The woke left is the new Ministry of Truth Janice Turner in The Times 11.07.20
The original article is here.
It was strange to win the Orwell Prize for journalism via a Zoom call, unshowered, in sweaty gym gear, alone in my garden shed. Stranger still to do so as socialist musician Billy Bragg wrote in The Guardian that George Orwell’s words inscribed on his statue outside the BBC — “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” — makes him cringe.
Bragg believes Orwell endorses not freedom but “licence” to say any “inflammatory” thing. He likens him to 153 authors who signed an open letter to US magazine Harper’s defending “robust and even caustic” debate. These rich dudes whining about cancel culture can’t cope with anyone shaking their establishment tree. Young people, says Bragg approvingly, prize “accountability over free speech”.
In the US, these writers — young and old, black and white, from across the political spectrum — have been eviscerated by the left. Look at them, sneer critics, amid a pandemic and racist police violence, caring about niceties like open debate. Besides, they’re all safe — even “problematic” JK Rowling — thus proving cancel culture is just a far-right phantasm.
Yet their safety is the very reason that bestsellers like Malcolm Gladwell and Margaret Atwood can speak out. The secure can best protect those in peril: the untenured academics or mid-list writers or even the teacher at your child’s school.
The worst of cancel culture is not a high-profile career assassination but what follows. Silence: the deadening effect upon institutions or individuals scared into self-censorship in case they too face an angry throng. The Orwell Foundation tells me that when I was shortlisted in 2018, because my submitted articles included an investigation into the global spike in teenage girls identifying as trans, it was warned of trouble, feared a picket and considered hiring private security to protect staff. So this year it had to formulate a plan in case of fallout because I had won.
What would Orwell have thought? I’ve wondered this throughout three years reporting on the gender wars. When the word “woman” is replaced with “menstruator”, “mother” with “birthing parent” so the specific language of female experience is unsayable, I remember the Ministry of Truth deleting seditious vocabulary: “a heretical thought . . . should be literally unthinkable at least so far as thought is dependent upon words”.
I think of Orwell when scientists cite the reproductive vagaries of clown fish or slugs to “prove” human biological sex is not a male-female binary, because they’re terrified of being targeted by activists who’ve stupidly tethered trans rights to science denial. Here is the very definition of Doublethink: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.”
Orwell didn’t believe in objectivity: he thought every writer is driven by political and personal bias. His imperative was that views are freely expressed: “What is needed is the right to print what one believes to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail from any side.” Right now his words are being crash-tested across the world by right-wing autocrats from Brazil to Turkey censoring or locking up journalists. But the counterpoint, as the Harper’s letter states, is a catastrophic collapse of free expression on the left.
Almost every day I hear from Guardian journalists, principled, progressive writers, who are terrified of uttering what now counts as WrongSpeak. As the tram-tracks of left-wing discourse have narrowed, any critique of Black Lives Matter or conservative Islam or, worst of all, suggesting a humane balance must be reached between trans activist demands and women’s rights, can result in vicious censure from colleagues, even demands that they are sacked. Questions imply criticism: disagreement is hate-speech.
When journalists cannot address issues for fear of losing their jobs, a void is created in the public sphere. If moderate views are unprintable, they become unspeakable. Cancellation trickles down.
Harper’s signatory Salman Rushdie has survived far worse than rants from hipster bloggers, but the Scottish children’s author Gillian Philip, who defended JK Rowling, was sacked. Many others have written to me: feminist authors dumped by agents, who in turn are frightened for their own livelihoods. Female academics endure constant professional defamation, petitions to no-platform them, exclusion from publications, talks on subjects unrelated to gender aggressively picketed or cancelled. “I was disinvited from giving lectures on courses I’ve worked on for years,” one says sadly, “including courses I’ve helped to write”.
A corporate lawyer was reported to her chief executive just for following feminist accounts on Twitter; a teacher was shopped to her head by a student intern who’d overheard her criticise the trans child charity Mermaids. A charity worker faced a complaint to her board because she’d “liked” a JK Rowling tweet: “For days, I was utterly terrified for my future. I shouldn’t have to live like this because of the views I hold.” A copywriter who queried why “woman” must be replaced with “womxn’ but not man with “mxn”, says speaking out “results in fewer chances to work on projects or limits promotion”. These people are denied free speech for utterances that are within the law.
Bragg is wrong: most young people crave open debate, yet are the most vulnerable to social media pile-ons from censorious peers. In the face of brutal tyranny, free speech is not a dispensable luxury but a blazing torch. Unlike the woke left, George Orwell didn’t spend his life scrabbling to be on the “right side of history”: he believed that telling the truth is in itself a revolutionary act.