The dangers of illiberal liberalism
Liberals who repress speech to prevent harm risk inviting authoritarianism, writes Claire Fox of the Academy of Ideas
[NB – This was written in 2018 in response to rising Leftist censorship in the UK – though it is now widespread across the West, a civilization that despite its fault still had freedom of speech until recently and in that respect was better nearly ever other civilization or culture before it. The Enlightenment in general represents the best ideals of humanity, even if not perfectly adhered to.
The inalienable rights of the individual, such as freedom of speech and religion and assembly are all worth preserving. They all came under sustained attacked due to the lockdowns and now vax mandates and passports.
Arrests, ID chips and isolation camps will invariably follow, and we will be in a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship, like China or North Korea, before long. And sadly many people support that. Many of them naively think it can’t happen here. Their naivety and consent is precisely what’s allowing it to happen.
Since 2018, censorship has increased precipitously, especially Big Tech/ social media censorship of so-called “medical misinformation” in the name of “saving lives” – except that it does no such thing. It’s entirely to push the ‘vaccine’ on us by force. Notice that censorship is done through pejorative labels by ideologically aligned groups online.
Another good statement on Enlightenment principles in the Canadian context is from Candace Malcolm in her excellent book Losing True North (about Trudeau’s disastrous immigration policies), on pp. 89-93]
If ever there was a vivid illustration of illiberal liberalism, it was the response to one of the essays in this very series. After The Economist published an article by Kathleen Stock, reader in philosophy at the University of Sussex, which sensitively questioned whether “self-declaration alone could reasonably be the only criterion of being trans”, the Sussex Students’ Union denounced her as a transphobe. In the union’s original statement, it declared “we will not tolerate hate on our campus.” “Trans and non-binary lives are not a debate.”
These key tropes—“we will not tolerate” and “this is not a debate”—are now frequently deployed to curtail discussion of issues deemed to be taboo, invariably to “protect” people deemed vulnerable from speech deemed hateful. This secular version of blasphemy follows a sacred script, written by those who consider themselves liberals. Dare to query it and you’ll be damned.
I still consider myself a liberal in the Enlightenment sense of the word. But I have to admit that being a liberal these days is confusing. I continue to take inspiration from John Locke, John Stuart Mill and those more recent freedom fighters of the 1960s who challenged conformism and repression. In Britain this led to partial decriminalisation of both homosexuality and abortion in 1967, and a more open, tolerant, permissive society. These are the liberal values which I recognise and admire.
In contrast, today’s so-called progressive liberals are often intolerant, calling for official censure against anyone perceived as uttering non-progressive views. They openly despise everyone from Trump-voting “Deplorables” and Brexit-voting ”Gammons” (those “others” who dare to vote the wrong way and won’t espouse their “tolerant” values) to those in their own ranks who refuse to toe the liberal line. Many will have noticed the murky civil war among feminists on the transgender issue, or the venom heaped on anyone daring to demur on 100% endorsement of the #MeToo movement. Prominent women, many of whom would call themselves liberal feminists, have been turned on and accused of treason for daring to dissent.
Margaret Atwood’s thoughtful article, “Am I a Bad Feminist?”, was met with howls of rage from fellow feminists. The iconic novelist was accused of being a victim-blaming rape apologist, all of which apparently stemmed from her “white privilege”. Ironically, Ms Atwood’s essay notes that “anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor”. How right she is. After Catherine Deneuve wrote an open letter raising concerns about the effect #MeToo might have on flirting, Asia Argento, also an actress, denounced her and “other French women” for their “interiorised misogyny [which] has lobotomised them to the point of no return”. For daring to raise questions about female sexual agency, Ms Deneuve and others have essentially been told that they’ve been brainwashed.
This particular viciousness is also aimed at liberals who dare any self-criticism. Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, published a stinging rebuke of his own tribe for facilitating Donald Trump’s accession to the White House. His New York Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism” went viral, and received a savaging from his peers. Katherine Franke, a colleague of his at Columbia, accused him of “contributing to the same ideological project”’ as David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. “Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism”, Ms Franke writes “Lilla’s op-ed does the…nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable”. Such delegitimising slander is commonplace—it’s the liberals’ version of hate speech, spouted without apology in the fight against (ahem) hate speech.
Mr Lilla wants to save liberalism from illiberal identity politics. He writes, “American liberalism… has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” He has a point, but I am less concerned with rescuing liberalism as a governing ideology than with saving one of its most valuable tenets: free speech, which is too often an inconvenient obstacle to righteousness.
Free speech is carelessly tossed to one side in order to silence views and people that liberals label as intolerant. In a shocking turnaround, the American Civil Liberties Union has recently abandoned its liberal, even-handed attitude to which free-speech cases it will defend. Its new guidelines, titled “Conflicts Between Competing Values or Priorities”, explicitly endorses the view that free speech can harm “marginalised” groups. “Speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms,” it says, “and is intended to, and often will, impede progress toward equality.”
