Guest Notes

New York notes

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

Tantamount to a speechcrime

New York is wonderfully offensive. Offensive to nature with its gravity-defying towers. Offensive to the tragic, sexless soldiers of Islam, for whom this den of iniquity and other fab things is sin made flesh, or at least concrete and steel. Offensive to eco-bores who cannot bear the thought of how much waste is created by the city’s working, eating, dancing hordes (12,000 tonnes a day, since you ask). It offends me too. The noise is too much sometimes. The smoking ban, which now applies even to parks, gets my goat. The homeless man who sat next to me in a Barnes & Noble bookshop cafe where I was trying to work and asked, ‘Any hot Asian girls in here?’ wound me up something rotten. And yet you finish each day feeling alive, energised, sometimes a little wiser, definitely more sussed. New York is mettlesome proof that being offended is good for you. It exercises your moral muscles. It keeps intellectual rigor mortis at bay.

And yet there are those who would turn NYC — or bits of it — into a ‘safe space’. Which is an Orwellian euphemism for ‘censorship zone’. At Columbia, the Ivy League university that’s home to the prim, PC, offence-fearing sons and daughters of the decadent late bourgeoisie, students were asked to hang signs on their dorm doors declaring them ‘safe spaces’ in which no ‘homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, racism, ableism or classism’ would be permitted. Which basically means nothing remotely controversial may ever be uttered. Single-handedly restoring my faith in millennials, one Columbia student, Adam Shapiro, hung a sign on his door saying, ‘This is a dangerous space’ in which free-wheelin’ debate is permitted. The rebellious pulse is faint in youth, but it beats still.

Funnily enough, I am here to make dangerous spaces, by which I mean stand up for free speech. spiked, the magazine I edit, has undertaken an Unsafe Space tour of American campuses. Our aim is to make the case, reasonably but passionately, for unfettered thought and debate in university life. We want to move things on from the shrill pantomime the free-speech wars have become in recent years, where some alt-right blowhard rocks up to mock campus crazies, him shouting ‘SNOWFLAKES!’, them shouting ‘FASCIST!’, and the whole thing generates nuclear levels of heat but not so much as a flicker of light. Both sides get a kick from this, and are symbiotically interlinked, each deriving their moral purpose from theatrically opposing the other’s theatre. The Unsafe Space tour is about engaging, and arguing, and convincing. We’ve been to Rutgers, Harvard, American University and others. During our debate at the New York Law School, where the other panellists said free speech is a nice idea but it shouldn’t apply to the horrible hard-right, I grabbed the mic and made the case for free speech for Nazis. Firstly because if you empower the state to ban scoundrels, you empower it to ban you. And secondly because if you want to defeat wicked ideas, then you need to know where they are, what they consist of, and how to knock ’em down. The audience applauded. There are young people who believe in free speech, but they’re drowned out by sharp-elbowed millennial moaners who are more likely to get columns in the Guardian and sympathy from Twitter.

Speaking of unsafe spaces, I head to the Pierre Hotel in midtown to hear Tony Abbott speak on the SSM vote in Oz. It was a brilliant speech, going beyond defending traditional marriage as the basis of family life — and thus of community life and of nations themselves — and touching upon what he called the West’s ‘civilisational self-doubt’. Our PC culture, our fear of giving offence, is at the root of demands for things like SSM, he said. ‘We find it hard to say “no” to people.’ It sounds simple but he’s touching on something profound: the more we refuse to assert our values or defend institutions, the more we tell people their self-esteem should take precedence over such small fry as other people’s freedom or even the institution of marriage, the more we cultivate safe spaces in which people expect never to hear a sore word, then the more we green-light arrogance among activists and the targeting of any thing or idea or person that is seen to stand in the way of the cult of the self. ‘Not every love can claim the title of marriage’, said Abbott. That’s tantamount to a speechcrime these days, but it contains a truth more people should reckon with: we have created a situation in which even marriage can be bent to the therapeutic needs of those for whom marriage was not designed.

Over post-speech drinks with me and Paul Coleman, a brilliant defender of free speech who organised Tony’s talk, Abbott says a ‘No’ victory in the SSM vote Down Under could prove to be Australia’s Brexit moment. As with Britain’s EU referendum, in the Oz vote on SSM the chattering class has been badgering the electorate to do the ‘right thing’ and has been pathologising those who dare to say — clutch your pearls now — that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Alas, 61 to 39 means your chance of a Brexit effect has dissipated. For now. It will be back, in some form. Abbott gives me his thoughts on the current crop of Liberal leaders. Decorum and that off-the-record thing forbid me from revealing what he said. But it was funny, I can tell you that.

I head to the Newseum in DC, a magnificent building devoted to the First Amendment, to take part in a debate on freedom of conscience. Gay marriage comes up. I argue that it’s wrong, and chilling, to brand people bigots simply because they believe, with no malice, just conviction, that marriage is not for homosexuals. A fellow panellist, a trendy reverend, turns to me and says: ‘But they are bigots.’ And it strikes me: the safe space is spreading, like a B-movie blob, making more things unsayable, and more of public life policed. In such circumstances, giving offence, New York style, becomes not just an inevitability, but a duty.

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