and are therefore an evil transphobe.
Choose.”
Titania McGrath. LOL. Read the pinned tweet about the predictions that come true. Hilarious! Worth the read. Author is literally a caricature of the humorless liberal.

Last edited 3 years ago by Dennis Boylon
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
3 years ago

Some of that went way over my head as I am not educated on the book’s & authors mentioned but I think I get the gist. I did find the article very interesting.

I do think that the first discussion has to happen in ones own head. I think we are too easy on ourselves when it comes to sticking to a certain belief system as there are valid points on both sides. Both the person expressing his ideas and the listener have to be open minded and have to exercise their ability to understand each other’s perspective . They may not be convinced by each other but they should be able to feel the passion behind the point of view. Respect and tolerance ( both inward & outward) are also key besides puritanical self censorship and accepting that your ideas may be flawed too.
If you know you-yourself are capable of fault and flaw in reasoning , you would be better of addressing those first before pointing it out in others. There is no perfection ( as the author says) only a stumbling to acceptable answers after a rigorous self examination.

Last edited 3 years ago by Alka Hughes-Hallett
Su Mac
Su Mac
3 years ago

I always enjoy interesting quotes from books I haven’t read however I’m not sure the John Stuart Mill quote about minorities pleading for space to dissent represents quid pro quo… “something for something” ?
Interesting central idea though, that actually the Puritan ideal of wise laws to govern the flaws in ourselves, despite uncomfortable outcomes in some cases, is more like the free speech movement.
My top tip for making sense here is to imagine Richard Harris in the marvellous 70’s film Cromwell arguing the case for free speech. Definitely doesn’t work if you try to put Richard Harris on the woke side !!

Last edited 3 years ago by Su Mac
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

‘Many of today’s contemporary progressives are pejoratively derided as moralisers, but the problem is many of them do not moralise enough — they don’t go through the individual grind and struggle a truly moral person often has to go through to get to their position.’
I don’t see why this statement applies in any greater degree to modern progressives than to modern or traditional conservatives.
pro-censorship woke brigade are often characterised as puritanical by their pro-free-speech antagonists’
The woke brigade are no more pro censorship than their conservative antagonists who in turn are no more pro free speech than the woke brigade. There are two different narratives fighting for broadcast space (in the broadest sense). One side might find it harder to put their view across in some universities and student unions and one finds it harder to put their view across in most of the print media. There are prigs, puritans and libertines on all sides.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

The woke brigade are no more pro censorship than their conservative antagonists who in turn are no more pro free speech than the woke brigade.
Are you sure about that, because ‘cancel culture’ is almost exclusively the domain of the progs. From Amazon deciding to digitally burn a book to a US Congress committee demanding that cable systems remove certain troublesome news channels, the demand for censorship is everywhere.
The New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden put that in front of everyone in living color. Not only did Big Tech block the story, from the Post’s on social media accounts, it tried to justify its actions. This is the same media that insisted for weeks that a Capitol police officer was bludgeoned to death by pro-Trump protesters, when nothing of the kind occurred.

Last edited 3 years ago by Alex Lekas
stephen f.
SF
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Thumbs up.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

My knowledge is of the UK, I confess I know very little of US in this regard.
Examples of cancel culture from the right in the UK:
UK Government forbidding state schools to use teaching materials created by organisations opposed to capitalism (even if those materials don’t directly relate to their opposition to capitalism)
UK Government to prevent Student Unions from deciding who they invite to speak at Student Union events
UK Government dictating to museums how they present and contextualise their exhibitions
UK Government threatening to withdraw funding from Universities that decline to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-semitism and all its examples
Campaign to have a UK Academic removed from his post at Bristol University because of his pro-Palestinian views
UK government intervening in local government decisions on the naming of new streets

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Congratulations, Mark, you’ve misrepresented every one of those issues.

Lora Leo
Lora Leo
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

In the modern US, censorship is almost entirely a leftist thing. Newsmax and Fox are not demanding that cable companies drop CNN.

YouTube and Google are not blocking Team Apocalypse from fear mongering about Covid.

Half the country doesn’t even realize we HAVE a censorship problem. They think it’s a “hate speech and misinformation” problem, and that social media companies have a moral obligation to silence the bad guys.

This is not one of those easy, pat, “both sides bad” situations.

Yes, the conservatives can be accused of moralizing too (although they tend to be more into the importance of pragmatism than the importance of hurt feelings; so it’s a different kind of ethos).

But there is just no evidence of anything remotely approaching a conservative “cancel culture” in the US.

Cancel culture is based on the idea that offensive, politically incorrect ideas should not be permitted by those in charge.

That’s basically the antithesis of American conservativism.

Last edited 3 years ago by Lora Leo
stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Sorry, but-thumbs up.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I don’t see why this statement applies in any greater degree to modern progressives than to modern or traditional conservatives.