This reflects one of the ways in which liberals have let their guard down on free speech. They have bought into an expanded, subjective definition of harm that incorporates the alleged psychological distress caused by speech. To compound matters, the contemporary fashion for viewing the politically oppressed as defenceless, vulnerable victims has led to a downgrading of free-expression principles in order to protect those marginalised minorities from offence.
Some liberals also see free speech as a Trojan horse for alt-right bigotry. Commentators such as Owen Jones dismiss those fighting censorious trends as “right-wing, well-heeled, white, straight, male commentators… bigots who clothe themselves in the garb of free speech [but]…just want the right to hate without challenge.” And yet, this is partly due to liberal cowardice. A cursory look at coverage of the so-called “Free Tommy” brigade, centred around the alleged censorship of Tommy Robinson, a notorious anti-Islam campaigner, reveals how liberals shun defending the free-speech rights of the unpalatable. Yes, I find many of Mr Robinson’s views odious, but a pick’n’mix attitude to free speech betrays liberalism, not Mr Robinson, and worse, it adds to the myth that “free speech” is a “right-wing” cause.
In a much-cited essay entitled “The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis’” Will Davies muses: “The intriguing question is why free speech has become such a cherished value for conservatives?” Perhaps a better question would be: Why is free speech no longer “a cherished value” on the liberal left? Surely one reason is that liberals fear being denounced by commentators such as Mr Davies, who suggests that “free speech warriors” are self-serving, handmaidens of the alt-right.
Another Guardian columnist, Nesrine Malik, has decided that ”freedom of speech is no longer a value. It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates”. Those who cannot so easily be dismissed as bigots, perhaps civil libertarian liberals, are sneeringly dismissed as “Free Speech Grifters—who flog PC culture as a singularly eminent threat to the freedom of expression.”
This liberal cynicism about the motives of those who espouse free speech can in turn warp their sense of tolerance of others. Afua Hirsch, a British writer and ex-barrister, suggests that “the culture war, so often dressed up as a battle over free speech, in reality boils down to a refusal to engage with alternative points of view.” I couldn’t agree more. However, with no sense of irony, Ms Hirsch goes on to decry the “fantasy” of free speech in which those worried about the “threat of immigration” are ascribed the worst possible motives. Ms Hirsch accuses them of using “sanitised language…to dress up vicious attitudes.”
But if an alternative view to Ms Hirsch’s on immigration (and indeed my own) is castigated as prettifying explicit racist abuse, what hope is there of an inclusive liberal political culture? This between-the-lines reading of political opinions that liberals denounce as a hateful intolerance lacks generosity or empathy. It tells us far more about the smug, closed-minded certainty of illiberal liberals than those they look down on.
In fact, liberals will only become liberal again once they abandon this type of sneering and smearing and recognise that free speech—even for those we despise—is the core liberal project. Without it, the much feared (often exaggerated) rise of the far-right won’t be the biggest threat to our freedoms. Instead, illiberalism, in the name of liberalism, will be the PC midwife of authoritarianism.
Claire Fox is the director of the Academy of Ideas, a libertarian think-tank.
The following two articles have problems with them, but I am re-posting them nonetheless because they raise some good points.
Censorship Makes Us Stupider, Our Governments Less Accountable: we mustn’t allow bureaucrats, politicians, or social media behemoths to do our thinking for us.
Former Facebook employee and so-called “whistleblower” Frances Haugen testified in Washington this week about how the social media giant, among other things, harms the public by not moderating or censoring content on its platform severely enough.
With Congress threatening social media platforms to get them to remove “fake news” and “misinformation,” it seems that everyone these days is uniting behind the idea that censorship is necessary to protect folks from things they can’t handle.
And while private social media companies, and the so-called independent “fact checkers” they recruit, already police a lot of content aggressively of their own volition, they also respond to substantial political pressure to go down that path or risk being forced to. That includes bipartisan threats to revoke media platforms’ liability protections for what their users post, and Sen. Klobuchar’s (D-MN) bill to punish platforms for hosting what unelected bureaucrats deem to be “medical misinformation.” Unsurprisingly, cries of “misinformation” are typically aimed at news stories painting those in power poorly or questioning the narratives of governments and regulatory agencies.
To be clear, there’s plenty of genuine misinformation and falsehood out there. But what that means isn’t always clear-cut, and we shouldn’t expect or allow bureaucrats, politicians, or social media behemoths to do our thinking for us.
We don’t need new laws or more moderation. We need to start thinking for ourselves. A return to critical thinking, civic and scientific literacy, and personal responsibility would serve us better and leave us more capable of holding those in power to account. Such a revival is critical, especially when the unintended consequences of censorship are so severe.
