This week Fergus Finlay called those who attacked new Childrens’ Minister, Roderic O Gorman, because of the photo he posted of himself with controversial LGBT+activist, Peter Tatchell, as ‘rodents’ and ‘the most repellent form of political cave life’. Angry words for sure. Hateful, just as surely. But would they be indictable under new hate speech legislation? He didn’t name his targets but anyone who commented publicly about the controversy might consider themselves included in the sweeping condemnation. So a number of opinion writers and social media posters might be inclined to take, or claim to take, offence at them. This is important, the taking of offence, because this appears to be the sole basis for a complaint under the proposed legislation. Taking offence, irrespective of the intent of the writer or speaker, is enough. However, there can be little argument about the intent of a writer who uses words like ‘rodent’ to describe people whose views he detests.
So Fergus Finlay’c comments for all that would not fall under the proposed new hate speech legislation. The legislation is not for the protection of opinions, only vulnerable minorities. ‘Hate speech’ must be phobic towards an ethnic, racial, religious or gender denomination. You can say anything you like about opinions as such and the people who express them as long as the comments are not defamatory. It is easy to see though how certain opinions could cross the very porous line into statutory hate. If for instance you believe as JK Rowling does that a trans woman is not the same as an actual woman you may cause offence to transwomen. If you conduct research on gender imbalance and conclude that inequalities are not due to sexism, you will have strayed from mere opinion, however informed, into offending a protected category. If like a Canadian professor of Chemistry you claim that gender quotas discriminate against ‘ the most meritorious candidate’, your provost will be pressured to fire you. There are endless examples of academics who were sacked for peer reviewed research because some protected group or individual took offence. A particularly sensitive area at the moment is transgenderism and in particular ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ in teens. Considering this is new social phenomenon, you might expect that those in the relevant fields of expertise could publish research without fear of being accused of ‘hate speech’. Not so. Assistant Professor, Lisa Littman, had her peer reviewed research on the subject removed from Brown University’s website. After a fairly lengthy process of review and recrimination, she lost her position too. How many academics will be brave enough to follow similar lines of research with such examples to discourage them?
The cost of incurring offence can carry a merciless judgment. Reputational ruin, career destruction, summary dismissal, social ostracization. And there appears to be no gradation of offence. You are on one side of the line or the other. Few if any pleas for mitigation will be entertained. Even a clumsy blunder can land you on the wrong side of virtue. Movie star, Halle Berry, is an interesting victim of cancel culture. Speaking about her recent role as a transwoman, she misgendered the (fictional) character in a promotional interview. Enough. for the pile on of outage and denunciation. Berry withdrew from the role. Probably she or the production company were already deemed over the line of political correctness by choosing a cis-gender woman to represent a trans character. The difficulty of finding a talent to carry a major movie among the ranks of transgender women would be unlikely to stand in the way of inclusiivity for many LGBT+a activists.
Halle Berry did not only apologise. She wrung her hands in repentance. She acknowledged her cis-gender privilege and undertook not to let it lead her into such casual insensitivity again. As fulsome and unreserved as any retraction from a Maoist re-education camp. Walking away from a leading role in a major movie with humility and acknowledged shame was a price she was prepared to pay to salvage her career. Time will tell if her plea bargaining will be enough. Yet, Halle Berry, as a woman of colour, also belongs to a protected group. it didn’t help her here though because cis-gender privilege trumped racial disadvantage. She was the first actress of colour to win an Oscar in 2002. Eighteen years later she remains the only actress of colour to have taken home entertainment’s ultimate gong. The industry which has become an enthusiastic champion of woke causes has a lot to defend. Hollywood’s sexism and racism has created the most lurid and degenerate manifestations of white, male privilege and led directly to the metoo movement. In recent times it has somehow managed to wash its hands clean in equally ostentatious virtue-signalling.
Meghan Markle’s former best friend, stylist and fashion pundit, Jessica Mulroney, was forced in recent days to issue an even more cringeworthy apology than Halle Berry. Her sin was one of omission because she failed to use her powerful media position to support the BLM campaign. Having been ‘called out’ by a black blogger and influencer called Sasha Exeter, Mulroney took offence and accused her of defamation. No prizes for guessing who came out of top. Ditched and disowned by her former protege, Meghan, who is not slow to kick away the rungs beneath her as she ascends the social ladder, Jessica tried to save what was left of her public life by declaring, ‘ I have work to do. I will take this time to reflect and learn and focus on my family. While I can’t change the past, I can do my part to do better in the future’. Mao would be proud or more likely jealous of the soft power of modern democracy’s ideological enforcers. Recantations like this do more than instil fear in others. When people like Jessica are seen to wolf down humble pie with more relish than distaste, there is a sense that this may be a genuine epiphany moment with a lesson for all. However, the interesting twist here is that Jessica followed the public mea maxima culpa with a renewed threat of libel action in private. When Sasha Exeter made the threat public, poor Jessica had to publicly consume an even bigger wedge of the odious pie and undertake not to pursue her accuser through the courts.
Is this the new order in the Brave New World of tolerance and diversity? Do we need to be afraid? It is easy to see how hate legislation has been contrived and calibrated to privilege liberal opinion and stymie conservative voices. Hate speech is to be deplored whoever it comes from but it is to be greatly feared when it comes from the voices and mouthpieces of the Establishment. If it is okay for Fergus Finlay to call ideological enemies rodents, it should logically be okay for anyone else too. It is important to note here we already have protection in law against any speech deemed to incite violence or harm to others. What the new legislation is looking at is the much more nebulous area of offensive comment. This bodes much worse than suppression of freedom of speech. Like Jessica Mulroney, even your silence can be construed to condemn you. You must be onside with the agenda actively if not enthusiastically or you will have committed ‘micro aggression’ which as pointed out doesn’t mean micro punishment.
The rodent smear has a very disturbing political provenance. While people usually use such language thoughtlessly, it is important to note that the words we chose can be loaded in ways that may horrify us when we take time to reflect. The Jews were called ‘ratten’ by the Nazis’. These terms have one message for the recipients. They place them in a sub-human category. It is the ultimate smear. You no longer deserve the privileges and protections that society extends to the fully human. Your reputation, your livelihood , even your friends can be lost in a blink. As in all totalitarian regimes, recantation and forced confession does you few favours beyond calling off the dogs perhaps. You might be in good company with other conservatives and even formerly well got liberals, Roger Scruton, Jordan Peterson, JK Rowling, Germaine Greer and sundry others but you will be very alone too. Terms like ‘rodent’ and ‘repellent cave dwellers’ should not be acceptable in any context especially in the context of a debate around what is and is not acceptable in public discourse.
Make no mistake, when such language can be used with impunity in the public square, we need to worry about our political direction of travel.