On the moralising you may be right – on the censoriousness and censorship I think not. Like it or not, the left seem to have lost their taste for freedom of speech. Perhaps this is because, having gained a kind of cultural and moral dominance, they wish to protect their position rather than leave it open to critique.
Not surprising, given how lame and ripe for satire the ideas of the woke left are.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
3 years ago

The Puritans have been making war against the Cavaliers since the 17th century. For a disturbingly familiar exchange, see Richard Hooker’s account of his encounter with the them. There’s a good excerpt (with good modern context) in Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics.

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
3 years ago

I’m afraid he lost me when he said Titania McGraw was largely unfunny. In the days when I frequented that cesspool that is Twitter, her tweets were the only thing I looked forward to. She often made me laugh out loud.

Jonny Chinchen
Jonny Chinchen
3 years ago

This seems like in-fighting to me. Catty remarks about Doyle’s alter-ego (don’t believe the writer, Titania is frequently FAF, nowhere more than her appearance at Comedy Unleashed which is viewable on YouTube) and hair-splitting about the difference between a prig and a puritan.
The main thread here is still the huge threat to free speech posed by ludicrous hate speech laws that used to be the preserve of communist regimes, and the censorship of the right online by leftist run cyber businesses. Let alone the overall moral superiority complex of the progressives, who lack the self-awareness to notice their own racism, intolerance and authoritarianism.

Diana Durham
Diana Durham
2 years ago

When I saw one of the Titania McGrath skits, it was the first time I really laughed at comedy since I returned to this country three years ago. You don’t realise how far things have gone, what has been lost. You are the proverbial frog being boiled slowly. Your thought and language are confused and laboured. I don’t actually think you know what you are talking about, like so many others right now.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
3 years ago

Polite society exits as if balanced on the top of a beach ball – difficult to remain balanced with little movements around the optimal balance point but move too far and you are likely to fall off to the extremes.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

I’d say this essay would be better framed around pluralism and that a healthy democratic framework of free expression requires temperance or more generally the Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance.

Dave H
Dave H
3 years ago

This is not to say that puritanism necessarily leads to tolerance.

No, because one would have to be historically illiterate to even allude to that, given that puritanism in history has effectively always lead to massive intolerance.
The whole debate is hilarious – the right, in arguing for their “free speech” are more often than not arguing that they have a right to broadcast their ideas on other people’s private infrastructure, and they are also arguing that their speech should be without consequences from other private entities, such as their employers. This is wholly unrelated to the actual freedom to discuss your ideas without government intervention, and a very entitled position to take. You have never had the right to broadcast your ideas from my front lawn, nor should you.

Stephen Quilley
SG
Stephen Quilley
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

I’m an academic with direct experience of cancellation and ideological repression. You are quite mistaken. How about the ideological monopoly exerted by prog ideologues over hundreds of millions of dollars/pounds of public funding channelled though universities, and public sector broadcasters?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

the right, in arguing for their “free speech” are more often than not arguing that they have a right to broadcast their ideas on other people’s private infrastructure
this argument becomes more obtuse with every repetition. First, the right – and everyone else – were invited to put their ideas on these platforms; it’s not like they barged into a private party. They were invited and until now, were bound by a few basic terms no one is arguing about – prohibitions on obscenity or harming children. Then, the goalposts moved. Which you know yet pretend did not occur.

Dave H
DH
Dave H
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Oh no, a private company decided to change the rules on how I use theirt services! This is unprecendented! Fetch the smelling salts!

Paul Savage
Paul Savage
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

Oh no. A private company with a virtual monopoly that is protected from being sued for content because it claims to be a neutral platform and not a publisher is acting as a publisher and yet still expects to be protected. Fancy that.

Tom Adams
TA
Tom Adams
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

‘…arguing that they have a right to broadcast their ideas on other people’s private infrastructure…’
The problem is that that ‘private infrastructure’ has become the public square.

Dave H
Dave H
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Adams

The public square is still there. You can go and speak out there as much as you like.

Paul Savage
Paul Savage
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

But you can’t can you. The existing cartel will combine to force you out of the square. See Parler as a case in point.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

Nobody is arguing for the right to broadcast from your front lawn. It is for equal access to a communication medium which is or has been presented as available to all. In that respect it is no different to telephone networks and mail services for example. A service which declared itself as available only to groups of particular political persuasion, a propaganda channel, would not be supported by the public at large nor would a government that facilitated it. It would be a different matter if there were a variety of such channels but currently the big tech companies have effective monopolies.

Josh Cook
Josh Cook
3 years ago

Another fab article – the nuances and importance of which is evidently lost on many of the thinly read yet ‘priggish’ people who seek refuge in these pages.

It is of course true that Tiniana McGrath demonstrates you don’t have to be woke to lack a sense of humour.

The fact some commentators seem to assume that by pointing this out this article is an example of woke culture rather than a critique of it, demonstrates this resistance to nuance and the hard work that often needs to be put in to find the truth.

The eagerness to judge before finishing an article is hardly a reserve of the woke liberals.