Take Youtube, for example: When the video-sharing platform used algorithms to remove violent videos, it ended up taking down accounts of journalists exposing human rights abuse. Or take Facebook — the social media site suppressed a New York Post exposé about a stolen laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden for fear that potential misinformation could “interfere” with the presidential election. It was an ironic move given that stifling news stories that hurt a political candidate is arguably election interference by omission. Their censorship stifled debate, and an important one at that.
Or take Twitter, which removed the account of Dr. Li Meng Yan, a researcher who fled Hong Kong and alleged that the Chinese government had created the Covid-19 virus in a lab last year. Her paper drew valid scientific criticism due to its speculative conclusions. But it should’ve been allowed to stand and be judged on its own merits. Today, even the CDC’s Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization czar endorse the possibility of a lab leak origin for the virus — with confirmation rendered impossible thanks to the Chinese government blocking any independent investigation. Should future revelations confirm Dr. Yan’s claims, then Twitter will have contributed to a repressive foreign dictatorship escaping accountability.
It’s debatable whether supposedly independent and unbiased “fact checkers” are great for promoting the truth [NB – they’re not] when they’re likely to rely blindly on the official stances of fallible bureaucratic agencies, like the CDC, which has had to totally reverse its stance on issues like the efficacy of masks due to contradictory evidence. Or the FDA, which inadvertently pushed nicotine vapers toward smoking after falsely linking legal vapes to lung injuries caused by black market THC-based products.
We know that authorities like the CDC and the FDA get stuff wrong. So what makes us so confident in their judgments that we shoot down all opposition? Consider current advice against using prophylactic treatments like Ivermectin for Covid-19. There are meta-analyses that support the efficacy of Ivermectin for treating Covid-19, and there are those that find there’s insufficient evidence to show it helps at all. Government health agencies worldwide remain divided on the topic, with the Indian Ministry of Health contradicting both the CDC and WHO.
The point is that these are all subjects of valid public debate. Official advice could change at any moment in light of emerging evidence. Shielding the public from that debate leaves us in the dark and emboldens anti-vax conspiracy theorists who claim that the “powers that be,” whether they’re “big pharma” or “big public health,” are suppressing anything that isn’t the vaccine.
Worse still, the CDC’s official advice against trying even benign doses of Ivermectin to combat Covid-19 in consultation with medical professionals, something that isn’t mutually exclusive from encouraging vaccination, is likely driving people to take the drug in unregulated and potentially deadly doses without medical advice — such as by purchasing horse de-wormer. Such bizarre consequences call to mind how prohibiting legal and regulated consumption of alcoholic beverages in places with public oversight during the 1920s resulted in alcohol seekers being driven blind or killed after consuming moonshine or bathtub gin.
Not everyone can be expected to navigate complex and nuanced scientific subjects where the evidence is emerging. But even if health officials and the “fact checkers” quoting them are right most of the time [NB – they’re not] and are far more likely to be right than partisan shock jocks or your crazy aunt on Facebook whose keyboard seems to be stuck on caps lock [NB – are they?], they aren’t always going to get it right and we shouldn’t expect them to. [NB – as a rule of thumb I assume all fact-checkers are lying to the public all the time]
Better civics and scientific literacy education in schools will provide far better protection to the public from genuine misinformation and dangerous claims than harsher censorship.
Satya Marar is a Washington D.C. and Sydney-based policy professional and tech policy fellow at Young Voices.
In their rush to correct “misinformation” about the efficacy of masks, fact-checkers have obscured some important limitations surrounding the science they insist we all follow.
by Cameron English, American Council on Science and Health, Aug. 24, 2021
[NB – I don’t agree with all this article says, but am reprinting it provoke thought; he gives the example of disingenuous ‘fact-checking’ on masks, but there are numerous other glaring examples when they were outright wrong – e.g., virus origins, safety of hydroxychloroquine & ivermectin, the supposed safety of the ‘vaccines’ and relative value of natural immunity — on all these issues they have been demonstrably wrong, even lying to us — and this is important because Big Tech censorship was largely based on the ‘fact-checkers’ who themselves tended to make partisan arguments in favour of vaccine rollouts at any cost, reflecting the state’s position and that of pharmaceutical corporations]
[Fact-checkers have served] more as apologists for the CDC and other federal agencies than referees who correct false information no matter where it comes from.
[NB – we now know that many so-called “fact checkers” were paid directly or indirectly by Big Pharma]
. . . this sort of slanted fact-checking has crippled the public’s trust in mainstream science. To many Americans, the phrase “according to fact-checkers” now means “don’t believe your lying eyes, biased reporters warn.”
Here’s a recent example from The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project: Misinformation About Face Masks.
