Nick Cohen

    How to defend the arts using liberal values

    How to defend the arts using liberal values
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    This is a version of a speech I made to the No Boundaries conference at the Bristol Watershed Theatre on how censorship affects the arts, museums and libraries.

    The organisers asked me to talk about political correctness and the arts; a touchy subject which requires enormous sensitivity to the feelings of others, and long, thoughtful discussions of whether we should use the term 'political correctness' at all. Unfortunately, they continued, you have only 10 minutes and there will be no time for any of that. You will just have to get on with it.

    So forgive me if I belt out arguments like a machine gun, but I must get on.

    Politically correct culture presents four problems for writers and artists.

    1. Political correctness is not politically correct.

    The naïve might assume that political correctness means being against sexism, racism and homophobia.

    It is easy enough to be against all three if you believe in universal human rights. But most – not all, I must emphasise, but most – progressives in the West do not. They have found it as impossible to be against sexism, racism and homophobia, all at once and at the same time, as the French revolutionaries found it to be in favour of liberty, equality and fraternity, all at once.

    They have twisted themselves into the position where they cannot condemn sexism and homophobia in ethnic and religious minorities for fear of being racist. The same horribly patronising mixture of cultural relativism and post-colonial guilt prevents them taking on countries where reactionary forces, invariably religious, use state terror to enforce the subjugation of women and persecution of minorities.

    The willingness of the liberal-left to excuse radical Islam is supported by the politically correct belief that liberals should support the religious beliefs of the disadvantaged. In the name of liberalism, they fail to fight a creed that is sexist, racist, homophobic and, in its extreme forms, totalitarian and genocidal.

    Artists, writers and comedians therefore do not cover one of the great hypocrisies of our age; a hypocrisy which is genuinely racist if you think about it: for how else would you define an idea which holds that equal rights for women are the birthright of white-skinned women in the rich world but not of brown-skinned women in the poor world?

    Artists, writers and comedians therefore do not take on radical Islam or other reactionary movements. Not only because they have seen how - from Rushdie to Hebdo - they might end up murdered, but because they fear that their closest colleagues will be the first to shun them. They are missing one of the greatest stories of our age.

    2. Political correctness has an obsessive belief in the power of language to reveal hidden wickedness.

    One 'inappropriate' remark, one slip, uncovers vast prejudices hiding behind the masks of repeatability. Hence the 'twitter storms' about 'gaffes' or 'misspeaks' which fill the papers in the absence of news. Hence the academic analyses of this novelist or that film maker’s hidden biases.

    The linguistic turn in modern left politics has a huge effect on writers, who, rely on words, after all. We subject similes and metaphors to nervous scrutiny in case a comparison with the mentally afflicted, or with sexually promiscuous or exploited women provokes offence. We cannot use the ordinary speech of people who are not remotely malevolent without implying that we are malevolent or our character is malevolent or the person we are quoting is malevolent. Try describing a politician as a 'prostitute' or 'nutjob', if you doubt me, and see critics denounce you, not for mocking a despised politician, but for using 'marginalising' or otherwise 'inappropriate' language to do it.

    As a result, much of the language of serious journalism, and in stage and television drama feels as stilted as it felt in the 1950s before Look Back in Anger. Realism has again become a contentious literary technique

    Meanwhile, the assumption that dark prejudices lurk behind public masks makes the most politically correct artists targets themselves.

    Last year, Exhibit B, an impeccably liberal exhibition at the Barbican, announced its opposition to slavery and racism by showing the public black actors in chains. Protestors forced its closure. They were not extreme right wingers who wanted to defend racism, but left wingers, who could not tolerate the display because they claimed it was 'objectifying.

    It is not therefore enough for an artist to regurgitate 'appropriate' ideas. He or she must regurgitate them in an 'appropriate' manner.

    1. Political correctness is not true.

    It is not true that oppression only emanates from white western elites.

    It is not true that conservatives are always wicked.

    It is not true that those who oppose conservatism are always good.

    It is not true that artists with admirable sentiments must be able to produce great or even tolerably good work.

    It is not true that artists with conservative or indeed reactionary sentiments must produce bad or terrible work.

    It is not true that you can change the world by changing language. Indeed the desire to police language is an easy substitute for the hard work of political campaigning.

    In 1928, the great American civil rights campaigner W.E.B. DuBois, received a letter from a young activist, who was appalled that DuBois and his comrades were happy to use the word 'negro'. Negro was a slave name, he said, which should be abolished. DuBois told him to toughen up and concentrate on what matters:

    ‘Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things.. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name. It is not the name – it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!’

    Today Dubois's world is on its head. Too much cultural and political effort is put into changing names. Meanwhile things are what they used to be.

    4. This is only going to get worse.

    If you are in a newsroom, or study on a campus or work in the arts you must have noticed the upsurge of puritanism around you. New reasons to censor are being created: intersectionality, micro-aggressions, privilege.

    Liberal institutions are hopeless at challenging them because they do not know how to handle attacks from 'our side'. They do not understand that they do not come their 'side', but from their enemies.

    One day, soon I hope, they will realise that the division between those who believe that ideas should be given a hearing and those who believe they should be silenced is a division as deep, if not deeper, than the division between left and right.

    Meanwhile arts institutions and universities, which have censored individuals and works too often in the past, do not have the moral authority to reject new demands for censorship from pressure groups and the British government, which is moving with eager haste into the censorship business.

    I don’t know what conditions produce art worth seeing. But I do know what doesn’t. The low- level hysteria around so many sexual, ethnic and political questions. The conformism of liberal culture. The inability to tolerate alternative points of view, let alone show them neutrally in the service of building a convincing character or narrative.

    Left unchecked these forces will produce work which is as 'appropriate' as a 1950s' country house drama or a sentimental Victorian novel - and just as forgettable.

    If the people in this hall want, as I am sure you do, to produce work that is slightly better than that, you are going to have to learn how defend the arts with liberal values.

    The first step is easy to recommend and hard to follow. I know it is difficult when you fear Islamists may kill you, or the police won't protect you, or demonstrators may close you down, or the government may accuse you of promoting terrorism. Nevertheless your automatic response to a demand that you change or pull a work for anything other than artistic reasons, should be: