In March 2019, tax expert Maya Forstater was dismissed from her job — legally, according to a later judicial ruling — for voicing the view that “sex is a biological fact, and is immutable.”
When author J.K. Rowling came to Forstater’s defence, she was bombarded with abuse, including an invitation from one lady to “choke on my fat trans cxxk”. The case became a cause célèbre.
But it is only one of many such cases. Today, anyone who ventures a controversial opinion on “trans”, race, disability, Middle Eastern politics and a handful of other issues risks being fired, insulted, intimidated and possibly prosecuted.
Last year, a “Journal of Controversial Ideas” was launched, offering authors the option of writing under a pseudonym “in order to protect themselves from threats to their careers or physical safety”. How did things come to this pass?
The new intolerance is often seen as a specifically left-wing phenomenon — an intensification of the “political correctness” which emerged on US campuses in the 1980s. But that is a one-sided view of the matter.
It was US Zionists who pioneered the tactic of putting pressure on organisations to disinvite unfavoured speakers; far-right nationalists are among the keenest cyberbullies; and religious zealots of all stripes are prodigal of death threats.
Generalising, one might say that left-wing groups, being more publicly respectable in our part of the world, prefer to pursue their objectives through institutions and the law, whereas right-wing groups seek out the anonymity of the internet.
But the goal on each side is the same: it is to intimidate, suppress, silence. In any case, the distinction between “left” and “right” is becoming increasingly muddled, as lines shift and alliances regroup.
All one can safely say is that the various forms of contemporary extremism imitate and incite each other. What has given way is the civilised middle ground.
For this reason, I prefer to speak not of “fascism” or “political correctness” but of “totalitarianism”, a label designed to pick out what is common to fanaticisms of left and right.
Totalitarianism is often thought of as a type of regime, which may make my use of the term seem hyperbolic; after all, we still live in a democracy.
But it can also be understood in a broad sense, as a frame of mind and a style of political action.
Totalitarianism in this broad sense existed in Russia and Germany before the establishment in either country of a totalitarian regime, and it remained a force in West European politics even after the war, if only on the radical fringe.
It is totalitarianism in this sense whose recent rise to prominence alarms me.
A public inured to totalitarian habits of thought and action is unlikely to offer much resistance to a totalitarian takeover of the state.
Lenin and Hitler were at least open in their disdain for tolerance, associating it, correctly, with the liberalism they hated
What are the marks of totalitarianism, understood in this broad way? First and most obviously, intolerance.
All totalitarian movements are intolerant in aspiration, even if they lack the power to give their intolerance legislative force.
Lenin always insisted on obedience to a single line, dictated by himself; much of his energy prior to 1917 was spent attacking “deviationists” among the ranks.
Hitler was equally vigorous in persecuting opponents, though in his case these tended to lie outside rather than within the party.
From 1929 onwards, “unGerman” writers and artists could expect to receive threatening letters and phone calls and to have their public appearances disrupted.
In March 1932, the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter published a declaration, signed by 42 professors, calling for the protection of German culture against its enemies.
Later that year, the Dessau Bauhaus was shut down under Nazi pressure.
All these strategies of intimidation and suppression have been revived in recent years, usually by people who have no idea of their Bolshevik and Nazi antecedents.
Lenin and Hitler were at least open in their disdain for tolerance, associating it, correctly, with the liberalism they hated.
But many of their modern imitators regard themselves as supremely tolerant, indeed as more than tolerant. How is this possible?
The answer lies in a peculiar mutation of concepts, whose significance often goes unnoticed.
Tolerance in the classical liberal sense involves the simultaneous affirmation of two propositions: that 1) an idea or practice is wrong, and that 2) it has a right to exist.
This dual affirmation, if not strictly contradictory, is at any rate hard to sustain psychologically.
It runs contrary to our natural inclination, which to eliminate ideas and practices which we think are wrong.
Tolerance is a strenuous attitude. It is the attitude of a cultivated elite, which has succeeded in managing its disagreements with irony and good humour.
The demand for affirmation entails a new form of intolerance
In recent years, the classical liberal idea of tolerance has shaded, imperceptibly, into the very different idea of affirmation.
If tolerance requires us to grant liberty to beliefs and practices which we regard as wrong, “affirmation” demands that we embrace without qualification the full spectrum of lifestyles and identities.
(“All different, all equal” and “acceptance with exception” are two recent Stonewall campaign slogans.)
From the standpoint of affirmation, mere tolerance is an unsatisfactory half-way house — a grudging “putting up with” what ought to be wholeheartedly embraced.
As Bernard Williams once put it, there seems to be something not quite right about the outlook of a couple who “tolerate” their gay neighbours.
This view of affirmation as the perfection of tolerance — “super-tolerance”, as it were — is misleading.
In reality, the demand for affirmation entails a new form of intolerance, all the more powerful for not being recognised as such.
For logically, if affirmation is required, non-affirmation is forbidden. There can be no tolerance for the unaffirming.
This — note — is very different from the older liberal principle of “no tolerance for the intolerant”.
That principle served only to rule out the Lenins and Hitlers of this world, preserving a wide scope for disagreement.
But if what is required is not just tolerance, but affirmation, the scope for disagreement is nil. All must affirm, or else face “cancellation”.
Herein lies the secret of that strange and horrible metamorphosis whereby the champions of “diversity” and “inclusivity” have become the most zealous persecutors of the modern age.
In recent years, the call for affirmation has sounded loudest from one quarter in particular. There are many views of what it means to be a man or woman, none of them established by science or reason.
But under the advocacy of Stonewall and other powerful lobbies, a single view has attained a virtual monopoly on public discourse: to be a man or woman is to “identify as” a man or woman, irrespective of looks, anatomy, or other people’s opinion.
To query this view, even by way of philosophical discussion, is transphobic hate speech, which is a crime. “Some women have penises. Get over it.”