The article was an extensive defense of the federal government’s contradictory statements about the efficacy of masks. To many people, the erratic guidance offered by public health officials and amplified by the media looked like politically motivated theater that was often at odds with the evidence.
But those suspicions were mistaken, SciCheck argued. You see, silly rubes, the confusing masking guidelines were always based on the “evolution of the science,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci put it. Your faithful public servants at the CDC weren’t overly risk-averse or driven by politics; no, they were just following the evidence wherever it went.
This is the sort of rhetoric you might expect from the White House Press Office, but it’s totally unacceptable coming from a website that bills itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate.’” SciCheck’s quotes are followed by my commentary unless otherwise stated.
Initially, there was limited evidence to support broad masking policies for the general public … On April 3, 2020, the CDC reversed course and recommended that everyone wear face coverings in public, citing new data that showed a ‘significant portion’ of people infected with the coronavirus lack symptoms but can spread the virus to others.
Absolutely nothing changed about the efficacy of masks between February and April 2020. The CDC may have developed concerns about asymptomatic infection, but the agency didn’t uncover new data showing that universal masking would blunt viral transmission any better than it had in years past. Indeed, such evidence was “scarce,” as a March 2020 Lancet Respiratory Medicine article pointed out.
The first major article synthesizing the evidence on masking was a World Health Organization-sponsored systematic review and meta-analysis published in June 2020, two months after the CDC’s first about-face on masks. The review authors themselves pointed this out:
Our findings are, to the best of our knowledge, the first to rapidly synthesize all direct information on COVID-19 and, therefore, provide the best available evidence to inform optimum use of three common and simple interventions [Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection] …
SciCheck subtly conceded this point in a March 2021 article, writing that “In our last deep dive into the research on masks in April 2020, we explained that … direct evidence that face masks prevent transmission of respiratory viruses in a community was limited.” Equally telling was the website’s explanation in the August 13 fact-check:
Since [April 2020], a growing body of evidence supports the use of masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, as we reported in March.
In other words, the research followed CDC’s changing masking recommendations. But this was still an inaccurate summary of how the situation unfolded. Much of the masking research conducted throughout 2020 and into this year consisted of literature reviews and meta-analyses of studies performed during past flu seasons—that is, before April 2020—all of which concluded that the evidence was mixed and masks had limited impact on viral transmission.
The problems were manifold. Epidemiological studies had no way to decouple the effects of masking from other interventions, for example. One of the clinical trials CDC cited in support of masks probably enrolled 130 people who were vaccinated against influenza and classified them as flu cases. Two other studies had no control group; another found “a 13 times higher risk of infection in the cloth mask arm” compared to medical masks. Some of the results didn’t even reach statistical significance.
Many COVID-specific observational and laboratory studies were performed as the pandemic proceeded, but these weren’t particularly strong either, as Nature reported in October 2020:
For now, [Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota], wears a mask. Yet he laments the ‘lack of scientific rigor’ that has so far been brought to the topic. ‘We criticize people all the time in the science world for making statements without any data,’ he says. ‘We’re doing a lot of the same thing here.’
In sum, the data were still very messy eight months into the pandemic. SciCheck complained that misinformation peddlers used this “evolving science” to distort the facts at every turn. But looking carefully at the research, it seems that the CDC’s critics and many experts were making the same observations—and still are. Consider this June 2021 study published in Science:
Compared with N95 or FFP2 respirators, which have very low particle penetration rates (~5%), surgical and similar masks exhibit higher and more variable penetration rates (~30 to 70%). Given the large number of particles emitted upon respiration and especially upon sneezing or coughing, the number of respiratory particles that may penetrate masks is substantial, which is one of the main reasons for doubts about their efficacy in preventing infections.
Moreover, randomized clinical trials have shown inconsistent or inconclusive results, with some studies reporting only a marginal benefit or no effect of mask use. Thus, surgical and similar masks are often considered to be ineffective. On the other hand, observational data show that regions or facilities with a higher percentage of the population wearing masks have better control of COVID-19.
Acknowledging uncertainty is the best policy
As I wrote previously, the point is not that face coverings are useless. When my unvaccinated family visited my newborn son, I made them mask up [NB — I’m glad I’m not related to this author] … we need to be honest about the quality of the research that’s been done and how conservative its conclusions have been.
Chastising people for ignoring the evidence while obscuring crucial limitations surrounding much of that evidence is misleading and disingenuous. [italics added]
The irony in all this is that the public appreciates experts who acknowledge uncertainty where it exists. “Say what you know; what you don’t know; what you are doing to find out; what people can do in the meantime to be on the safe side, and that advice will change,” a team of researchers wrote last November in Nature. The constant onslaught of condescending fact-checks suggests that the media hasn’t grasped this basic rule of science communication.