It’s official: criticising Black Lives Matter is now a sackable offence, even here in the British Isles, thousands of miles away from the social conflict currently embroiling the US. As protesters again fill the streets of a rainy London on Saturday, as part of a now internationalised backlash against the brutal police killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, those who criticise them do so at their peril – as two men have recently found out.
Stu Peters, a presenter on Manx Radio, has been suspended, pending an investigation, for an on-air exchange with a black caller. He said nothing racist, you can read the transcript for yourself. What he did was rubbish the idea of white privilege: ‘I've had no more privilege in my life than you have.’ And he questioned the wisdom of staging a protest on the Isle of Man against a killing in Minnesota: ‘You can demonstrate anywhere you like, but it doesn't make any sense to me.’
For this, he has been taken off air. Manx Radio has even referred the exchange to the Isle of Man’s Communications Commission to assess whether any broadcast codes have been broken. And for what? He took issue with the idea that skin colour confers privilege, regardless of any other consideration: a mad ideology whose adherents will actually readily say that white homeless people enjoy white privilege.
And he wondered out loud if a protest against US cops on a small island in the Irish Sea is, well, a bit pointless. If Peters has broken any code it is a very new and unwritten one, and he’s not the only person to fall foul of it in recent days. Martin Shipton, chief reporter for the Western Mail, has been asked to step down as a judge of the Wales Book of the Year competition over some tweets he posted about the BLM protests in Cardiff. He said they were exercises in ‘virtue-signalling’ and expressed concern about the effect they might have on the spread of Covid-19. He also got into some robust exchanges with people who told him that, as an old white man, he should just shut up.
How did we get here? In the space of just a few days, Black Lives Matter, its tenets and adherents have become almost unquestionable. No one worth wasting breath on disagrees with the literal message of the movement. But those who dare criticise a lot of the identitarian ideological guff that unfortunately accompanies the movement now risk being treated as heretics. Even criticising these mass gatherings for breaking lockdown – remember when sitting too closely on a beach was a scoldable offence? – is treated as alarming evidence of non-conformity or perhaps even racism.
This is all a neat demonstration that censorship is not exclusively about state clampdowns. The suspension of Peters and the sacking of Shipton are examples of what John Stuart Mill called the ‘tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’ – ‘the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them’. If expressing an opinion, even one as mild as ‘I support the sentiment, but I’m not sure these protests are a great idea’, the resulting backlash can cost you your job or social status.
But this is also profoundly worrying – not only for free speech but also for the quality of our discussion about racism and how to defeat it. We are being compelled to have ‘a conversation’ about race, but one in which any dissent from the most extreme and absurd positions – such as that Western society is still racist to the core and that dirt-poor white folk benefit from it, even if they don’t realise it – are treated as suspect. This is a recipe for censorship, division and neverending culture war – and nothing else.