Reading Melanie Phillips in this morning’s Times made me really cross. Nothing unusual in that – except I’m cross because I agreed with every word she had to say about free speech, and the lunatic attacks on Canadian academic Jordan Peterson by activists who have the gall to call themselves progressive. Peterson, in case you didn’t know, has argued against proposals that Canada introduce new laws insisting personal pronouns be changed to ze and zir at the request of the addressee concerned.
As someone who still thinks of himself as 'left wing' (Left and Right being, as I have said here before, somewhat outmoded), I hate agreeing with Melanie Phillips. Of course the route from youthful socialist to ageing conservative is a familiar one, but even aged 50 I don’t feel particularly conservative, either upper or lower case; I feel deserted. I’m in the same place I was 35 years ago, but the crowd around me has retreated to the fringes of the battlefield to shout rude names from the safety of their virtuous towers.
The so-called alternative comedians I once admired are in bed with George Osborne and big business. Authors like Ian McEwan smack their lips at the prospect of the death of old people because they might have voted Brexit (what about Remain voters, Ian? Or Brexit voters who fought in the war?) The Guardian and Observer, the first newspapers I wrote for as an angry young Manc, have been overrun by a motley crew of Stalinists, Islamists and elitists, the comments beneath the line seemingly composed by Viz’s Pathetic Sharks.
It comes as no surprise that some young people buffeted by the harsh winds of globalisation are developing an interest in Communism; it’s unforgivable that people of my age and older encourage them in their naivety, make excuses for Stalin, Mao and Kim Jong-un. Unfortunately much of this anger comes as a result of being misinformed by teachers, journalists and parents that young people have never had it so bad – when this is pretty much the polar opposite of the truth.
The very concept of doubt has now become an old-fashioned and possibly decadent notion. These days we are all supposed to have violently strong feelings about transgenderism and Trump. Except I don’t, and suspect many people feel the same. I understand some people are born in the wrong gender but don’t support the right of a man to stick on a dress and enter a woman-only changing room. I abhor Trump but respect the fact he won the election. Hate what the IDF sometimes does in Palestine but understand that Israel has a right to exist. Feel concerned about Russia’s increasing bellicosity but understand why they might feel under threat when Nato keep conducting military exercises on their border.
Like many people, I suspect, most of whom keep their voices down and avoid social media, I’m cursed with the ability to see both sides of an argument. I want the railways nationalised but recognise they were probably more dangerous before privatisation. That buying back public utilities seems fair but will cost the tax-payer a fortune. That colonialism wasn’t universally negative for those colonised. That John Warboys is a vile dog who should have got a longer sentence but that his sentence has in fact almost ended. That sexism in Hollywood is a problem but that many of those accused of misdemeanours have yet to be convicted of anything. That the BBC is a national treasure to be protected but doesn’t help itself with its conservatism, its bias on certain subjects, its ludicrous pay for some presenters (male and female) and its recipe pages. That the Daily Mail might not be your cup of tea but not everyone who reads it is evil – and people should be allowed to read it on the train if they choose. That Jeremy Corbyn might be wrong about Hamas but is probably right about some other stuff. That not all Tories are evil and anyway, how do you know you never kissed one?
One of the most divisive issues of our age is Brexit. The argument is dominated by extremists on both sides, equally passionate, equally devout, and equally contemptuous/hysterical of the views of their opposites. Surely there are people like me who found it hard to get excited about either side’s arguments? Who might have voted Remain but respect the views of Leavers? Or voted Leave but understand the fears of those who wish to Remain?
Perhaps above all, I believe in free speech. That means naming and shaming (but allowing them to explain) universities and students who demand safe spaces and trigger warnings and no platforms. It means defending free speech for everyone. For Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, for Peter Tatchell and Moazzam Begg, for Milo Yiannopoulos and Jordan Peterson. Let them speak. Listen. Argue passionately. Above all, be passionate: in holding the middle ground. Be confident in your beliefs, zealous in your tolerance. It’s time for moderates to be a bit more extreme about our moderation.